Another common and mistaken idea hidden in the word “learning” is that learning and doing are different kinds of acts….Of course, this is nonsense. There are not two processes, but one. We learn to do something by doing it. There is no other way. When we first do something, we probably will not do it well. But if we keep on doing it, have good models to follow and helpful advice if and when we feel we need it, and always do it as well as we can, we will do it better. In time, we may do it very well.
We cannot separate skills and acts, and we make a disastrous error when we try. Talking is not a skill, or a collection of skills, but an act, a doing. Behind the act there is a purpose; whether at two or ninety-two, we talk because we have something we want to say, and someone we want to say it to, and because we think or hope our words will make a difference.
…walking is not a skill, but an act, with a purpose; the baby wants to move as he sees the bigger people moving, and quickly and skillfully, like them. Reading is not a skill, but an act. The child sees written words all around him; he sees that the older people look at those words, use them, get meaning from them. Those words make things happen. One day (if we give him a chance) he decides that he wants to find out what those words say and mean, and that he can and will find out. At that instant, and with that decision, he begins to read. Not to “learn to read,” but to read.
…if teachers have been saying for years that these children can’t learn and don’t want to learn, and then someone comes along and shows that they both can and want to, it threatens the other teachers’ alibi. It is easier and safer to go on teaching the children in ways that you know won’t work, because they never have worked, and then to go on blaming the children.
…we are even less likely to learn anything good from coerced experiences, things that others have bribed, threatened, bullied, wheedled, or tricked us into doing. From such we learn mostly anger, resentment, and above all self-contempt and self-hatred for having allowed ourselves to be pushed around or used by others, for not having been smart enough or strong enough to resist and refuse.
As a rule we greatly exaggerate children’s interest in power struggles with us. We are so concerned about maintaining our power over them that we think they are equally concerned about taking it away from us. They are very much aware that they are powerless, that we have great power over them. They don’t like this, and in a vague way look forward to a time when it may not be true. But they are realistic enough to know that at the moment they are not going to be able to do much to change this.
The smallest unit of speech that we can say in isolation, all by itself, is the syllable. With a very few exceptions, we do not speak isolated letters or letter groups or graphemes, and it is therefore foolish, useless, wasteful, confusing, and harmful to try to “teach” children how to “read” them. What cannot be spoken cannot be read. We speak syllables, so we must read syllables.
The baby who begins to talk, long before he makes any sounds that we hear as words, or even understands words, has learned from sharp observation that the sounds that bigger people make with their mouths affect the other things they do. Their talk makes things happen. He may not know exactly what, or how. But he wants to be a part of that talking group of bigger people, wants to make things happen with his voice.
Educators talk all the time about “skills”: reading skills, writing skills, communication skills, even listening skills. It may be true, at the level of words, to say that anyone doing a difficult thing well is using a variety of skills. But this does not mean that the best way to teach a difficult act is to break it into as many separate skills as possible and teach them one by one.
The baby does not learn to speak by learning the skills of speech and then using them to speak with, or to walk by learning the skills of walking and then using them to walk with. He learns to speak by speaking, to walk by walking. When he takes his first hesitant steps he is not practicing. He is not getting ready. He is not learning how to walk so that later he may walk somewhere. He is walking because he wants to walk, right now. He has thought about it, worked it out in his mind, convinced himself that he knows how to do it and can do it. And now he is going to do it.
In many schools the problem is not that the students seem not to be interested in anything, or in only one thing, or that we can’t find out what they’re interested in. They are interested in many things, and once they trust us, and believe that we respect their interests, they will tell us, or show us what they are. The problem is that because of pressure from anxious or angry adults in the community, or our own worries about what is important, we are afraid to let the students think, talk, read, and write about what we know very well they are interested in.
We have everywhere situations in which instead of schools working for the children in them, the children are expected and urged to work for the good and glory of the school. Or where administrators and teachers say to students, “You can have nothing to say about this place, how it runs and what it does, because we’ve been here longer and have a greater stake in it, and hence the right to say how it shall run.”