Notes and Sources
1. The statements about cultural views of learning in this essay are not meant to imply that all of the cultures mentioned, or every individual within each culture, has identical views of learning. The phrasing is simply intended to convey that what is considered to be "common sense," i.e. obvious and self-evident, about children and learning, is by no means universal across all human societies. To learn more about specific cultural views of learning, please see the Sources listed below.
2. In discussing children who learn to read without instruction, I'm speaking of children who have reasonable access to safe housing, nutritious food, and parents who are employed at a living wage and are therefore able to provide books, digital media, trips to parks and gardens and museums and other resources to their children. The millions of children living in conditions of severe deprivation in the United States have more serious problems, but I would maintain that a living wage for their parents is the starting place for solving them, and we need to stop talking about education as though it were a substitute for economic justice.
3. Before there was phonics or "whole language," there was the "Alphabet method," sometimes called "syllabification," where students were taught the letters of the alphabet followed by rote memorization and then combination of simple two-letter syllables, like BA BE BI BO BU and AB EB IB OB UB. Combined with ample doses of the "whipping" method, it was apparently highly effective. The New England Primer, widely used throughout the northeastern colonies through the end of the eighteenth century, followed a short list of these syllable combinations with illustrated verses designed to show each letter of the alphabet in use (“In ADAM’s fall, we sinned all,” or “The idle FOOL is whipped at school.”) and then went promptly on to full texts of prayers, hymns, dialogues between Christ, Youth, and the Devil, and thrillingly lurid illustrations of Protestant martyrs being burned at the stake.
The alphabet method was used successfully to teach reading for hundreds of years; The New Discovery of the Old Art of Teaching School, written in 1660 by Charles A. Hoole, refers to it as “the ancient way of teaching, which is most naturall.” Some phonics advocates have tried to claim this method as a phonics approach, since clearly there is an element of teaching the relationships between letters and sounds; at the same time immediate whole word recognition was involved in the short verses, prayers, and catechisms which children learned by heart from their hornbooks or primers. Explicit phonics as we know it today, which separates individual phonemes from their context in syllabic letter groupings, and which attempts to explicitly teach the many irregularities in English letter-sound correspondences, was not developed until the nineteenth century.
4. In a tidy act of cultural appropriation, some educators have begun to refer to all more flexible, experiential approaches to learning as products of "Romanticism," the European intellectual tradition typified by Rousseau and Pestalozzi, thus neatly attributing the real-world, time-tested pedagogical strategies of thousands of Indigenous cultures around the world (of which they are presumably unaware) to a couple of European white guys. In so doing, they are able to subtly imply that these approaches to learning may be somewhat fanciful or unrealistic, unlike their own intellectually sound data-supported approach. The frequent failure of Europeans and Americans to successfully integrate more fluid ways of learning with a hierarchical, authoritarian, age-graded, standards-based understanding of education has even been taken as evidence that more fluid or learner-directed ways of learning are "urban legends." In other words, "We know how children learn - you don't" becomes "Our way of learning exists - yours doesn't."
Billions For an Inside Game on Reading, Michael Grunewald, Washington Post, October 1, 2006.
Babes in the Woods: The Wanderings of the National Reading Panel, Joanne Yatvin, Phi Delta Kappan, v83 n5 p364-69 Jan 2002
Starting school at seven ‘can boost pupils’ reading skills:’ Delaying the school starting age can improve children’s grasp of reading at the end of primary education, according to research. Graeme Paton, The Telegraph, May 25, 2012.
1 In 4 Americans Thinks The Sun Goes Around The Earth, Survey Says, Scott Neuman, The 2-Way, Breaking News from NPR, February 14, 2014.
First Amendment education surveys keep challenging us to try new things, Eric Newton, The Knight Blog, The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, November 8, 2012.
“We’ve done the largest string of studies about First Amendment education in America’s high schools, so what are we learning? …My bottom line: I had seen First Amendment education as a school issue; now, I think young people may be able to learn about the nation’s five fundamental freedoms outside the classroom as easily as they do inside. Maybe even easier.”
