Active Learning of Practical Skills

“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” __ Yogi Berra, Albert Einstein, Others

The young human mind is predisposed to learning practical skills

First the child must learn how to eat, see, touch, move, walk, talk, and how to get what it needs. We are given many instincts early in life which assist us in perfecting these practical skills. Many of these instincts are “invisible,” and others are apparent from birth. The “primal cry” at birth is a good example of a healthy instinct.

One of the first practical skills a child must learn is how to suck:

Sucking as a practical skill: A Life or Death Matter

Practical Learning Keeps Children Alive

Practical Avoidance: Learning to avoid dangers such as fire, high places, deep water, edgy-looking strangers, and other hazards of life can keep babies and toddlers alive.

Active Practical Skills: Learning to safely manage fire, learning safe climbing, learning to swim, and learning to manage difficult people can keep older children and youth alive.

The point is that children are predisposed to practical learning, and it is unfortunate that our schools have spurned practical learning in favour of passive rote learning.

Why Schools Chose Passive Learning

Didactic teachers of the passive style of learning can prepare a lesson plan for any number of students, and re-use the same lesson plan over and over. Boys who are unruly can be medicated with drugs, allowing a large amount of material to be presented in the specified time frame.

Teachers of practical methods of active learning must flexibly shape each session to be responsive to the individual students who are present. This approach means that less material can be covered in any given time period. It also places a larger burden on teachers in terms of background knowledge, ability to improvise, and social skills.

A third approach is “independent learning” which incorporates a lot of self-teaching. We see a lot of this in Montessori schools, the Robinson Curriculum, and the Dangerous Child curriculum. The self-teaching approach utilises the natural affinity of young children toward practical skills and competencies.

Children Retain Practical Skills

It is rare for a child to have to re-learn how to walk or talk, once these skills are mastered. The same is true for riding a bicycle — as many adults can confirm after re-riding a bicycle after many years without having ridden. Once children can go through an active sequence of performing a skill — and receive the positive reward that tends to accompany the successful performing of the skill — their brains will tend to become more efficient at that skill with repetition. Such skills tend to be retained.

That type of learning — which is the same type of learning as in habit formation — tends to be almost automatic in childhood. Given how effective that type of learning has proven to be, we might think that parents and schools should emphasise that approach to learning for as long as it proves productive.

It is then difficult to defend the premature leap to “passive” teaching styles in conventional approaches to school. The young mind is begging to learn practical skills and habits that would make it more independently effective, while elitist educational systems are using didactic methods to indoctrinate young minds into groupthink.

Learning Requires a Scaffolding

Actually, learning requires several different scaffoldings, one after another in series. The first scaffolding for learning is innate instinct. Early learning built upon instinct provides a scaffolding for later learning that incorporates more cross-ties with related learning. This more sophisticated learning is then used as scaffolding for more sophisticated learning that begins to incorporate more abstract and second-hand knowledge. And so on . . .

Montessori Learning

Almost a hundred years ago, Maria Montessori developed an “active learning method” that is still wildly popular today. At Montessori schools, children are encouraged to explore — either independently or cooperatively with other children. By learning actively to explore areas of interest, the child engages his own built-in method of strong learning and long retention.

Another school of teaching that uses the active style of learning is the Rudolf Steiner Waldorf School.

Yet another active-learning approach to schooling is the Forest School.

These are all early childhood approaches to schooling, but the methods could easily be employed throughout the grammar school years — particularly in the education of boys, but also for girls.

Dangerous Childhood Training

Early design for the Dangerous Child © curriculum was loosely based upon the John David Garcia curriculum (more here). This type of curriculum is best presented in combination with a “forest school” environment.

As this curriculum evolved, it retained the John David Garcia elements but also incorporated elements from other alternative educational approaches. A lot of practical financial, occupational, and business skills learning was added for teens, to be sure that 18 year olds would be capable of supporting themselves financially.

Other core learning curricula — such as the Robinson Curriculum — can also be utilised. The central elements for all Dangerous Child training include the hands-on practical approach plus the self-teaching approach.

Some high schools provide high quality vocational training, but most Dangerous Children need to seek out mentors by the age of 14, to provide apprentice-style skills training wherever parents or other family members are unable to provide such training.

Practical Skills Mastery Gives Confidence

Being able to support oneself financially three different ways by the age of 18, is a huge confidence booster. That is only possible when a youth has mastered practical skills of various types — skills that are of value to a wide range of employers in the marketplace, and skills that allow a young person to start their own rapidly profitable business.

More abstract and theoretical skills can always be added to the Dangerous Child’s repertoire of skills and knowledge. Youth and young adults who have already experimented with several ways of making a living — and who have mastered at least three — are in a better position economically and cognitively to pursue further educational goals.


Active vs Passive Learning

Early Childhood Education

Albert Bandura

John David Garcia

Remember, practical knowledge incorporates theoretical knowledge. And theoretical knowledge is always built on practical knowledge — whether the learner understands this or not. The combination provides strong scaffolding for further learning in the future, incorporating all forms of learning including self-teaching.

The world of “future work” will include a lot more certification-style accreditation, with less emphasis on degrees if the actual competencies and skills can be demonstrated. In such contexts, the ability to self-teach — learned at an early age in the Robinson Curriculum and the Dangerous Child curriculum — is of great value.

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