Instructed versus acquired learning

Seetha Anand Vaidyam

At the end of the first week of his joining a nursery, my son’s teacher handed me a sheet of paper that I was supposed to fill in through the coming week. It had tabular columns to be ticked or crossed (depending on whether the child had done the task or not) against a list of activities each day of the week. The activities were –

• Wished good morning to parents after waking up

• Tied his own shoelace

• Wished good night

• Ate by himself

• Number of times he said thank you in a day (in this column we had to write numbers.)

While every other parent in the class was very excited and pleased that such a method was being followed, I was not! I saw parents begin this arduous journey of telling their little ones – “Say ‘good morning’”, “See teacher has told you to tie your own shoelace, now put that lace on this side, now take it around ….” Parents would sometimes pre-empt their children – “Now what should you say?” and their children would sometimes meekly utter, “Thank you or Sorry” as it was ‘taught’ to them without any real feeling or without understanding the true meaning.

I moved my son to another school very shortly!

However, this incident got me thinking about many things including the larger objectives of education. Do we instruct children or do we let them imbibe? Why is education causing so much stress amongst students? … and so many other questions would swirl in my mind. In many ways, these questions led me to train as a teacher in holistic education and also choose a more appropriate school for my child.

Learning is an activity that happens from the moment a baby is born into the world. Yes, from that very moment. In the womb, oxygen to the foetus is supplied through the mother. The moment they are born, if all things are normal, infants learn to breathe by themselves. In due course, they learn to suckle, to turn over, to crawl, sit, stand, walk, etc. They also learn to talk which is a significant developmental milestone. Do they learn all this naturally or are they taught? In other words do they acquire all these learnings or are they taught/instructed to facilitate such learnings? We all know the answer, don’t we?

All children with no anomalies have an inherent capacity to learn. This natural learning is in accordance with their physical and mental development. Any attempt to pre-empt their learning leads to stress and perhaps even an aversion for learning.

If learning happens naturally, then opportunities to develop curiosity to learn need to be created rather than elaborate instructions. Teachers and parents need to trust this natural learning ability and allow children to explore, experience, and acquire.

Does this mean that there should be no formal instruction? What then is the role of teachers and schools?

In the ages between infancy and seven years, children mostly learn through observation, imitation and repetition. At this age instructive learning can be stressful for children. In the ages between seven to the teenage years, children look up to a beloved authority – it could be a class teacher or any other adult. They seek to emulate their role models. Therefore, more than instruction, it is showing by example that will impress students and shape them. Of course, we need teachers and parents to “teach” certain basics, to lay certain unspoken as well as explicit rules. We need instructions to guide students to follow certain procedures, etc. However, more than anything else, adults need to SHOW by their deeds and behaviour. Actions speak louder than words to students. This holds true especially when it comes to emotional intelligence, value education and character building.

This quote by Rudolf Steiner sums it up – “Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility – these three forces are the very nerve of education.” Such an educational endeavour is possible only when explicit instructions are confined to what cannot be acquired.

The more we instruct, the less we allow students to think for themselves. We need to understand that all teaching does not get imbibed by students, yet all learning that is self learnt remains etched forever within students. Instructed teaching focuses so much on what is to be learnt and loses the significance of how something is to be learnt. The skill to learn is of primary importance rather than content. Content can be acquired when the skill to learn is strong.

The author works through Ananda Foundation in the areas of education, health and environment. She can be reached at You can also visit her website

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