Someone Has To Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, David F. Larabee, Harvard University Press, 2010.
“Colonial America had no system of education. Instead it provided a loose collection of informal ways to provide basic literacy and numeracy skills to most of the population and advanced learning to a few. Parents taught their own children in the home, or if they could afford it they hired a tutor. Churches provided religious education for the young, which required them to offer literacy training as part of the process. Parents contracted with master craftsmen to take on their sons as apprentices, which meant not only teaching them a trade but also teaching them to read, write, and figure. In a variant of this practice, parents frequently boarded out their children with another family, which in turn agreed to educate them as part of the arrangement. Often a woman in the neighborhood would take in students for a fee and teach them the basics in her own home… Most students received some form of education during this period, and most of these did not attend anything resembling a school…
“(The Common School Movement) was not an effort to raise the literacy rate, which was already near universal in New England and elevated in the rest of the country… The massive public investment in constructing the school system in the mid-nineteenth century did little to increase rates of literacy. The system did not even increase the likelihood that a young person would receive an education, since that was already taking place in some form or other for most Americans in the early part of the century. What the system did do was increase the likelihood that young people… would acquire their education in the setting of a formally constituted school, which was publicly controlled, age graded, and run by a trained teacher.
American Reading Instruction, Nila Banton Smith, International Reading Association, 2002. Fist published in 1934. An account of the major developments and pendulum swings in the teaching of reading from the early colonial period to the twentieth century.
A New Discovery of the Old Art of Teaching School, Charles A. Hoole, 1660
There is much that is familiar in the musings of Mr. Hoole, who shows great compassion for “the extreme labour and terror of the poor children with enduring far overmuch and long severity…” and suggests several games involving words and letters to help children learn to read. He observes that while “apter” pupils learn quickly with formal direct instruction, others, who,”not finding any thing to affect them, and so make them heed what they learne, go on remissely from lesson to lesson, and are not much more able to read, when they have ended their book, then when they began it.” He recommends a kind of “Suzuki” method for teaching reading, where the child’s mother is to “acquaint him a little with the matter beforehand, for that will intice him to read it, and make him more observant of what he read’s.” In fact, mothers often “taught little ones to pronounce all the letters, and to spell pretty well,” before coming to school, “by making the childe to sound the five vowels a, e, i, o, u, like so many bells upon his fingers ends…Then putting single consonants before the vowels (leaving the hardest of them to the last) and teaching him how to utter them both at once, as va ve vi vo vu….”
In other words, just as with the Suzuki method of music instruction in which children listen to a tune over and over so that it is encoded in their memory AND learn to play it before they try to decode it explicitly on the sheet music, this method of teaching reading involved children memorizing whole verses, rhymes, and syllables — and actually learning to spell syllables — before learning to decode them as text on paper. Hoole is very aware that no single method works for all children, however, and takes it as a given that if one way does not work, other methods can be found. As he says,
“Indeed it is Tullies observation of old, and Erasmus his assertion of latter years, that it is as natural for a childe to learn, as it is for a beast to go, a bird to fly, or a fish to swim, and I verily believe it, for the nature of man is restlessly desirous to know things, and were discouragements taken out of the way, and meet helps afforded young learners, they would doubtless go on with a great deal more cheerfulness, and make more proficiency at their book then usually they do; And could the Master have the discretion to make their lessons familiar to them, children would as much delight in being busied about them, as in any other sport, if too long continuance at them might not make them tedious.”
Ngecha: A Kenyan Village in a Time of Rapid Social Change, Carolyn Pope Edwards & Beatrice Blyth Whiting, eds. University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
Indigenising Curriculum: Questions posed by Baiga vidya, Padma M. Sarangapani, Comparative Education, Volume 39, 2003.
Indigenous Knowledge Systems / Alaska Native Ways of Knowing. By Ray Barnhardt and Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley, Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 36(1), pp. 8-23. 2005.
