Inspiring learning or learning inspiration?
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*
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! ;-)
* – 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 ;-)