A focus on organic learning

Students learning about soil and plants at an organic farm.
Students learning about soil and plants at an organic farm.
Organic learning at an organic farm

Organic learning is about how we learn naturally — it’s instinctive, experiential, and we’ve done it since the first day we were born. Remember when parents would teach their babies language by talking to them and involving them in conversations? Babies learned about the world by experiencing it. They touch it, crawl in it, smell it, and stick pieces of their world in their mouths to taste it. Any mother will tell you that babies know how things work far before they knew what things were called. We don’t enroll our one-year-olds in language classes — we take them out into the world, right? Yet, somewhere between the time a child is born to when they enter school, our society has forgotten this very basic and important instinct.

As we age, we subscribe to this dogma that we’re not really learning unless it’s in a classroom, sitting in a restricted (and probably uncomfortable) desk, listening (or trying to listen) to a teacher at the front of the room (i.e. synthetic learning). For hours. For days. For years. No wonder people hate school!

Organic learning is about building upon one’s knowledge through experiences. Think, for example, of the first time you learned how to drive. Although we all studied the manual to learn the rules, I don’t know of a single person who mastered driving by just reading the manual. Instead, every one of us had to sit behind the wheel. We had to look at the dashboard, feel the accelerator and the wheel — learn exactly how much force you can exert to get the car to go forward, and how to gently ease off the brake so as not to give your driver’s ed instructor whiplash. Organic learning is far more than being told what to do, and it is much more about doing.

In fact, only a tiny percentage of our learning is actually done in the classroom. Most of our learning is done through experience. If we’re lucky, we get mentors along the way. If we’re unlucky, we learn those lessons through a lot of trials, errors, mistakes, failures, and sometimes even pain. Still, all of this encompasses organic learning. I think many  of us would agree that some of our most painful lessons are the ones that stay with us the most.

I want to take you back from thinking about teaching to thinking about an organic approach to learning. To start, think about these questions:

  • How often do you let your students experience things, rather than tell them what to do, see, feel, or think?
  • Where do your students get to try things?
  • When do you let your students fail, and provide opportunities for them to reflect and learn from those lessons?
  • When does organic learning happen in your classroom?

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