The Edge of the Forest: Land, Childhood, and Change in a New Guinea Protoagricultural Society, E. Richard Sorenson, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.
Evolutionary Perspectives on Child Development and Education, David C. Geary and Daniel H. Berch, eds., Springer, 2016.
"On the subject of "natural teachers," cases that illustrate careful, informed, systematic Vygotskian-style scaffolded instruction are virtually nonexistent before the modern era. Even in formal apprenticeship, one isn't likely to see much teaching––by anyone's definition. In fact, there are probably more descriptions in the ethnographic record of experts spurning overtures from would-be novices/pupils than of the reverse. Even more common in the ethnographic record are broader, normative statements made by both adults and children that assert the absence of teaching in cultural transmission; its superfluity; even its capacity to harm and undermine a child's self-initiated learning–– a finding affirmed in recent psychological research."
Childhood in an Indian Village, Wilfred Peltier. New England Free Press, 1969.
“I have been to numerous communities across Canada and I still do not find where Indians teach. All young children were allowed to grow, to develop, and to learn….We learned … by listening to the words adults spoke, what they said when they were talking, and built our own kind of relationship with (things.)…
…One of the practiced ethics of the community was non-interference. No one interfered with us, and this way of living still exists today. If you go to an Indian home the kids don’t come up and bug you while you are talking to someone else. They might come and stand by you quietly, just as an adult might. If you observe Indians someplace, they will stand quietly, and only when they are acknowledged, will they speak. If they get into a group session, they will act the same way. They will sit and listen to people talk, and when they get the opportunity they will speak, but they won’t cut you off or interfere. There are some who do this now, but not very many. Most of them will just wait. The whole background of the educational system was that of observing and feeling. This is how they learned.”
The Weirdest People in the World? Joseph Henrich, Stephen J. Heine, Ara Norenzayan, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2010.
The Anthropology of Learning in Childhood, David Lancy, John Bock, Suzanne Gaskins, eds. Altamira Press, 2011.
The Australian Aboriginal View of Giftedness, Wilhelmina J. Vialle, Kathleen Gibson, University of Wollongong Faculty of Education Research Online, 2007.
“Braggett (1985) suggested that Aboriginal children from traditional communities often find school an alien environment where they may be expected to accept white values, adopt different learning styles, and compete with their peers. Many Aboriginal children are brought up to accept cooperation in larger groups. Further, he stated that Aboriginal students are “high in memory skills, excel in visual-spatial ability, are persistent and stubborn, exhibit high internal motivation when interested, and are bored by routine tasks” (p. 3)”
“Aboriginal children … come from a cultural background which believes all children to be clever and that it is not acceptable to stand out above others (Kearins, 1988). For example, Ungunmerr (1976) discussed the problems of an Aboriginal child who is singled out and praised above the rest of the group. Such praise is an embarrassment and may make the praised child feel as though he or she has let down the rest of the group. Consequently, this child lowers her or his performance to follow cultural mores. In addition, Ungunmerr pointed out that the ethos in Aboriginal cultures is largely egalitarian by nature… The conflict between the home culture and the school culture of competition and ‘topping the class’ often make it difficult for educators from Western cultures to recognise giftedness in Aboriginal students.”
The Cultural Nature of Human Development, Barbara Rogoff, Oxford University Press, 2003. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a broad introduction to different cultural approaches to learning:
“The question of how quickly children can reach developmental “milestones” was referred to as “The American Question” when I studied at Jean Piaget’s Swiss Institute… Teachers in the United States and France routinely refer to children’s progress along a linear dimension measured now in months, such that children in the same school class are seen as being “ahead” or “behind” expected performance… Relevant to such judgments is whether their birthdate falls early or late in the year assigned to a particular grade level. Children who are slower in following predefined stages of learning to read (on the teacher’s schedule) are regarded as failing or likely to become failures… despite lack of evidence that early achievement of milestones offers any inherent advantage.
