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Learning is not so much about being taught, as it is the consequence of having to think something out for yourself. As such, learning is a reflective activity. By drawing upon our past experiences to understand and evaluate new ideas we are able to shape future actions and formulate new concepts. Learning is not only complex, but messy, frequently intuitive and very rarely simply linear or logical.
The process of learning is as old as life itself. It has passed from simple self-organisation to a collaborative, social, problem-solving activity much dependent on talk, practical involvement and experimentation. Formal schooling ─ dependent as it is on instruction which is based around simulated reality ─ is so recent, (five or six generations in most cases) that it is unlikely to have changed or modified any of our inherited predispositions to learn in the ways that our ancient ancestors found so useful.
The brain takes most seriously those things that matter to its own well-being. Our brains are old hands at dealing with information over-load. The brain is primed to notice any information that might have a ‘life or death’ significance, and instantly our entire nervous system goes into the highest state of alertness. We act involuntarily. Later you may recall such an experience as if, for that split second, time seemed to stand so still that you were able to work out carefully exactly what you had to do to save yourself. For most of the time, however, the brain is simply able to discard most of the million or so bits of information it receives every second as worthless. A tiny fraction of that information the brain may well file away according to one’s own particular preferences; a young football fan will remember every detail of that Saturday’s football fixtures, but nothing of the rest of the news, and his mind will be a complete blank as far as his chemistry homework is concerned.
Learning is, for the brain, what strong vigorous exercise is to the athlete ─ it strengthens the brain’s neural networks, and makes cognitive processes far more effective. The broader and more diverse the experiences when very young, the greater are the chances that, later in life, the individual will be able to handle open, ambiguous, uncertain and novel situations. The ‘culture’ that a baby observes in the conversations of adults helps the developing child to shape the pattern of mental connections, or synapses, between different nerve cells in its own brain. Those nerve cells that are active, or fire, simultaneously (such as when engaging in a task) are more likely to fire together in the future (the basis of learning and memory). Babies have the structures for this present at birth, but need a range of stimuli to help mould and perfect the finished products.
Good as they are, our natural predispositions to learn are no longer adequate to the needs of our present world; ways have to be found of extending our natural abilities so that they go ‘beyond what comes naturally’. This is the central issue that faces educationalists everywhere. It is called metacognition; the ability to think about your own thinking, so as to develop skills that are genuinely transferable and not tied to a single body of knowledge so they can be applied in different settings. In a world of continuous change it is this reflective intelligence that becomes ever more important ─ the ability to ‘think’ yourself around a problem.
It has been on the restless, creative energy of each new generation that society has been dependent for its progress, and for the solution to problems that earlier generations had thought intractable. What is needed now, more than ever before, is ‘nous’; or gumption, in other words, good old-fashioned common sense. These are the reflective capacities that help unseat old assumptions, and set out new possibilities. These are the essential abilities necessary to face a world of change.
Learning is an immensely complex business that educationalists seek to simplify and codify at society’s peril. To put faith in a highly directive, prescriptive curriculum is to so ‘go against the grain of the brain’1, that it will inhibit creativity and enterprise… the very skills needed in the complex, diversity of society for which we need to prepare our children.
Thesis 7: 24th August 2006