Example of Natural vs. Formal Learning

In his essay "The Loss of the Creature," the novelist Walker Percy contrasts how learning arises spontaneously to how learning is structured in the classroom. Here's his description of spontaneous learning:

"A young Falkland Islander walking along a beach and spying a dead dogfish and going to work on it with his jackknife has, in a fashion wholly unprovided for in modern educational theory, a great advantage over the Scarsdale high school pupil who finds the dogfish on his laboratory desk."

Compare that description to how Percy describes learning canned for the classroom, as it is for the typical high school biology lab:

"The student is handed an assignment that includes a list of every item he will need and all the steps involved. He finds his tools laid out on the table. Every contingency has been provided for in advance except his curiosity about dogfish."

The problem is of course that without curiosity, the dissection is, at best, busywork. If the student's own motivation is disregarded, even the most careful preparation will backfire because he will be relegated to an entirely passive role. In the worst case, this passive, compulsory experience squeezes the life out of his interest in biology altogether.

Were you ever required to dissect a frog, compare what you saw to pictures in your textbook, then memorize the scientific names for the organs and structures you "discovered?" If so, then you recognize Percy's classroom exercise. You probably also recognize how far it is, how much less it is, than the experience of the Falkland Islander.

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