All children are powerful learners. In fact, most people complete their most impressive intellectual accomplishment before the age of five — the ability to understand and speak language.
Children imbibe everything around them; they are literally marinated in stimulus from which they learn. Through every detail of family and social interaction — things that are attended to, rewarded or valued, body posture, language use etc. — children absorb that which matters to the adults in their culture.
Children are so attentive to what goes on around them that by six months the babbling of infants no longer includes sounds not spoken by their parents. Children absorb their culture like a cucumber absorbs pickle brine.
James Gee uses the term “deep learning” to describe that very pickle brine. Deep learning is whatever a culture puts into the brine to teach and direct children from infancy. In the West, and most emphatically in the middle-class, deep learning has focused on preparation in the attitudes of oral and written language, building the foundation for learning in schools and, more fundamentally, the foundation for access to the wider culture of the civilization: reading, music, math, arts, literature, science, etc.
Homes that embody such a cultural commitment to learning are often filled with a love of learning. Parents not only read to their children but read also for themselves, and children see their parents model learning behaviors. In these homes, a learning culture becomes anchored in the lives of children. Learning is not simply a useful skill, or a set of knowledge, or even a degree of intelligence. Rather, learning becomes a value or way of life, without which life is incomplete.
This cultural preparation for learning (deep learning), begins at infancy and happens with varying degrees of success. People are generally aware of the behaviors that pass on this learning culture but not always. Over thirty years of research has helped to define them. Annette Lareau identifies cultural repertoires that support learning, including “talking with children, reasoning with children, and teaching them to solve problems through negotiation.” Betty Hart and Todd Risley argue powerfully that the simple quantity and variety of language usage that children are exposed to leaves a strong foundation for vocabulary and therefore reading success. J.W. Getzel argues that school culture requires “an achievement ethic with high valuation of the future, deferred gratification, symbolic commitment to success.” These and many other researchers and writers (to be fully delineated Wednesdays in this blog) can be understood as providing a detailed description of the deep learning required for success in modern Western civilization. Deep learning in other cultures is also strong but may be focused in different ways.
In the early 20th century John Dewey and Margaret Mead independently argued that because of the new faster pace of change in society, including the impact of new technologies and the greater connection between different cultures around the world that the heart of Western cultural learning now had to include not only what children learn but how children learn. The focus of education has to include not only specific knowledge, but also the drive and the ability to continuously learn new things.
The value of learning itself becomes part of the rites and behaviors that underlie a modern learning culture. The research mentioned above describes the details of these rites and behaviors.
This is the deep learning of Western culture, and without it children and families and cut off from school success are also from access to modern civilization. No meaningful education reform can possibly succeed without taking its nurture into account.