Home > Education > Inspiring learning or learning inspiration?

Inspiring learning or learning inspiration?

November 21, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Learning to unlearn is the highest form of learning. ~ Buddhist proverb

At its very core, education is an innate expression of curiosity; a longing to understand and be part of the world; a manifestation of purpose and passion that every person carries within them. ~ Carey Elizabeth Smith, Co-Director of the Body Therapy Institute*

Image credit: IQ Matrix

I’ve been troubled lately with the question “How do we learn?” I don’t mean specifically  how kids learn in school, or how adults learn at a new job position… I’m rather curious how do we learn anything in general!

You’re all probably familiar with various forms of learning: from associative learning — like the famous classical conditioning experiment Ivan Pavlov did with dogs; to learning by repetition — as a form of conscious memorization, of which rote learning is the most infamous. As we know, some of these kinds or learning are possible only in humans, while others are nobrainers to certain animals and there’s nothing uniquely human about them. Still, we are unique among the animals as our capacity for learning seems to be virtually unlimited. Why is this so?

In pondering this, I ran into further questions that may help us get to the actual answer. Interestingly, those questions popped in my head as I was watching the TEDxYouthDay programs today, celebrating the Universal Children’s Day I wrote about recently ;-)

The first important distinction between humans and the rest of the animals is our capacity for what we call active learning — when we’re participating in a discussion, giving a talk, doing a dramatic presentation, simulating the real experience or simply doing the real thing (learning through experience).

Most animals are only capable of passive learning — through habituation, sensitization, or conditioning and other forms of associative learning they are able to adjust their behavior or response to a certain stimuli. Some mammals and birds, and maybe few other species may also practice a limited form of active learning, but the capacity in humans is far larger than in any other species. Is it possible that we have somehow acquired the capacity for active learning as part of our evolution?

The question that lead me to this article is “Should we blame our capacity for inspiration — and the associated feelings of motivation and passion — for our capacity for active learning?” Which immediately pops up the follow-up question “What caused these feelings to develop in the first place?”

One underlying feeling that is commonly accompanying inspiration, motivation and passion is curiosity — and curiosity is commonly associated with learning! But curiosity is most likely shared with many other species — just step into a wood with squirrels carrying a bag of nuts and you’ll see what I mean ;-) On the other side, we don’t really speak of inspiration, motivation and passion in other species — though one could argue predators have passion for their prey ;-)

Consider this: In people, curiosity may lead to inspiration, which in turn can lead to motivation and passion. Motivation and passion further lead to active learning, which can in turn feed back to the curiosity feeling, increasing its intensity. If this is true, such a positive feedback loop can be a hotbed for the evolution of everything we believe is unique to humans, like language, culture, maybe even consciousness — as many studies show that the kind of learning we call passive can happen without consciousness!

In animals, curiosity may lead to food, shelter or other needs being satisfied. But food and shelter do not necessarily lead to more curiosity. On the contrary, I believe that without the capacity for inspiration, satisfying the needs for food and shelter decreases the intensity of the curiosity as a sensible survival strategy. The problem with curiosity is that it carries risks — like meeting a predator behind that bush you’re curious enough to poke your head through!

If I am right, the ingenuity of the human evolution is in finding a way to increase curiosity — a costly endeavor considering the risks!

Once this happens, the positive feedback loop could quickly lead to intensified and more efficient learning — compared to before. And knowledge works wonders as a survival strategy! It actually can turn the cards and move the focus from survival to development, which is what our own history suggests happened to us.

The engineers among you are by now probably asking “If curiosity forms a positive feedback loop with learning, how do you make sure the loop doesn’t spiral out of control by leading to fearless humanoids that ignore the threat of predators, weather conditions, etc. and therefore risk quick extinction?” Something must have happened that let us survive long enough to ponder this question right at this moment!

It is a really good question and the answer probably contains some form of balance that does cost vs. benefit analysis for when to pull the lever on limiting curiosity beyond certain threshold. I would venture to suggest that one such lever is religion — which clearly has proven successful for the survival of humanity until recently — and leave it at that as this article is not about religion or even culture in general, it is about our capacity for learning!

Let’s pull back from history and evolution and think how profoundly important — if proven true! — the assertion that inspiration leads to active learning, which in turn sets us apart from the rest of the animal species is!

It would mean that we can’t improve learning without inspiration as we would be stuck with passive learning only, which is what the school system seems to have been limiting itself until recently.

It would also mean that no blocks should be put on curiosity! Doing so would limit the capacity for experiencing inspiration, e.g. damaging efforts to develop an inspiring curriculum and provide passionate teachers to students.

It would mean that learning to ask questions and identify problems is THE most important kind of knowledge we should all strive for!

It would mean that learning can happen anywhere where two or more people meet and share ideas, as long as we help them remove the inhibitions on their curiosity and encourage them to show the passion so they can inspire others!

For all of us, — that have learned to suppress our curiosity and follow the rules as set by society, — that are thinking that learning something new is a waste of time as we can’t possibly be successful in it because we left school ages ago and going back to school now is too late, — that are thinking that success requires talent and genius instead of passion and motivation; — it is time we unlearn everything preventing us from dreaming again and let the people around us inspire us in learning fresh again!

