Information Age Education
   Issue Number 107
February, 2013   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter. All back issues of this newsletter are available free online at

Common Core State Standards
Part 8: The Emerging Picture of Natural Learning,
and the Implications for Dealing with the
Common Core State Standards

Renate N. Caine, Professor Emeritus, Cal. State, San Bernardino.

Geoffrey Caine, Executive Director, Caine Learning.

Neuroscience has indeed helped put an end to the deeply engrained belief that students are little more than empty vessels waiting to be filled. But has this news transformed or changed how we educate? Other than using brain-based “strategies that work,” have educators grasped what Antonia Damasio means when he refers to the human being as an indissociable human organism where body, emotions, and brain/mind continuously interact (Damasio, 1994)?

How can we possibly reconcile what is now known about the integrated nature of human learning with a top-down model of a standards-based curriculum tied to content testing? How can the current system of education, deeply steeped in a culture of compliance, possibly engage in something that mirrors the complexity and power of the human brain and body?

Despite continuous and well-intentioned efforts to refine standards, they remain embedded in what biologist Richard Dawkins call a “meme.” See wiki/Richard_Dawkins.

In our latest book (Caine and Caine, 2011) we show that the traditional educational paradigm is a “meme—an organized and taken for granted way of thinking tied to action based on a powerful belief about how the world works, one that is shared by a very large number of individuals.” The education meme prevents significantly new ideas from taking hold because it takes for granted such matters as teacher control of content, control of timing for teacher specified goals and assignments, fragmentation of the curriculum into isolated subjects, organization of school life into age-based grade levels, formal assessment based on grade level content, and control of the physical environment for learning in classrooms that remove rather than engage complexity of movement and collaboration.

This is the context within which the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are being implemented. Irrespective of exhortations to the contrary, their organization and manner of implementation expresses the current meme. And so, by themselves, they simply cannot change the ways that teachers teach nor raise the standards achieved by children or the system.

Something radically different is called for. Sylwester (2012) quite accurately called the need to place process over product. From our perspective, that means that educators need to become aware of what we call natural learning. And the CCSS has to be addressed with natural learning in mind. Unless that happens, the hoped for benefits of the CCSS cannot possibly be realized. The system will simply sabotage the new approach.

What is Natural Learning?

Much of how the whole human being is involved in learning has become known over the last two decades as a result of the blend of findings from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, biology, and other fields of study. For instance, meaningful learning:
  • Is physiological

  • Is dynamic and emergent

  • Blends thoughts and emotions

  • Is both individual and social, and

  • Is compromised by excessive threat, stress and fatigue.
In life, these processes are commingled in the dance of perception and action as evidenced in the work of biologists (e.g., Maturana and Varella, 1998) and neuroscientists (e.g., Fuster, 2003). There is, first, a perception/action dynamic, which is primarily reflexive. It begins with a simple, reflexive process that can be observed as the eye blinks in response to dust or light. It operates at a more sophisticated level in the momentary adjustments we make during action such as running, driving a car, or imitation-based learning grounded in the operation of mirror neurons.

Beyond the perception/action dynamic are what Fuster calls perception/action cycles. These are the constant problem-solving events with which every one of us deals many times a day. We constantly interpret situations in which we find ourselves, perceive personally relevant problems, explore various modes of action, make decisions, gain feedback, and either learn or don’t learn something new.

In natural learning the entire system is engaged in this continuing, ongoing, dynamic process. Hence natural learning is dynamic, interactive, and emergent. It is holistic and embedded in real world experience. It is through multiple perception/action cycles that new patterns and practices form (Caine and Caine, 2011). Hence our definition of “natural learning” is "making sense of experience and developing the capacities to act in and on the world".

Learning in school, organized in terms of the traditional meme, is radically different. Most of it has been confined to memorizing or developing a shallow understanding of content, independent of personal meaning, personal choice, and body/mind interaction. And the CCSS are probably doomed to suffer that fate.

So what can be done? The key need is to understand natural learning, and then to translate it into the school-based practices in which it can thrive. And one way to begin is to look at where natural learning already exists.

We See Natural Learning at Play in Students Engaged in Technology

The world is fast becoming what we call a world of videotech (videos, films, mobile devices of all kinds, and resources such as search engines, YouTube videos, Google, and iMaps, etc.). And most kids are at home in that world. Watch them as they play a video game, do a Web search, or text and talk with others on their smart phones. Better yet, if you haven't already done so, do it with them.

What you will see is that these tech-savvy kids of all ages:
  • Are consulting and working with others.