“In some communities, infants are not expected to rapidly understand the ways of those around them, and adults are comfortable that infants will learn when they are ready if not pushed against their will. Infants’ development is not conceived as progressing past a linear sequence of milestones in accord with a timeline.”
And on authority and control, quote from Minnie Aodla, Inuit:
“[Non-Inuit people] who have gone north and lived in the settlements, who do not understand Inuit home life or believe in our way of child-rearing, think that Inuit children are spoiled. [When I visited a non-Inuit home in Ottawa], I could not help but notice the treatment of the children by the parents…. Words like “don’t,” “no,” “move” were to me like talking to a dog who was eating from some other dog’s dish or who did not obey commands given during sled travel. My culture tells me that the word no leads to disobedient children who become very hard to handle later on.”
Learning to Read the World Through Other Eyes, open-access curriculum developed by Vanessa Andreotti and Lyn Mario T.M. de Souza for the Centre for Development Education Research (Institute of Education, University of London), University of Sao Paulo, University of Canterbury (Aotearoa/New Zealand), and Survival International. 2008. Views of Maori learning come from interviews with Maori educator Mereana Taki. Again, I would like to emphasize that Mereana Taki does not claim to speak for all Maori people, and this phrasing is merely meant to convey that, while individuals vary within all cultures, common views of learning vary widely between cultures.
The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, Wade Davis, CBC Massey Lectures, House of Anansi Press, 2009.
Human Language and Our Reptilian Brain: The Subcortical Bases of Speech, Syntax, and Thought, Philip Lieberman, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Winter 2001.
A Provisional Curriculum For When Walking Is Taught At School, Dave Butler, Life Learning Magazine, 2002-2016.
Sugata Mitra’s new experiments in self-teaching, TED talk, 2010. Mitra describes his famous “Hole In the Wall” experiment with Indian street children who collaboratively taught themselves to use computers with no adult instruction
Rethinking Learning to Read, by Harriet Pattison — A Book Review, Emma Marie Forde.
This fascinating account of research on the varied ways children learn to read outside of school gives a good sense of how the kids in our group learned:
Parents in the sample drew on a diversity of approaches and practices when supporting their children in learning to read. Perhaps unsurprisingly parents’ views in the sample were heavily influenced by phonics. However what was significant was that not all families used phonics based methods, some were openly critical of it and some of the children did not respond well and resisted a phonics based approach...
Some families drew on whole word learning approaches, some an eclectic mix, while others acknowledged the limitations of using methods and a number preferred to use no methods at all because this is what they felt was the best approach for their particular child and that they would learn to read naturally by engaging in everyday life. “Living a life style of literacy”; “Living life in a world where words are everywhere” and “Given time and exposure children will learn to read and will enjoy it.”
Some children also developed their own methods which drew on word recognition, memorisation and guessing, or together with a parent they co-created a unique approach which suited them. It was apparent that what suited one child may not suit another and this included children within the same family, one parent said: “There is not a “one-size-fits-all” magic formula” and another family: “often requiring different resources to be available at different times rather than following a single ‘method’ throughout.”
Away from phonics families were actively and pragmatically choosing methods and approaches with the best fit for the child and they were using those methods in ways that were facilitative of their relationships, the child’s learning and their emotional well being. In taking this open and flexible approach families were placing the child at the centre of the learning experience. For example, a parent said “Go with what works for that particular child” and another “The method is not important; the important [thing] is that the child likes it.“
The sample was characterised by a diversity of accounts, there was no one singular approach that could be used to describe the theoretical positions adopted by this group of parents. In fact as a home educating parent and also as a researcher Pattison explains that it is not necessary for a parent to hold an understanding of what reading is or how reading happens for it is precisely this “not knowing”, questioning and flexible state of mind that enables a parent to be reflexive and responsive to their child, putting the relationship first and re-thinking what reading actually is.
