Small children rarely receive formal instruction. Instead, parents answer questions when they are asked, expose their children to new phenomena that lead them to ask more questions, and are there to help out when a child is frustrated by his failed attempts. Often, however, small children reject the help offered by others, preferring to "do it myself" until they get it. Children don't learn because they are ordered to by some authority. They control their own learning using the individual attention of an adult to support and guide them through new areas of investigation. One-on-one assistance, on an as-needed basis, is the basis of a child's education until the age of six.
At six all this changes. Children begin to learn that failure is problematic, and consequently, that learning is less exciting. They are learning what someone else wants them to learn anyway. No longer do they learn because they want to and because they have a need to know. They learn because someone tells them to. In addition, quite often no one tells them what they might be able to do with what they are about to learn. The motivation they themselves had previously supplied has been taken away and has not been replaced. Further, what previously had been a private experience is now done among a peer group all too happy to ridicule their errors. What has happened? The six-year-old has started school.
In public schools from first through twelfth grade, much of the classroom routine is shaped by an emphasis on rote learning, a strict adherence to standardized textbooks and workbooks, and a curriculum that is often enforced with drill and practice. The methods and the curriculum are molded by the questions that appear on the standardized achievement tests administered to every child from the fourth grade on. Success no longer means being able to do. Success comes to mean "academic success," a matter of learning to function within the system, of learning the "correct" answer, and of doing well at multiple choice exams. Success also means, sadly, learning not to ask difficult questions. When we ask how our children are doing in school, we usually mean, "are they measuring up to the prevailing standards?" rather than, "are they having a good time and feeling excited about learning?"
Example of Natural vs. Formal Learning
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