    The concept of "cheating" has largely lost its meaning because they are working and sharing continuously with others in order to solve problems they care about.

  • They have chosen to be there, they are pursuing their own interests, and they are asking their own questions.

    Although there is a strong social pull, most participants in videotech are pursuing what is of interest to them, and as they navigate through that world, they are constantly solving their own problems and asking the questions to which they want answers. This takes place within a world of ideas and content that is supplied by their cohort, and not a single expert or adult.

  • They get better at things they care about and are open to ways to improve. They are ready to practice skills they decide they need.

    Video games are such a beautiful example. In the course of play, players identify areas that require improvement and in consultation with friends or fellow players determine what is needed.

  • Feedback is immediate and constant.

    Video games tell them exactly how good they are at mastering a particular skill or task, and provide indications about what is needed to improve. Feedback includes failure or missed opportunities that they can re-visit and improve on. Students have all sorts of ways to evaluate their own work, and they are constantly exposed to ever increasing levels of expertise to which they can compare themselves.

  • They are emotionally engaged.

    Motivation is fueled by emotions and emotions drive action and learning. Notice how these kids get passionate. (They don't always know how to control their emotions but with help they can learn how to take charge of this part of themselves.)

  • Have opportunities to self-monitor and pace themselves as needed.

    Working on their own projects usually lets them control the pace and schedule. This allows them to take brief breaks by leaving a task that feels overwhelming. (Note that play can become compulsive and self-regulation tends to be missing in much of the world of videotech).

  • They focus for a long time on one project or skill.

    When they really care about a project or situation or game, their attention can be sustained for hours.

  • They make many decisions.

    Decisions are critical to developing the most sophisticated areas of the brain. This doesn't happen when students merely do what others tell them to do. Over time they need guidance in how to reflect on what could happen if they wait too long, shift their attention too often, consult an expert for critical input, and so forth. They need to struggle with how to do something that doesn't have a yes or no, or a right or wrong, answer.
Ask yourself honestly: Where do students in your school and classes have an opportunity to master curriculum content such as History, Math, Literature, Physics, Science, and Social Studies in a way that incorporates the elements described above. Where do students:
  • Consult and work with others.

  • Challenge themselves or a group to investigate something they have chosen to do.

  • Apply some information, understanding, or skill they investigate as a critical question or puzzle.

  • Get immediate feedback on what they do, and from multiple sources.

  • Become passionate, exited, or otherwise emotionally engaged.

  • Make a plan, schedule, or outline of their work that allows them to pace themselves as needed.

  • Focus for a long time on one project or skill that gives them the opportunity to apply a concept, set of skills, or ideas they need to master.

  • Make appropriate decisions based on what is needed in order to explore and document their ideas, presentation, or models.
This is how many of our students already function in this new technology rich culture when they are free to do so. It is natural to them. Education was never able to answer how to do this kind of teaching. Technology is in the process of changing all that. The question for us as educators is how to shift our teaching and school culture in order to reflect the real world we now live in. We must adapt and master this new culture.

In a very real sense teachers have to shift their own understanding and actions to match how their students are learning outside of school. And instead of being the controller and director of the essential curriculum, the teacher becomes the master facilitator and the "quality control" expert. A teacher becomes the individual who is there to help students improve. In this spirit they can demonstrate, suggest, question, model, challenge, and enrich student understanding.

From Life To School, and Back Again

As the elements of the dynamic process of natural learning become clear, it becomes possible to reframe education. Standards can be embedded into guided experiences so that students come to master new material and processes in ways that match natural functioning. The key is to grasp and then incorporate the core elements of the perception/action cycle. Clearly there are both linear and nonlinear aspects to the overall process. For the purposes of making them clear, we spell them out in a sequence.

To begin with, an appropriate degree of immersion in the content matter needs to exist (think of the way that an infant is naturally immersed in its native language, or a young child with musical parents is immersed in music).
The context matters enormously. It needs to consist of complex situations that are naturally organized so that the whole of a person can be engaged. What does this look like in practice? The most useful umbrella concept that we have found is a sophisticated version of what is called project-based learning. This has been the focus of much attention in the past (e.g., see Edutopia). The problem is that the phrase project-based learning is ambiguous.
  • It can just refer to teacher-constructed activities. These can be useful but are very limited in accessing students’ natural capacities for learning.

  • It can refer to more complex projects and problems, where the teacher designs the project and formulates the questions. This is a significant advance but still suppresses much of the dance of perception and action.

