Natural vs. Mechanistic Learning


Natural vs Mechanistic Learning

Robert Paterson wrote a fascinating post about the difference between natural, and mechanistic, learning.

While natural learning is something done as part of life, mechanistic learning separates the learning from life (in a manner of speaking).

With his permission, I reproduce it his post here:


“Life is Learning” – Learning Design – Natural vs Machine

If we are to design the new, we have to be very careful not to use the assumptions of the old. An assemblage of the new features in a body does not make a new tool.


Recall that HMS Inflexible on the left had all the gear of a modern warship. But it was Dreadnought on the right that was the breakthrough. Why? Because Dreadnought was built on the assumption that battle would be fought at the most extreme distance possible. As a consequence, all its systems were configured around this objective, Inflexible still held to the Nelson doctrine that real men fought face to face. Dreadnought had the power to sink the entire German Navy on its own who at the time still held to the Nelson doctrine themselves.

Christopher Alexander is again very helpful in explaining the difference in assumptions behind a mechanistic view and a natural view of design.

In the traditional mechanistic design, the entire process is aimed to a known and specific end. After all, the core metaphor is a machine. In education today, that end is a credit or a passed test.

As this is a machine design where everything is separated: the teacher from the learner, math from English. Many important sources of growth are outside the box. Sport is outside. Food is outside. Home is outside. Work is outside. Learning from life itself is not counted. Only what is in school is in.

In nature, everything affects the other in an integrated and in a dynamic process. The acorn has the potential to be an oak tree just as the infant has the potential to become the adult person. All information about how to be a tree or a person is inside it. What the acorn and the baby need is the right set of linked processes to interact with so that all this potential can be released. For a tree, it needs the community of other trees and all the substrata of bacteria that links the forest under the ground. It needs the community of the animals that propagate it and defends it from enemies.

The core process for babies is the interaction with the parents and the home. For 4 million years all the tremendous achievement of humanity was generated by this process. This is where our world view is created. It is the foundation of learning. Are we safe or secure, loved or worthless, can we wait for things or not, do we have power or not. Our current view of learning separates and devalues the influence of the home. The only learning process that counts is the school. As the family crumbles so does the foundation.

The second core process was interaction with the immediate community. Today most of our communities are mere dormitories.  So there is no one to learn from naturally in the physical community. What did we learn? We learned how to behave. We learned about how we interacted with the natural world. We learned all the domestic skills. We learned our people’s story. We learned our context as a person. Now we only interact with other peers who are as lost as we are. Instead of neighbours, we have the TV! Without a community, we have no social context.

The third core process was work. Today we have separated work from community and from family. Work is a mystery to most kids. To gain a work skill we then spend lots of money later in life to pass a course. Some kids are lucky like my neighbour Logan who has been working as a carpenter with his Dad since he was 5. How will a grad from a community college compete with Logan? How will a Compu College grad compete with say Jevon who has been under the hood  since a small boy? Without a vocation, we have a declining base of skills.

The fourth process that I can see is the learning of mystery. We have lost wisdom and we have lost the interaction between the elder and the neophyte. Instead, we have told ourselves that we will never die and we shunt our elderly in waiting rooms for a death we deny. So the mystery of how we will meet our end and its revelatory power to help us live is also lost. We look to priests and to churches instead and we hope that some book will help us. Without a sense of how we fit into the universe, we have only consumerism.

We have put all official learning into the space of an institution. In the institution, everything outside does not count. But in reality, we learn in the context of the space of a community – in the context of many communities. We learn by doing and observing and most of all by conversing with others. Our mechanistic view is all about separation and hence works against learning.

Any design for a learning tool that continues the idea of separation will fail. The design that will work will the design that brings the individual back into the communities that we need to be human.

Learning itself, of course, is not a separate function from any part of our lives. This is the ultimate failure of the old system in that it has made this separation between life and learning. There is no “life long learning” at an institution, there is only life itself.

Life is learning!


Robert Paterson’sBooks

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