Friday, June 12, 2015

Learning by Doing: Education Made Real

My sister got a new cookbook, all about making hot beverages: coffee, teas, flavour infused milks, hot punches. We looked through it together, quickly got excited about a recipe for spiced Moroccan coffee, and before we knew it we were pulling out the cinnamon and cardamom, toasting sesame seeds and readying my trusty little French press. It wasn’t long before we were settled down together, delighting in our tiny cups of spiced coffee, sweetened and mellowed by sugar and milk.

I share this afternoon activity because I found myself thinking, as I was sipping my beverage, that this was a perfect, small scale example of just what I’ve been wanting to write about for the past week, which is the importance of learning and doing always being connected to one another.

When I think about learning, more often than thinking about the processes involved, I think about the feelings. Excitement, focus, joy. When I was small, learning was doing. Reading about medieval Europe quickly turned into me and my sister digging through drawers to create our very own English peasant looks. An astronomy show sent us out into the night to spot constellations. A discussion of poetry lead to us settling down with notebooks and pens, furiously scribbling haiku. We learned about plants and trees and wildlife from going on hikes, bird watching, and catching frogs.

Exploring a topic or a skill meant actually exploring it, in immediate, hands on ways. Our house was frequently filled with science experiments and playacting, building and writing, painting and gardening. I think I was in my teens before it really occurred to me that most children had a very different experience when it came to the learning they were supposedly doing in school.

The realization that people learn better when they’re involved in hands on ways with various subjects is well known in education circles. A quick perusal of the popular education blog MindShift shows posts on the various ways that hands on, project based, and physical learning benefits kids of various ages. However, opportunities for students in school to experience this type of learning--nevermind experiencing it in the all-important context of self-chosen and self-directed projects and activities--are few and far between, still seen more as something highly experimental and innovative than the way all learning should be.

In that light, it feels even more special to me that my learning has always been that way. I’m so grateful that the associations I have with the word “learning” are all so very positive: delight and excitement, curiosity and exploration, immersion and just plain old fun.

I feel the same kindling excitement today, when I put together a new style of coffee with my sister, as I did when I used to rush out to watch how the ants in my yard behaved after watching a fascinating nature documentary. Trying new things, watching and doing and experiencing is fun, whether it’s in the kitchen, the backyard, or anywhere else.

I’d prefer all my learning to feel like it did when I was a child: tactile and immediate and exciting. That doesn’t mean I eschew hard work, just that I prefer my projects and my education to feel more real and personal. More hands on.

I think part of the reason I’ve stayed so enthusiastic about all things education--and the accompanying writing and speaking I do about it--is because I’ve held on to a lot of the attitudes about learning that I had as a child. I want to share how amazing--and amazingly simple--learning can be, without all the artificial construction of “learning experiences” that fill most schools (and some homeschools). Learning is one of the simplest things we can do (though not always the easiest or most effortless), because all you need to learn is to do. Small things and large; daily activities and all-encompassing, months long projects; writing and building; making food and budgeting for a trip; the things you need to do and the things you want to do…

We all learn and remember what matters most to us, so having a real connection between the abstract and the concrete, between the theoretical and the practical, is what builds a bigger picture in our learning. What makes an “education,” some might say. When you’ve cultivated an unschooling lifestyle, those connections are being made all the time, in everything you learn, everything you do. Our education becomes real in the truest sense of the world.


  1. Exactly! Thanks for another great post. Sharing on our Free Range Learning fb page.

    1. Really glad you like it Laura, thanks for sharing! :)