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What is Successful Learning?

What is Successful Learning?
By Paul Henderson

Breathing is something that lungs do; pumping is something that hearts do; learning is something that brains do – it’s that simple! The idea that a healthy brain needs any sort of artificial intervention to be kickstarted into working properly is an odd idiosyncratic notion, but this bizarre convoluted idea seems to be the standard convention on which schooling is built. Because of this strange internationally accepted idea, the suitability and efficiency of the conventional school learning process may often be likened to the process of defibrillating a perfectly healthy heart in order to enable successful beating, or the process of hooking up a perfectly healthy young person to a mechanical ventilator in order to enable successful breathing.

It may seem crazy to a rational evidence-based thinker, but the notion that learning needs to be enabled by schooling is the globally accepted conventional norm. For example, as part of a recent educational reform, one of the primary purposes put forward for its new national curriculum states that it has a capacity to “enable all young people to become successful learners.” Really? Surely such statements are either the result of careless wording or are based on a false assumption. Let’s hope it is merely the former since the latter appears to assume that schoolchildren start school without having successfully learned how to walk, talk, feed/dress themselves, run and play, etc. It assumes that, having had no experience of the curriculum before entering school, they will not have been enabled to successfully learn these things or anything else for that matter.

"The idea that a healthy brain needs any sort of artificial intervention to be kickstarted into working properly is an odd idiosyncratic notion."

From a rational evidenced based perspective, the whole notion that a curriculum has the capacity to enable all young people to become successful learners is clearly incorrect, yet it has been emblazoned on posters on the walls of practically every classroom and staff room of entire nations. A curriculum may enable some people to learn some things, but it will never have a capacity for all young people to become successful learners because all young healthy people are already highly successful learners before they go anywhere near a school. And, of course, not all young people attend school.

It is well understood that learning starts in the womb, and the fastest rate of learning, indicative of highly successful learning, happens under the age of three. The fact of the matter is that, just as children are well able to breathe successfully by the time they enter schooling, they are also well able to learn successfully without the need for any “enabling” curricular intervention.

Perhaps I’ve got the wrong end of the stick and what is meant by school learning is actually formal learning; not the sort of informal learning utilized when learning to walk and talk. If that is the case, then Benjamin Bloom’s “2 Sigma” research shows that conventional classroom learning is significantly inferior to one-to-one instruction. Also, research from MOOCs shows that they are significantly more efficient than conventional classroom learning. This evidence leaves conventional formal classroom learning in third place behind one-to- one and free online instruction.

This evidence comes from mainstream academic research, not from those researching alternative learning. When alternative learning research is considered, it is revealed that (on average across a range of core subjects and thanks to the developed world’s ubiquity of technological and other sources of information) home educators outperform their school peers by over thirty percentile points! Given this evidence, it is hard to justify from a rational evidence-based perspective how any conventional formal classroom learning could ever be regarded as relatively successful, whether the interpretation of success is informed by traditional, progressive, or alternative thinking.

Of course, formal learning institutions will always be needed for learners to fulfil their self-defined aims and to sit the exams required to gain certification in their chosen areas of interest, but they are not needed in order to make people learn things that they are not interested in merely to prove that they are learning something. Traditionalists might say that young people must demonstrate that they have learned prescribed compulsory core subject learning intentions which are scientifically defined and measured in order to establish whether they have learned anything or not. This is a very old- fashioned idea based on the concept that the brain needs to be coerced into learning things, and the only way to tell whether it is learning things is by prescribing a list of things for it to learn then measuring how much of these things that it has actually learned. A former chief inspector of schools in England, Edmund Holmes, once put it like this:

”In nine schools out of ten, on nine days out of ten, in nine lessons out of ten, the teacher is engaged in laying thin films of information on the surface of the child’s mind and then after a brief interval he is skimming these off in order to satisfy himself that they have been duly laid.”

Using this traditional process, those pupils who can demonstrate that they can learn the prescribed list of things in the best prescribed manner earn certificates which enable them to take up the best positions in society; thus society is efficiently served with the right people in the right positions. The only problem with this model is that it does not serve the needs of individual learners very well because learners are asked to demonstrate their abilities in ways that are heavily biased towards the cognitive domain and linguistic and logical/mathematical intelligences, alienating the majority of learners and squandering vast reserves of human talent in the process.

“It is well understood that learning starts in the womb, and the fastest rate of learning, indicative of highly successful learning, happens under the age of three. The fact of the matter is that, just as children are well able to breathe successfully by the time they enter schooling, they are also well able to learn successfully without the need for any ‘enabling’ curricular intervention.”