  • The key is to find a way for students to ask their OWN questions and design their OWN projects, preferably with real world timelines that may last a semester or longer, and with guidance, support, and feedback from educators. This is the sophisticated form of project-based education that capitalizes on the full depth of natural learning. Our own version, spelled out in Natural Learning for a Connected World, is called the Guided Experience Approach (Caine and Caine, 2011).
Within this context, students must be able to:
  • Link the new to something that is somewhat familiar already.

  • Formulate and engage their own personally meaningful questions, puzzles, or problems.

  • Have access to and be exposed to expert knowledge or important information.

  • Have the opportunity to apply the new knowledge or information to something they care about.

  • Engage in an ongoing dance between continuous and emerging questions, experimentation, and coaching.

  • Receive and be able to take advantage of continuous feedback (formative assessment).

  • Make it real by acting in some new way or creating something new and making it available to expert judgment and feedback (summative assessment).
Note that the core elements of traditional teaching are not discarded. There may be times for rote memory; there is often a need for a teacher or coach to provide explanations; practice and rehearsal in the development of new skills will always be critical (as the research on expertise makes clear). All of these, however, need to be incorporated into the larger playing out of perception/action cycles. The entire process is therefore dynamic. And all of it continues to be influenced by the degree of stress, the types of threat and challenge, and the nature of the community and relationships within which the entire process takes place.

Embedding Common Core State Standards

The challenge, now, given that Common Core State Standards are a fact of life, is to integrate the CCSS with natural learning as described above. There has to be some give and take because standards, by their very nature, tend to disregard the internal worlds of meaning of the students. The standards are always imposed from the outside, as it were, and need to be brought “inside” so that they can be used by students in order to make better sense of the world and develop additional real world capacities. With that in mind:
  • This type of learning begins with positive relationships grounded in mutual respect and decision-making. Collaboration is essential and basic routes and procedures must be in place.

  • Even though standards may be framed for individual subjects, they should not be taught in isolation. Rather they should be taught “across” the curriculum because they are often part and parcel of other subjects and of real life situations.

  • Real life, natural learning, and good project-based teaching have their own time lines. Just as in the real world, these will be constrained by circumstances. But they cannot and must not be ignored. That means that the “content” of the CCSS may be important, but the organization and timing of the elements needs to be freed up to match good teaching and deep learning.

  • Realize that there are major developmental differences in “normal” students. Ideally, projects can provide an environment for students who are developing at different rates.

  • Authentic assessment must be front and center. See
    .  The moment that test scores prevail in the minds of students and teachers, most of the power of natural learning is leeched out and the traditional meme prevails. This does not mean that scores on tests are irrelevant. Rather, educators need to come to terms with the oft demonstrated fact that students will naturally perform better on tests when their learning is deep and personal.

Can It Be Done?

It can be done and it is being done. In our 2011 book we describe two superb schools that illustrate the theory and the practice. One is a set of nine schools, collectively known as High Tech High in San Diego. See The other is Bridgewater school in South Australia. See There are also many other organizations and schools that are tending in this direction. They range from the EdVision schools (see to the  Alternative Education Resource Organization (see

And it is a pleasure to watch the masters of this very sophisticated approach as they bring natural learning to the fore, day in and day out, within a culture where educators themselves consciously engage their own on-going learning and perception/action processes.


Caine R., and Caine, G. (2011). Natural Learning for a Connected World: Education, Technology and the Human Brain. New York: Teachers College Press.

Capra, F. (1997). The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. Anchor.

Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. New York: Avon Books.

Edutopia. See

Fuster, J. M. (2003). Cortex and Mind: Unifying Cognition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Maturana, H.R., Varela, F.J., and Paolucci, R. (1998). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.

Sylwester, R. (2012). The Beginning Search for an Appropriate Education. In Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Retrieved 2/2/2013 from

Renate Caine and Geoffrey Caine

Renate N. Caine, Ph.D. Education researcher, theorist, writer, consultant. Executive Director: Natural Learning Research Institute, a 501(c3) company that disseminates research on neuroscience and learning. Her work with schools has been featured on "Teacher TV", Discovery Channel, "Wizards of Wisdom" on PBS and elsewhere. Email:, Blog:

Geoffrey Caine LL.M. Process coach, learning consultant, writer. He consults nationally and internationally with schools, school districts, businesses, philanthropic organizations, and governmental agencies. Email:

The Caines have co-authored nine books. See Most recent: Natural Learning for a Connected World: Education, Technology and the Human Brain (Teachers College Press, 2011) and Strengthening and Enriching Your Professional Learning Community: The Art of Learning Together (ASCD, 2010).

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