- Otherwise "normal" students who fail to learn in school are deficient
in some way;
- This deficiency comprised either a tangible neurological impairment, a less tangible disabling learning condition (which was typically given an esoteric "scientific" label), a cultural deficiency, or all of the above.
This popular wisdom conflicted with what I observed day after day in my classroom. I knew from my conversations and interactions with these children that they did not display such deficits when it came to understanding and mastering the skills, tactics, and knowl- edge of complex sports like cricket, or sight reading music, or running a successful after- school lawn-mowing business, or reading and understanding the racing guide, or calculating odds and probabilities associated with card games, or speaking and translating across two or three languages. Although these contradic- tions caused me some intellectual unrest, I was too young and inexperienced to know how to resolve them.
Twenty years later when I was conducting research into language acquisition I again con- fronted the same issue. At the time I wrote this in my personad journal:
Learning how to talk, that is, learning how to control the oral language of the culture into which one has been born, is a stunning intellectual achieve- ment of incredible complexity. it involves fine degrees of perceptual discrimination. It depends upon abstract levels of transfer and generalization being continually made. It demands that incredible amounts be stored in memory for instant retrieval. It necessitates high degrees of automaticity of very complex processes. Despite this complexity, as a learning enterprise, it is almost universally success- ful, extremely rapid, usually effortless, painless, and furthermore, it's extremely durable.
This was the same issue that had confused me as a young teacher, namely: How could a brain which could master such complex learn- ing in the world outside school be considered deficient with respect to the kinds of learning that were supposed to occur inside school?
This time, however, I was neither young nor inexperienced. I'd learned at least three things in the intervening years. First, I'd learned that the discontinuities that existed be- tween everyday learning and school learning could be better explained as the result of the pedagogies that were employed in each setting.
Second, I'd learned that all pedagogics are ultimately driven by a theory
of learning. Accordingly, I tried to identify the theory of learning
that drove the pedagogy I had used as young teacher. I discovered I had
relied on a learning theory that could be summarised thus:
- Learning is essentially a process of habit formation.
- Complex habits are best formed (i.e., learned) if they are broken down into sequences of smaller, less complex, simpler habits and presented to learners' in graded sequences of increasing complexity.
- Habits are best formed by associating a desired response with the appropriate stimulus.
- Strong association leads to strong habits.
- Associative strength is a function of fre-
quency of pairing an appropriate stimulus (S) with an appropriate response (R), (i.e., practice makes perfect).
- Inappropriate responses (i.e., approxima- tions) are incipient bad habits and must be extin- guished before they firm up and become fixed.
- Learners are too immature or underde- veloped to make decisions about their learning, so the process must be directed and controlled by the teacher.
This theory of learning resulted in a pre- dictable pattern of teaching practice. Those "habits" that need to be "formed" were initial- ly identified. These were then divided into subsets or hierarchies of smaller collections of subhabits. These, in turn, were then organised into "optimal" sequences or progressions, the mastery of any one being contingent upon the mastery of others earlier in the sequence. Repetitive drill and practice was the core teaching procedure employed. It was a theory which accorded special status to errors. Teachers (Re me) who implemented this theory not only seemed to spend a lot of time and energy trying to develop automaticity, we spent almost as much energy trying to extinguish errors from our students' repertoires.
I stated above that I'd learned three things in the intervening years. The third was this: I learned that the theory of learning that had underpinned my teaching still had strong currency among teachers, teacher educators, policy makers, curriculum designers, parents, and the general public. Although more than 20 years had passed since I had relied on this theory to drive my pedagogy, this theory (or one of its close relatives) still underpinned much of what went on in the name of education. I realized that the intellectual unrest I'd experienced some 20 years previously had suddenly resurfaced. This time, however, I felt more capable of resolving it.
A closer look at everyday natural learning
I began by asking myself the following questions: What is an exemplar of highly suc- cessful complex learning? What made it suc- cessful? I decided that learning one's native language was probably the most universal ex- emplar of highly successful complex learning that occurred in the world outside of formal educational institutions. I therefore decided to learn more about this phenomenon.
I learned that there was a consensus that learning to talk is successful because human evolution had produced a nervous system that is specifically designed for the purpose. Initially I interpreted this to mean that it was merely a matter of neurological or genetic programming. However, I found other evidence that suggested there was more to it. For example, I discovered that there are humans born with in- tact and functioning nervous systems who sometimes do not learn to talk, or have great difficulty. Prelinguafly deaf children are an obvious example (Sacks, 1990). 1 also found case studies of so-called "feral" children (i.e., cut off from human contact) who did not success- fully learn language:
As recently as 1970, a child called Genie in the scientific reports was discovered who had been con- fined to a small room under conditions of physical restraint, and who had received only minimal human contact from the age of eighteen months until almost fourteen years. She knew no language and was not able to talk, although she subsequently learned some language. (Fromkin & Rodman, 1978, p. 22)
The existence of such cases suggested that the acquisition of the oral
mode of language might also be contingent upon the availability of environmental
factors and/or conditions. I was reinforced in this thinking by the important
conceptual connections between learning, language learning, and the teaching
of reading which Don Holdaway (1979), Frank Smith
(1981), and Ken Goodman and his colleagues (Gollasch, 1982) were making.
I believed that if such conditions could be identified, they might provide insights into promoting literacy learning in schools. Accordingly, I began some research to identify the conditions that supported oral language acquisition. I spent 3 years of my life bugging a group of toddlers as they interacted with parents, neighbors, friends, and acquaintances in homes, playgrounds, supermarkets, and other settings. One outcome of this research was the identification of a set of conditions that always seem to be present when language is learned.
The conditions of learning
Dictionary definitions of the term conditions carry a range of potential meanings including "particular modes of being,” “existing cases or states," "circumstances indispensable to some results," "prerequisites on which something else is contingent," and "essential parts" (Macquarie University, 1981). The meaning I have attributed to conditions is an aggregate of all of these possibilities. I want to convey the notion that the conditions I identified in this research are particular states of being (doing, behaving, creating), as well as being a set of indispensable circumstances that. co-occur and are synergistic in the sense that they both affect and are affected by each other.