Natural Learning: From Skeptic to Believer

Natural Learning

Natural methods of almost anything seem to benefit our minds and bodies better than the manufactured or artificial type.

Throughout the past few months, I have read countless articles and watched multiple videos about alternative education, and specifically natural learning. What that term “alternative education” is defined as differs among educators based on their own belief system. Recently, I have been investigating how natural learning works, and what it means for teachers.

I attended Peter Gray’s discussion about his book, Free to Learn. Natural learning is the idea that children are active leaders in their own learning and are naturally curious. Natural learning environments are open-ended and allow children to play freely without instruction. Being a teacher, the questions that always comes to mind when someone raves about natural learning are the following:

  1. How do children learn to read and write without formal instruction?
  2. How do they advance if there is no written assessment?
  3. How do they receive entry into post-secondary institutions?

Peter Gray’s informative session blew my questions out of the water. As an educator, I want to ensure my students are moving forward constantly and scaffolding their skills appropriately. Peter Gray talked about a school called Sudbury Valley School that has been open since the 60’s in Massachusetts. This school holds no formal lessons, and students are free to spend their time as they wish. There are no classes, no lessons, and no homework. Report cards don’t exist and there is no pressure to hit certain milestones (i.e. reading and writing).

Again my questions were along the lines of:

  1. Did they receive entry into post-secondary institutions?
  2. Could they become citizens who positively contribute to society?
  3. Have they obtained enough skills for successful careers?

Gray conducted a study based on the graduates of Sudbury Valley School. To me, the findings were absolutely incredible. He found that the graduates of Sudbury Valley (which runs from ages 3-17) were not only successful, but happy and contributing members of society. Their careers range from math professors to fashion designers, and everything in between. Gary found that the same percentage of Sudbury Valley graduates attended post-secondary institutions in comparison to traditional schooled graduates. The findings also found that children who attended Sudbury Valley School were more likely to be active in their surroundings (ie. involved in politics, the economy, and local interest groups, etc.).

Mind blown.

Our new alternative school will not be a replica of the Sudbury Valley School, nor will it be dominantly natural learning based. However, hearing about it has given me the confidence to be open-minded in learning more about alternative education. I am confident in veering off the path of formal assessment, homework, and the entire curriculum I have come to live by.

Moving forward, of course I still have questions, but rather than being weary to ask them, I am excited to investigate the answers. Not only am I confident in what I am working on, but I am starting to build a network filled with other individuals who wish to achieve the same goal in the field of education.

Article by Sara Machnik

Sara has been working with children for over 15 years holding a Bachelor of Arts (with Honours) in Child and Youth studies and is an Ontario Certified Teacher, she is passionate about education and excited to be a part of its evolution.