Why learning is hard

If you think about education for long enough, one idea is inevitable. You will notice children learn with ease in their everyday lives. For instance, they learn the complicated task of speaking and understanding their native language without anything that we might regard as direct teaching.

If you wanted to teach a child this skill then it’s hard to imagine where you would start. Would there be lessons in the idea that a ‘ck’ sound is made by the back of the tongue against the roof of the mouth and a ‘t’ sound is made by the front of the tongue? It feels like a strange idea because it would be redundant.

Yet when it comes to school, learning seems to be such hard work. Students tend to need teachers to motivate them, either through traditional rewards and sanctions or by attempts at making the content more fun.

An obvious conclusion that you might draw from this contrast is that perhaps we should try to make school more natural. Natural is good. Perhaps it is our pressured, artificial, factory model of schooling that evaporates all the joy out of learning? Perhaps children should learn maths in the forest whilst playing with sticks or something?

Many reformers have followed this line of thought throughout history; figures including Rousseau and Herbert Spencer. The most up-to-date version is embodied by constructivist approaches to teaching which derive from Jerome Bruner’s work on discovery learning in the 1960s. The idea is to make learning more natural, more implicit, more discovery-orientated so that it mirrors the way that children learn to speak. We are told to avoid explicitly teaching content; we should abandon –  or at least minimise – the process of simply telling students things.

But there’s a problem. Discovery learning has been exposed to modern research techniques and the results aren’t promising. Pure discovery methods are an abject failure. Sometimes, with plenty of guidance and a committed team of researchers, implicit methods generate a positive effect but the size of this effect is underwhelming. In general, the empirical evidence favours highly explicit approaches to teaching, where students are told the objectives, new content is fully explained and the teacher asks lots of questions to check for understanding.

Why is this?

The solution to this conundrum might lie in a theory developed by evolutionary psychologist, David C. Geary. He suggests that there are two kinds of information that we can learn. Biologically primary information is knowledge that we have evolved to acquire whereas biologically secondary information has not been subject to evolution in this way.

A good example of this difference is the difference between speaking and writing. Humans have been speaking to each other for a very long time. It’s hard to tell exactly when this capacity evolved but it is likely to go back at least few hundred thousand years. This is long enough to be affected by evolution. Individuals who picked-up language more quickly than others would have been at an advantage. So natural selection might have driven the evolution of a ‘module’ of mental processes optimised for language learning.

Yet writing only dates back a few thousand years. This means it’s much more recent; it’s been around for roughly a hundredth of the time that speaking has been around. This is far too short to have been substantially influenced by evolution. Although individuals may gain an advantage from being able to write, changes to brain structure due to writing are likely to be relatively minor (so far) compared to those driven by speaking.

This explains why learning to write is much more laborious than learning to speak. The module devoted to picking-up language effectively enables language learning to bypass the working memory constraints that affect biologically secondary knowledge. With writing, we can draw upon some of our speaking circuitry but it’s not sufficient. And so we have to proceed in small, discrete steps that are capable of being processed in working memory. This isn’t always fun and this is why we find that students need external factors to motivate them.

If Geary is correct then the pursuit of a more natural way of learning writing, maths or science is a unicorn hunt.

Why learning is hard

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Why learning is hard

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9 Comments on “Why learning is hard”

  1. Gisbert van Ginkel says:

    Purely from personal anecdote: sometimes kids do seem to need instruction on pronouncing sounds. Like learning to produce a rolling ‘rrr’ sound ( in Dutch). I remember trying to explain to my daughter how to do it. But hard to do.

  2. The purpose of formal schooling is to help students learn that which is *not* learned through easily and naturally through innate processes.

    Which does not explain, of course, why contemporary educational reformers are trying to reinvent school as a place where that natural, innate learning process is duplicated and all else discarded. How’s that going for ya? The results have been evident for a long time.

  3. Iain Murphy says:

    Think you need to be careful with you examples here Greg. Communication can be seen as primary but that isn’t language.

    Look how teenagers create there own languages before shifting back to the social norms. They are rejecting, exploring and learning language norms in an organic way, rather than being taught.

    In the same way most people can find an unknown number without ever reverting to algebraic norms. The algebra is the language of Mathematics but isn’t required to solve the problem. It is taught so people can understand each other better. Solving the problem could be seen as primary and maths teaching as secondary.

    I think you also need to examine time as a factor in this. Society puts a lot of pressure on child development yet most child psychologists will say “children will talk when they are ready” so give them time and we see most (cognitive damage aside) developing this skill. Yet this doesn’t work in a classroom when the test is in x weeks (yep used algebra there, hehe) and we require them to know y amount (algebra again). So another model is required that isn’t dependent on the students natural learning rate.

    This is where constructive approach falls down, when a set amount of time is required to measure success and that success is explicit (a correct answer or not). If the assessment is based on the process (similar to a performance review) the constructivist can be very powerful. If there is a time element but not an explicit answer than a mixture of both (I like to think of this as blended learning or great PBL) will be needed.

    Just my thoughts, but it sounds like a great idea you are developing here Greg.

  4. Stan says:

    When comparing what children learn naturally with other things it is also worth noting the relative utility. Learning the first words – often some form of mummy, daddy, more and no is immediately of great use to a child. Learning to read is also very useful for a child who has learned to enjoy written fiction through someone else reading it to them. You only have to look at the effort required to find ways to make math relevant to children to see there is a massive difference in the natural utility of math for them.

    On the evolution item you might also consider how much math has been used by the general population throughout history. Europeans only had Arabic numerals and for a very limited subset of the population for about a thousand years.

  5. […] this poster in this blogpost by Greg Ashman and it sums up quit nicely why people who think it’s only about ‘natural […]


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