Exploring Unschoolers’ Experiences in Learning How to Read: How Reading Happens Within the Self-Directed Learning Environment, Gina Riley, Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning 2018 Vol. 12 Issue 24
One of the most noteworthy conclusions that came out of this study was that most unschoolers believe that learning, and particularly learning to read, can happen naturally, without adult interference. This is interesting to explore within the realm of public pedagogy, as, in the researcher’s experience, this is the opposite of what happens in traditional schools. Teachers tend to spend much instructional time in the primary grades directly teaching students to learn to read, either using a phonics or whole language approach. When this direct instruction does not work by the age of 7, teachers and administrators may then spend significant time and effort performing a “response to intervention” on the child prior to getting parental permission for more formal psychological evaluation. Although the majority of participants in this study did report learning to read between ages 5 and 7, eight participants reported reading after age 7; with one reporting learning to read in their early teens. These eight participants may have been evaluated had they attended traditional school, even though they report no reading issue as adults.
The Reading Wars: Why Natural Learning Fails in Classrooms, The best practices for teaching reading in school do not mimic natural learning. Peter Gray, Psychology Today Freedom to Learn Blog, November 2013.
Children learning to read later catch up to children reading earlier, Sebastian P. Suggate, Elizabeth A. Schaughency, Elaine Reese, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, April 22, 2012.
Does early reading instruction help reading in the long-term? A review of empirical evidence, Sebastian P. Suggate, ROSE Journal, July 2013.
School Starting Age: The Evidence. David Whitebread, University of Cambridge, 2014.
“Earlier this month the “Too Much, Too Soon” campaign made headlines with a letter calling for a change to the start age for formal learning in schools. Here, one of the signatories, Cambridge researcher David Whitebread, from the Faculty of Education, explains why children may need more time to develop before their formal education begins in earnest.”
‘Neurotypical’ in Context, POV documentary, 2013.
Brain.HE, resource for neurodiverse students at the London School of Economics. Contains “The Holist Manifesto” by Dr. Ross Cooper.
“Living in Relations” Research Project, a collaboration between the Menominee Indian Tribe, Northwestern University, and The American Indian Center (AIC) Research Project. NPR podcast about the project.
Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Minorities, Table 8.1b. Number and percentage of children ages 3 to 5 and ages 6 to 21 served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), by race/ethnicity and type of disability: 2007, National Center For Education Statistics.
Note that this table shows that before school age, the rate of learning disability in Native American children is slightly lower than in white children, but during the school years, the diagnosis of learning disabilities in Native American children is more than twice the rate of diagnosis among white children.
Searching For Justice: The Discovery of IQ Gains Over Time, James R. Flynn, American Psychologist, January 1999.
None of the Above: What IQ Doesn’t Tell You About Race, Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, December 17, 2007
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilhrist, Yale University Press, 2012. In the RSAnimate video below, renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist explains how our 'divided brain' has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society.
Indigenous Knowledge: Foundations For First Nations, Marie Battiste, World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium (WINHEC) Journal, 2005.
“Cognitive imperialism is a form of cognitive manipulation used to disclaim other knowledge bases and values. Validated through one’s knowledge base and empowered through public education, it has been the means by which whole groups of people have been denied existence and have had their wealth confiscated. Cognitive imperialism denies people their language and cultural integrity by maintaining the legitimacy of only one language, one culture, and one frame of reference…
“What is apparent to Indigenous peoples is the need for a serious and far-reaching examination of the assumptions inherent in western knowledge, science and modern educational theory. How these assumptions create the moral and intellectual foundations of modern society and culture have to be studied and written about by Aboriginal people to allow space for Aboriginal consciousness, language, and identity to flourish without ethnocentric or racist interpretation.”
The Long Life of Early Pain, On the Brain: The Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute Letter, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter 2011.
References to learning in Cree culture are from personal communication at the RESEARCH SYMPOSIUM: LIVING ALL OUR RELATIONS: ECOLOGIES, TECHNOLOGIES, AND INDIGENEITY, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, March, 2013. There is no intention to represent all Cree people with this reference; the phrasing is merely meant to convey that, while individuals vary within all cultures, what is viewed as “common sense” about learning varies widely between cultures.