People rock climbing
Beth Walrond


Reading, Riding and Arithmetic

A former 4-H club kid has to ask, can people actually learn without doing? It turns out there is no solid line dividing the two.

By Kate Black, '16 BA

May 24, 2023 •

Like many albertan horse girls, I grew up in a 4-H club. I was always vaguely mystified by the slogan emblazoned on our dorky green fleece vests: “Learn To Do By Doing.”

Those words annoyed me for a couple of reasons. First, they gave licence to all the less-awesome mandatory activities of 4-H: annual highway garbage cleanups and public speaking competitions, calculating how much hay our animals ate and what it cost (our parents) to keep them alive. Second, the slogan was so obvious that it hardly made sense. How can anyone learn to do anything without doing it? 

Jacqueline Leighton, ’93 BA(Hons), ’95 MEd, ’99 PhD, a U of A professor of educational psychology, says there’s no hard line between the two.

“When we are doing we are learning,” Leighton says. “And even when we are not doing, we are learning.”

The problem is that we might not be learning the thing our teachers intended. I’m thinking about all the times I sat in classrooms without doing much other than scribbling notes, if not completely zoning out, while my teacher droned to overhead slides. Something has nevertheless lingered with me from these experiences: how to spend my day sitting somewhere I don’t want to be.

Or, Leighton says, many of us learned to stay quiet in the classroom — especially coming-of-age in western societies, where we put a premium on looking smart and learning quickly.

“You might fear that you haven’t learned the information properly and will be embarrassed,” she says. “The unfortunate part is that we focus so much on performance that we actually encourage students to not seek out innovation and challenge.”

But how do people actually learn the things they are supposed to learn?

Bonita Watt, ’01 BEd, ’03 MEd, ’08 PhD, a professor in the U of A’s secondary education department, says the answer lies in experiential learning: having students partake in what they’re learning about and then reflect on the experience. It’s crucial to Watt’s specialty in career and technology studies, where students are exploring and getting practical skills in professions including communications technology, trades and culinary arts.

“Until we actually experience something, how can we make an informed decision about whether we want to do it?” she says. 

Watt says that although we might associate experiential learning with career-readiness programs, it’s not exclusive to foods or shop classrooms. Imagine how improvising as a character from a play you’re reading in English class could help you better connect to their perspective and choices, or how you could more deeply understand a poem’s musings on nature while walking outside. 

“It all becomes so embedded in mind and body,” Watt says.

We still can (and do!) learn in lecture halls. And we must learn some things in this manner first before getting to do something else. Educational psychologists, such as Leighton, distinguish between two types of learning: declarative learning, in which we learn how to do things, and procedural learning, in which we develop skills by doing. We’re more aware of our declarative, facts-based knowledge, than our subconscious muscle memory, gained through procedural learning. 

Often, we put declarative knowledge to work as we learn new information through procedural learning. In drivers’ training, for example, you learn that it’s illegal to run a red light. Only through actually driving do you learn the particular kind of foot pressure you need to brake smoothly and on time. This is handy knowledge for any of us. 

Everyone takes on the role of a teacher at some point, whether that’s raising kids or training someone at work. But that role is important on a deeper, ideological level, too. We all care about education, in every sense of the word, in that caring about something — climate change, correctly filing invoices — usually means you want other people to learn about it. Our ideals around learning shape our gripes with the present and our hopes for the future.

Each of our educations, then, reflects the hopes someone else had for us. It’s a nice, if not weird, thought: my involvement in 4-H wasn’t just a reflection of my obsessive interest in horses, but that my parents and the people who created the organization wanted me to become one of the “responsible, caring and contributing leaders” that the club describes on its website. Luckily for 4-H, it seems to be working: an eight-year study of more than 7,000 4-H kids found that they’re more likely to be involved in their communities, set and achieve goals, and have healthy habits. 

I’m not saying that to brag — honestly, it’s hard to trace any quality I have to an experience I had in the past. But I clearly remember picking up wet cardboard from the ditches outside Sherwood Park, Alta., as part of a 4-H clean-up crew. In that moment I felt so strongly that I was part of something larger than myself — and that my participation mattered. 

Weirdly, I experienced a similar feeling in a completely different scenario in Grade 12. My math teacher pulled me into the hallway and, with stern interest, asked why I kept zoning out in class. He wouldn’t let up until I gave a confusing but honest answer: I didn’t know what was going on with me, but I did know I wasn’t feeling great and I was having trouble concentrating. While it was abundantly clear that he wasn’t happy with my behaviour, it was equally clear he cared about me, and that I mattered in his bigger picture. 

I can hardly articulate the lesson of that moment. But I know it was profound for me to remember it so clearly after all this time, among all the other things I’ve learned and how they’ve made me who I am.

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