Ancient learning is as relevant today as ever.


I’m thinking of how my father learned what he knows. He was pulled from school by his father as soon as it was legal to do so. He didn’t want to leave. School was social and the farm was isolated, but the farm was functioning without his much needed hands and he was required to go.

My father’s family didn’t see the use of much formal education. My brother and I were among the first to go to university. My grandparents shook their heads in bewilderment. That I was going to study for a Degree in Fine Arts was dumbfounding. When I went back for a Post Grad in Museum Studies, I seem to remember the words “over-educated -idiot” being mumbled.

I watched my dad paint walls, fix drawers, renovate the house, fix fences, shear sheep, sort, dag, medicate, birth lambs, heal animals. He knew about plants, weather, materials. He tested on the go, he had beta versions, he iterated. He could learn new things quickly, dipping into a instruction booklet in no linea order. His handwriting was terrible.

Joseph and His Technicolor Dreamcoat

It’s cold and wet. There’s no saving the ewe, she’s already dead. Dad is pulling the lamb out, little feet, then the nose and head…it slops limp onto the ground covered in afterbirth. Dad is quickly pulling the membrane from around it’s nose and the lamb is coughing and shaking itself into life outside the womb.

“Emma come here and take this lamb to the yards.”

I pick this warm, bloody, slimy, wooly little creature up in my arms and walk as fast as my little legs will take me to the yards where a mother is standing forlorn by her stillborn lamb. Dad gently takes him away out of sight of the ewe and skins him. I watch in awe. He takes the newborn living lamb and rubs his face and head with the wool of the dead lamb to transfer the scent. Then he pokes the lambs slimy head through the neck hole and the feet through holes where the legs of the dead lamb once were. He’s fashioned a little coat. He gently places the lamb in his new coat by the anxious ewe. She sniffs at him, pokes him. The lamb gets up and staggers to to her for a feed.  After a while of adjustment, the ewe is mothering him.

I learned to learn by being beside him. I believe this context is where my physical art making skills come from – picking up materials, working with them, building, testing, experimenting, blended with knowledge of the chemical nature of things. This learning is situational, needs based, at times geo-located, relevant and timely. It is also very, very old.

45 generations ago, my father’s ancestors were moving across Yorkshire and settling into the districts of Westmorland and Cumbria. They brought their sheep knowledge and mingled it with the new people and geography. Some 41 generations later, two descendants took that knowledge and some sheep to New Zealand. James Rebanks, in his book “The Shepherds Life”, describes how he could stand on a fell and have a conversation about farming with a viking and it’s essence wouldn’t have changed. I can safely vouch that the farming practice in his valley of Cumbria is pretty much the same in Apiti, a hill country community, nestled under the Ruahine Range of the Central North Island of New Zealand where my family went to farm.  Knowledge is passed on, and adapts to new geography and times.

In the 1880s in New Zealand, my mother’s great grandfather noted, after years of setting up schools for Māori and observing learners, that the learning capabilities of Māori outstripped Pakeha (settlers) by a long way. Settlers had come, in many cases, from poor factory towns, where any learning was limited to increasing their performance at a finite set of factory tasks. Meanwhile, Māori knew the weather, the movements of stars and the moon, tides, bird life, ecosystems, hunting, gardening, housing and building. Māori were the inventors of trench warfare, which is lethal in the bush, but possibly not so on the Somme. Formal institutional learning was oral and memory based, using narrative, music, rhythm and movement. Some single holders of genealogical knowledge for a family or tribe could recite 1000 names or more.

Formal Learning and Grassroots Response to Need

New formal learning in a colonised country meant for many Māori that this kind of learner was forced, like square pegs in a round hole, to learn de-contextualied ideas and a second language using materials that told of things that had little to do with their lives. It was alienating, abstracted and left many marginalized, as Silvia Ashton-Warner found when she was teaching in the 1960s in a small rural New Zealand community. Ashton-Warner developed the idea of organic reading, where the words that children learned were the key words that described their realities. She often started with the words about what they were frightened of. From there, they constructed their own stories to be read over and over again. They were motivated by the thought that these squiggles and sounds could describe such impacting experiences of their world.

Image from Teacher by Sylvia Ashton-Warner Simon an Schuster edition 1963

Image from Teacher by Sylvia Ashton-Warner Simon an Schuster edition 1963

Image from Teacher by Sylvia Ashton-Warner Simon an Schuster edition 1963

Image from Teacher by Sylvia Ashton-Warner Simon an Schuster edition 1963

Images: Examples of children’s slate boards and the children at the Pa, from “Teacher” by Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Simon and Schuster edition 1963.

This old learning and my father’s experience is situational, geo-located, social, responsive, agile, not always linear, it’s mobile, relevant and timely. If they didn’t know it, they had the agility to get in there and find out quick, test, adjust, try again. And it sounds very much like the kind of learning and learner we are looking for today. Perhaps we need to spend more time with our farmers.

Julian Stodd of SeaSalt Learning, an e-learning and mobile learning specialist, on the nature of learning today:

The world is owned by agile learners- it is less about what you know and more about your ability to find things out and create meaning from it fast.

About the author Emma Louise Pratt

Emma Louise Pratt studied at Ilam School of Fine Art, Canterbury University, New Zealand. She has been the runner up in the Molly Morpeth Canaday Award (2005), and a finalist in the Norsewear Award (2007) in New Zealand and finalist in the Focus Abengoa International Painting Prize, Spain in 2014. Emma is known for her landscape based work where she explores specific landscapes that convey significance to her either for their historical or personal importance, serving as they always have, as a personal travel map.

All posts by Emma Louise Pratt →

One Comment

  1. […] autonomy, learning ownership, motivation etc. etc.  My first encounter of it was in the book “Teacher” by Sylvia Ashton Warner who, the 1960s in the remote and empoverished settlements up the Whanganui River of Aotearoa New […]


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