As a young, inexperienced teacher I was continually surprised by
students who couldn’t seem to learn or understand the simplest concepts
associated with reading, writing, spelling, or math I tried to teach
them, yet somehow, could not only learn, but could apply complex
knowledge and skills in the world outside the classroom. Even students
who had been classified as ‘learning disabled’ or ‘intellectually
handicapped’ would continually surprise me. One twelve year old boy to
whom I couldn’t teach even the simplest aspects of arithmetic was almost
unbeatable in card games which required keeping count of cards which had
been played. He also displayed an intuitive ability for working out the
probabilities of cards being held by others and /or still being in the
deck. Then there were boys who couldn’t seem to remember how words were
spelled, or their ‘times tables’ facts from one day to the next, but who
could remember and recount the year by year scores and batting averages
of their cricket heroes. As well I encountered many immigrant children
who would begin Australian schooling with no English, to whom I could
not seem to teach even the simplest rules of grammar, who in the world
outside of school could translate across two (sometimes three) languages
for their non-English speaking parents when signing rental leases or
applying for a driver’s licence, or social security allowances, and so
I was equally surprised by students who displayed conceptual and
procedural knowledge which I had not previously taught them or
ever mentioned or alluded to in class. Conventionally spelled words
which I’d never taught or drawn attention to would just ‘appear’ in
their writing. So too would punctuation conventions such as speech
marks, capital letters, paragraph indentation, and full stops (that is
“periods” in USA).
Both groups of these students could obviously learn. They consistently
demonstrated control of a multitude of complex skills and facts that
enabled them to do a range complex things, both inside and outside the
typical school setting. Furthermore they seemed to have learned these
things without obvious effort or awareness of what they were learning,
or even that they were actually learning.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. It conflicted with what I’d been taught
about ‘learning’ and ‘intelligence’ in my pre-service teacher education
courses. According to my pre-service mentors ‘poor learners’ were just
that - ‘poor learners’. Such ‘poor learning’ should have manifested
itself across any and all learning they attempted. If they couldn’t
learn the simple things about reading, writing, spelling, maths, etc,
that I tried to teach them, they certainly should NOT have been able to
learn anything more complex in the outside world. Nor should they have
been able to learn ‘school-type’ skills and knowledge without these
being explicitly taught or at least alluded to.
Because of this theoretical confusion and despair, my professional
self-esteem was seriously challenged. The lessons I spent countless
hours diligently preparing were based on a theory of learning that was
(allegedly) ‘scientifically based’. Hadn’t psychology conclusively
proven that both human and animal learning was merely a form of habit
formation? (Cambourne , 2010). That it could be scientifically
controlled and manipulated if certain principles of stimulus
presentation, reinforcement, and punishment were rigidly enforced?
After many years of compliant acceptance of this confusion I decided to
study more closely the different types of complex human learning which
regularly occurred outside school settings. (Resnick, 1987) Perhaps
there were implications for my classroom practice to be gleaned from
studying examples of ‘out-of-school’ complex learning?
Here’s a (very) brief summary of what I learned from this inquiry.
A (Very) Brief Summary
What I Learned About ‘Out-of-School’ Learning.
While I learned a great deal about the complex learning which children
and adults are capable of outside the formal school setting, (Cambourne,
2009. ) two facts stood out:
Learning one’s native language is a
universal example of complex ‘out-of school’ learning.
Learning the oral language of the culture into which one has been born
is a stunning intellectual achievement, 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 successful, extremely rapid, usually effortless,
painless, and furthermore, it's extremely durable.
I realised that the range of cognitive skills and abilities needed to
learn to talk were the same skills and abilities that my students
needed in order to learn what I was trying to teach them in reading,
writing, and spelling. Didn’t literacy learners need to discriminate
fine degrees of similarity and difference between the visual and
auditory shapes and sounds associated with reading, writing, and
spelling? Didn’t they need to be able to generalise, transfer abstract
grammatical, morphological, and phonological rules and exceptions across
all the meanings they constructed while reading ,writing, or spelling?
Didn’t they have to store this enormous range of semantic, syntactic,
grapho-phonic knowledge in their memories? Be able to retrieve and use
this knowledge quickly and automatically?
Therefore, since all the (so-called) ‘poor learners’ I’d met in all the
classes I’d taught had learned to talk, (some were bi-lingual),
shouldn’t they have the full range of cognitive abilities to learn the
much simpler literacy skills and knowledge I was trying to teach them?
One conclusion I drew from these realisations was that anyone who had
learned to talk the language of the culture into which they’d been born
has sufficient cognitive ‘power’, (‘abilities’, ‘skills’ ‘machinery’,
‘know-how’ etc) to learn to read and write.
How could my students master something as complex as learning to talk so
successfully, so easily, and so painlessly when I couldn’t teach them
much simpler things? Could it be that (horror of horrors) the
‘scientifically based’ theory of learning I used as a framework for the
lessons I prepared was flawed?
