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.
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