By way of inspiration, I would like to invite you to see how inspired learning looks like by checking the experience at TEDxYouth@Amsterdam I watched on livecast last night. The audience was given a lesson in social networking in action using … a yarn! ;-)

Photo courtesy of @TEDxYouthAms (via Twitter) -- click the image to see a video of the action ;-)

* – Though the Body Therapy Institute is a school about massage, thus some may not consider it an authority on education in general, I found this definition of education very inspiring and relevant to my article ;-)

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  1. November 29, 2010 at 9:50 am | #1

    Ha ha, you crack me up with the whole dolphin communication thing Kima..! I think the order in which your posts are falling in, shows how your thought process is.. – Esp, this particular Social networking segment.. Discussions about social media seem to be as interesting as our addictions to it.. :) Sorry, I am working reverse chronologically after getting back, and so, I checked your latest post and then here I am ;)
    Have a great week ahead!

    • November 29, 2010 at 10:57 pm | #2

      Thanks Rachana!

      as you know by now, I like to speculate and ask questions on my blog ;-) … some of the stuff I write is a bit metaphorical with a hope to get people thinking about the questions being asked … this is one of those posts … I knew you of all people would appreciate the style! ;-) [side note: I read your last post about the soldiers http://aconnectiontomyheart.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/bring-the-boys-back-home-2/ and need to re-read it again before offering my two cents, but I found it really amusing that you decided to delineate the fiction from reality for the sake of your readers's emotional health ;-)]

      It is funny that you can see connectedness between my posts as I often don’t see it myself when writing, but only later does my brain tell me that “I must have thought it out like that from the start” … what great liars and storytellers our brains are! ;-)

      /Kima

      • December 10, 2010 at 5:47 am | #3

        Thanks Kima, I am frustrated when some things are time bound and lose their significance as time passes.. Case in point: I would have felt super happy if I had read your comment last week, of course I am now too, but I don’t know how I missed it! I thought I had even come back to check!! I sometimes dissapoint myself :D
        P.S: Thanks for reading the “Soldiers” post and your invaluable feedback!!

        • December 10, 2010 at 6:30 pm | #4

          It’s that liar brain again … making you think you’ve done something you didn’t … shame on it ;-)

          Never mind busy … just keep on doing what you like whenever you have time! … you should see me in the train to work how I stubbornly try to read even if there’s no room and the guy in front of me hates me for sticking a book under his nose while someone shoves him in his back trying to get a better position ;-)

  2. November 26, 2010 at 12:00 am | #5

    For those of you, who are busy working and studying, do not forget to exercise. You can choose what sport you like. From tennis, golf, football or boxing, or whatever, the important you try to do sports for a moment. Many people would love exercise, one of them doing physical fitness, which is based ”mens sana in corpore Sano “which means in a healthy body there is a strong soul. Sports, physical fitness is a sport which is done by a few basic ideas, namely on diet, fitness, and body shaping.

    • November 26, 2010 at 10:25 pm | #6

      Being and advert this ended up in spam but I was amused that someone thought my readers would need a lesson how to keep fit so I couldn’t resist fishing it out ;-)

  3. November 22, 2010 at 8:42 pm | #7

    If active and passive learning are a significant difference between human and animal, I would like to consider myself half human :(

    Is it our capacity to communicate in the mode of speech and language that has lead to active learning??

    I like how there is talk about connecting back to real people while new social networking gimmicks are getting shoved down our throats..! Cant wait to see our future unravel..

    BTW, I just realized that you have changed your side bar significantly.. Looks great and more personable!!

    • November 22, 2010 at 11:18 pm | #8

      “I would like to consider myself half human” Are you saying you’re not curious? Somehow I don’t believe you ;-)

      Well, you know my opinion around the damage inflicted on kids by the current school system … it focuses way too much on passive learning! … instead of inspiring learning it works to suppress curiosity by serving ready answers instead of motivating students to look for problems

      But we humans are a curious lot (pun intended) and no matter whether it is religion, ill-defined education or something else, nothing can stop us from inspiring each other … I really like that we are exposed to social media in my lifetime as the experience offers great insight into who we really are!

      It takes a slap in the face to realize you need meaningful interactions with real people and you depend on hearing their stories … social media is doing just that because of its addictive power … as with every addiction, at a certain point it is doomed to spiral out of control and those that manage to survive the withdrawal will come out with new insights into the human psychology … at least I speculate they will ;-)

      On the other hand, I believe curiosity and therefore inspiration are addictive too … my speculation with this article was that the combination of the two turned the addictive power on … unfortunately something else happened that prevented us from experiencing the high fully … if I am right and if we can remove the breaks there is of course a risk the addiction will spiral out of control … but somehow I doubt anyone would want to get off of it ;-)

      Maybe that is what the future evolution of humanity will lead to … a super-connected network of people that thrive on engaging with their community and fostering empathy, compassion, curiosity…?

      I wanted to make a quick comment but it turned into a lengthy reply ;-) … I have to answer this one, though: “Is it our capacity to communicate in the mode of speech and language that has lead to active learning??”

      Some animals have capacity for speech and even language, so this is not unique to people … I visited the Vancouver Aquarium a week ago and watched the dolphin show … my, those dolphins were surely communicating with each other and I couldn’t but feel their language was quite rich! … something else must have boosted the language in humans and exploded our communication capacity … I wonder if one could teach dolphins inspiration to test my hypothesis ;-)

      Thanks Rachana for regularly reading my posts and asking great questions or providing valuable feedback … I am glad you found the redesigned sidebar personable as that was one of my intentions with it!

      I hope you enjoy the holiday with your family!

  1. November 21, 2010 at 1:58 am | #1
  2. December 8, 2010 at 12:48 pm | #2
  3. March 23, 2011 at 10:51 pm | #3

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