I decided to do some research which might help me find out.
Little did I realise I would be engaged is this research for the next
A (Very) Condensed Summary of Fifty
Years of Inquiry
spent almost three years unobtrusively 'bugging' (with a wireless radio
transmitter) and generally 'spying' on urban and rural toddlers as they
interacted with parents, siblings, peers, neighbours , relatives,
teachers, and strangers in the course of their waking days. (Cambourne,
The data I
collected comprised whole days of audio recordings of the language which
these children used and/or overheard as they interacted with the various
agents they encountered in natural, experimenter-free environments from
when they awoke in the morning till they went to bed at night. These
data were transcribed into thousands of pages of written text. These
‘raw’ language data were complemented by ‘specimen records’ (i.e. rich
field notes) which described both the non-linguistic behaviour and the
contexts in which the language occurred. (Ref) Ecological psychologists
describe this range and type of data as a 'rich archival lode' which can
be 'mined' again and again for different purposes. (Heft, 2001)
In the course
of the next two decades I re-mined 'this archival lode' several times.
Once was to map and describe the extent, nature and patterns of verbal
interaction children engaged in across different settings (Cambourne,
1972) On another occasion I mapped and described the range and types
metaphors children used and/or overheard. (ARGC Report, 1980, Australian
The third (and
most significant) ‘re-mining’ venture I undertook was to re-analyse
these data to see if I could identify any patterns of possible
ecological, social, emotional, cultural, (or any other) ‘factors’ or
‘conditions’ which MIGHT be associated with, or support the development
(i.e. ‘learning’) of language.
years later I’d eventually identified a tentative set of such
‘conditions’. (Cambourne, 1984). During this period some academic
colleagues challenged my tentative theories which forced me to revisit
and check them. Luke et al (1989) Cambourne (1989).
continually cross-checked and modified these tentative ‘conditions’
against the ever increasing research and theories of language
development that were constantly being published in the scholarly
journals of the time.
I took this
tentative set of ‘conditions’ to K-6 teachers in schools near my
university and invited them to show me how they might put them into
practice in their daily literacy sessions. I requested the privilege of
being a participant observer of their efforts. Fortunately most
accorded me this privilege over the next seven years.
period I again used the methods of naturalistic inquiry (Guba and
Lincoln 1990) and ethnographic participant observation (Heath , 1983) to
observe and document what happened in their classrooms. I accumulated
hundreds of more hours of video and audio records of teachers and
students in classrooms. I had these transcribed into thousands of more
pages of data. I continued to take field notes of the behaviour in these
classrooms. I spent hundreds of hours retrospectively interviewing
teachers and students about the content in the audio and video records
and the field notes I took. I also photocopied all the documents
teachers and students produced in the course of the lessons I observed.
later I felt secure that I had an understanding of two issues I’d been
trying to resolve for many years, namely:
cognitively immature human children could be so successful at learning
something as complex any one (or more) of the thousands of languages
which are currently (or have ever been) spoken on earth.
(ii) How to
use what I learned from (i) above to inform teaching practice.
Cambourne, B.L. (1972) A Naturalistic Study Of
Performance Of Grade 1 Rural And Urban School
Ph.D Thesis, James Cook University, Qld, Australia
Cambourne, B.L. (1984) Language, Learning and
Literacy (Ch 2).
In Butler, A & Turbill, J. Toward a
Reading Writing Classroom.
Rozelle, N.S.W. : Primary English Teaching
Cambourne, B.L. (1989) Look What They've Done to
my Song, Ma: A Reply to Luke, Baty & Stehbens.
English in Australia No 90 December
Cambourne, B. L. (2009) Revisiting the concept of
"natural learning". In Changing Literacies for
Changing Times; Hoffman, J. V. & Goodman, Y.
M., Eds. Routledge: New York, pp 125-145.
Cambourne, B. L. (2010). From learning as
habit-formation to learning as meaning-making: how
Harry Pope changed my (professional) life. In P.
L. Anders (Eds.), Defying Convention, Inventing the
Future in Literacy Research and Practice (pp.
116-125). New York: Routledge. (ISBN: 9780805863413)
Heath, S.B. (1983) Ways with Words. New York:
Cambridge University Press.
Heft, H. (2001) Ecological
Psychology in Context . Taylor & Francis Inc
Luke, A.,Baty, A. & Stehbens , \C. (1989)
'Natural' Conditions for Language Learning: A
Critique. English In Australia No 89 Sep 1989
Resnick,L. (1987) LearninginSchool And Out:
AERA Presidential Address. Educational Researcher,
[Available on-line: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0013-189X%28198712%2916%3A9%3C13%3AT1PALI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-XEducationalResearcheriscurrentlypublishedbyAmericanEducationalResearchAssociation.]