The knock-on effect of this is that, in squandering so much talent, it really does not serve the needs of society very efficiently at all. Conventional schooling is a diabolically inefficient model because it is based on old-fashioned false assumptions about learning, but it is the one that has been accepted and adopted around the world in order to educate children. Governments desperately try to compete with each other by trying to make their schooling systems more efficient without realizing that trying to make schooling more efficient is like trying to make the process of defibrillating healthy young hearts more efficient. The reason that schooling doesn’t serve its function very well is not because it is inefficient. It is because it is entirely the wrong process. Making it more efficient will just make things worse.

Evolution has ensured that human brains are hard-wired to learn, just as hearts are to beat and lungs are to breathe. Therefore, traditional schooling is not necessary in order for young people to make the best of themselves through their interests, pursuits, passions, and proclivities, or for them to learn how to survive within their information rich communities on a need to know basis. Conventional compulsory core subject schooling is not only unnecessary, there is plentiful evidence to show that it is actually harmful to the natural learning process by inculcating dependent learning and atrophying creative abilities. It is not a process that should be made more efficient; it is one that should be phased out altogether and recycled into a learning system fit for the 21st century.

“But what about scientifically measurable learning outcomes,” cry the traditionalists. “We don’t know if young people are learning anything if we can’t measure the extent to which they have learned what we have prescribed for them.” Such thinking is based on the false assumption that the brain is not hard-wired to learn. Healthy people naturally define their own learning intentions and success criteria. The extent to which these criteria are met naturally and continuously forms new learning intentions, thus the natural learning process proceeds as a dynamic and continuous lifelong process. To interrupt this continuous natural process at an arbitrary time interval in order to contrive the realization of a theoretical construct known as a compulsory learning outcome is to debase and derail the natural learning process that evolution has forged through hundreds of thousands of years.

“Nonsense,” the traditionalists exclaim. “Everybody clearly knows what is meant by successful learning. Those who get straight ‘A’s are successful; those who fail their exams or drop out of formal learning altogether are unsuccessful. This is the criteria for success, and is clearly and unambiguously understood worldwide. Those trying to peddle alternative ideas about successful learning are nothing more than shady and shoddy snake oil salespeople who know nothing about the true nature of learning.”

If this interpretation of successful learning is true, then dropouts from formal learning such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Alan Sugar, and the founders of both Google and Yahoo are all unsuccessful learners, as are people who never went to school such as Mozart, Yehudi Menuhin, Louis Armstrong, the Queen of England…or those who were partially home-educated such as Winston Churchill. The list of highly successful autodidactic, self-educated, home-educated or partially home-educated people is staggering, yet in the traditional view of successful learning they are all unsuccessful learners. If the traditional interpretation of successful learning is true, and only a minority of people achieve straight ‘A’s, then conventional intracurricular schooling can never be an environment that produces successful learning for most people, whether the interpretation of successful learning is informed by traditional, progressive, or alternative educational philosophies. Given the irrefutable evidence, perhaps it is the case that those who still hold on to old industrial revolution interpretations of successful learning have imbibed way too much of their own snake oil!

Human beings were born to learn and will learn in a highly efficient and suitable manner as long as their learning is informed, resourced, and supported in a natural way. The highly unnatural process that conventional intracurricular schooling often uses to bring out the best in learners may be likened to the process of spray painting an orchid in order to bring out its natural color.
The engine of successful learning does not require any jump starts from conventional schooling to get it going or to enable it in any way; it starts quite naturally in the womb, all by itself just as evolution intended, and is already working super efficiently and rather magnificently by the time young people reach the normal age for starting school.

What is successful learning? Just as successful breathing is a guaranteed natural consequence of having healthy lungs, and successful beating is a guaranteed natural consequence of having a healthy heart, overwhelming and irrefutable peer-reviewed, rock-solid scientific evidence conclusively proves that successful learning is a guaranteed natural consequence of having a healthy brain stimulated in a natural, nurturing, and information-rich learning environment. 

Paul Henderson is a home educating parent living and working in Scotland. He resigned from teaching physics in 1994 after coming to the conclusion that learning ought to be experienced in a convivial, voluntary, and non-coercive environment. He has spent most of his working life performing music and teaching the guitar to students from beginners to honors degree level in primary, secondary, and tertiary formal learning establishments. This article was written in memory of Roland Meighan, whose unique achievements as an author, academic researcher, and publisher had a profound influence on the educational course of Paul's family. The essay was also published by Personalised Education Now.

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