Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Organic Versus Synthetic Learning: A Synopsis

Earlier, I wrote about my made-up concepts of organic versus synthetic learning.  I've been thinking about this dichotomy, and decided to make some clarifying points.  I think these concepts provide a useful language to re-frame any discussion on making school more effective.  

Organic Learning: Organic learning is learning that occurs in a natural state.  It is learning that develops from within a child (or adult).  The child develops curiosity about a topic, concept, problem, or idea, then seeks out methods to satisfy this curiosity.  The outside world does not interfere with this process.  The motivation to learn is intrinsic.  It radiates from within. 

Organic learning is exciting and invigorating.  To the outside observer, this usually appears to be "playing". The child will expend great effort to satisfy their natural curiosity.  This is the process children use to understand the world around them.  Since the methods the child uses to satisfy our curiosity develop from internal processes, a great deal of creativity is utilized.  Learning occurs quickly and efficiently with minimal resources.

The Free School Movement capitalizes on the idea of organic learning with great success.  The Sudbury Valley School could be used as an effective model.

Synthetic Learning: Synthetic learning is any attempt by outside forces to modify organic learning.  This could be anything from a parent subtly guiding their child toward understanding to the "rigor" and structure of a high school classroom.  Synthetic learning is usually an attempt to control what, how, or when a child will learn. Synthetic learning could be a textbook, lecture, group work, government-imposed curriculum, or the myriad of other methods or tools we use to attempt to teach children.

Synthetic learning, regardless of the rationale, methods, or justification, always results in a cost.  Since synthetic learning is an attempt to get children to learn using external forces, the curiosity-based motivation that characterizes organic learning is reduced.  The cost of reduced internal motivation greatly decreases the speed and efficiency of synthetic learning, which then requires greater resources. Generally, the more synthetic learning processes are applied to the learning process, the less effective it becomes (less is more).  

In essence, synthetic learning can be thought of as a barrier to learning.  The fewer the barriers, the more effective learning becomes. 

Education professionals perpetually seek the best synthetic methods (i.e.- best practices) in an attempt to make synthetic learning as effective as organic learning.  Synthetic learning is never as effective as organic learning, but some synthetic learning methods and tools will be more effective than others.

The very nature of formal schooling creates a host of synthetic learning barriers including standardization practices, rules, procedures, and routines, textbooks, curriculum, teachers and administrators, fellow classmates, the physical environment, and the prescribed class periods/ school day.  A master teacher's role should be assessing each individual student and removing as many of these barriers as possible to allow them to learn in the most effective way possible. 

How this model could be used:  This model would require schools (administrators, teachers, support staff, students, parents, and community) to systematically assess every single element of the school and determine what impact it had on student learning.  The goal would be to remove the barriers that result in the most synthetic learning and leave the barriers that bring students closest to organic learning.  

Using Pareto's principle (80% of the outcomes flow from 20% of the causes) in a systematic fashion would create a culture that constantly evolves to provide the best possible barrier-free environment for organic learning to occur.  At any given time, 20% of the elements of a school (schedule, curriculum, specific teachers, specific administrators, color of the carpet, etc.) are going to cause 80% of the problems.  Using a democratic system where everyone (administrators, teachers, support staff, students, parents, and community) has one voice and one vote, these problems can be identified and eliminated. The 20% of the elements of the school will result in 80% of the successes, or elements that bring students closer to organic learning.  Using the same process, these elements can be identified and replicated.  

Some elements will be non-negotiable and cannot be eliminated, like state-imposed curriculum or the physical building layout.  The school community would be able to collaborate to reduce the cost of these non-negotiables on the organic learning process. 

By constantly applying this system, schools will move progressively closer to the ideal of high levels of organic learning and low levels of synthetic learning, ergo more efficient and effective learning.

Because organic learning inherently requires less resources, the school budget will inevitably shrink.  Also, the process of organic learning will likely produce something that is valuable to society, thus has monetary value.  For example, Bill Strickland of the Manchester Craftsman's Guild produces and sells student-generated music to fund his school.  The ultimate goal would be to create a self-funded school that capitalizes on its by-products as a source of income.  Financial freedom removes a major barrier for schools- the reliance on funding from groups (government, corporate, etc.).


  1. Alright, i understand now.. Maybe i should learn more about this..
    Milna bubur bayi organik

  2. Please come to Culleoka, TN and teach our autistic kids!

  3. Jason Robillard, thank you for posting your comments. I too am interested in improving the education, the way teachers teach and the way students learn. As I am new to this topic I have many questions. My questions are aimed at further understanding the ideas here and determining whether I should pursue them further.

    Why do you use the words organic and synthetic while also using the words internal and external motivation? The latter terms seem to be more well known and so more easily understandable.

    You say that synthetic learning can be seen as a barrier and that it comes at a cost. I imagine that in some instances, perhaps many that may be true, but even though I consider myself a lifelong learner, I find great benefit and motivation in taking classes, being challenged, and being given assignments. I may not appreciate them at the time, but that is only a moment in time. I have longer term goals that run counter to how I may be feeling about an assignment.

    Is organic learning - internal motivation - really more effective. It does sound quite ideal, but is the material that I encounter out of personal interest more effectively - faster and higher retention - remembered?

    What age are you referring to in your post above?

    I find that many people idealize the inner child and talk about how schools "destroy creativity" and while I think this is true to some degree I think that the inner child matures with age and that leaving some practices and pleasures behind is part of the inner child's normal development, leading to the inner adult. We see this in animals and people from many cultures where public and private school systems do not exist.

    I would very much like to hear your thoughts and if you can recommend some books and websites where I can learn more about this topic I would greatly appreciate that information as well.


    Joshua Myerson

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