Imagine you are conducting a street quiz and you ask everybody the question: how do humans learn? No doubt lots of people would say “they go to school”, but if you were to push them further and say: “not where do they go to learn, but how do they actually learn?”, you’d probably get some mumblings about listening to teachers, or reading books, and a lot of blank looking expressions as people realise that they can’t actually answer that question very coherently. Most people have never really even thought about how humans actually learn, and yet surely this should be the key driver of everything education-related?
Think how much time and money is spent on education around the world. Think how many parents make decisions about where to send their children to get educated, and what subjects they should study. Think how many schools supposedly “measure” learning with standardised tests and exams. All of these things happen and are accepted as rational without anyone having a very clear idea of how humans actually learn. Are we actually measuring learning at all? Are schools really enabling learning? Are the curriculums we use the most appropriate learning enablers available? We don't really know because we haven't understood the fundamental driver of learning.
What if a lot of the time and money spent on choosing schools and educating children is actually being wasted? Many educators would agree that a significant portion of the time and money spent on educating children is not resulting in effective or valuable learning at all. Hence the meme: “I said I taught this to the children, I didn’t say they actually learned it”.
As someone who has been fascinated by the subject of education for many years, I have witnessed repeatedly how ignorant most people are about how humans actually learn, and how many bad decisions based on incorrect assumptions are made by parents, educators, and even the children themselves, as a result.
Thinking strategically about education, the answer to the question of how humans learn should be the fundamental driver of all decisions made and actions taken in this field. What humans need to learn, and who can best support them to learn this, should only be secondary considerations after that. Most parents focus on choosing schools and/or curriculums for their children without giving the question of how their child actually learns a moment’s thought. If how humans learn was actually understood, I am sure that a lot of people would make their education decisions very differently.
THE HUMAN LEARNING PRINCIPLE
How do humans learn to walk? How do we learn to talk? Most humans master these skills and millions of others without stepping foot into school, so clearly school is not a pre-requisite for human learning at all. At best schools can be places that catalyse children’s curiosity and enthusiasm to know stuff, at worst they actually destroy curiosity by forcing children to focus on things that don’t interest them and learn in ways that don’t make sense to them.
I spent several years researching and pondering the fundamental nature of the organism called “human being”, and the subject of how the human organism acquires understanding. I explored many education philosophies in depth, including many of the alternative approaches to education. In particular I explored natural learning and child-centred learning and contemplated why these approaches seem to be so effective as learning enablers. Based on this research and thinking, I defined what I now call THE HUMAN LEARNING PRINCIPLE. This principle is the fundamental driver of all human learning.
I remember the wonder and amazement that I felt when I discovered that all of the infinitely diverse water systems in the world have emerged as a result of water follow the one simple principle of always seeking its own level. Water follows this simple pattern 100% of the time – it is the key or fundamental driver of all water molecules’ behaviour. I spent a long time pondering what the human equivalent of this simple pattern is, and eventually concluded that the key driver of all human beings is this: Every human being is in an ongoing and never-ending process of self-constructing his or her own unique understanding and meaning from all of the information and experiences they are exposed to (including unconsciously).
No matter how elaborate the pedagogical design, or how seemingly creative the lesson, at the end of the day each human being receiving that lesson will always and only self-construct their own meaning from all the information and stimuli that they are exposed to. No teacher can ever predict the exact learning (if any) that will emerge as a result of a given learning catalyst. Only the learner knows the meaning that he or she has assigned to that information, and what other information he or she has combined it with in order to reach the understanding he or she has reached. Every single person combines all of the inputs they receive in their own completely unique and individual way to construct their own understanding. This is 100% true, 100% of the time. This is THE HUMAN LEARNING PRINCIPLE.
The Human Learning Principle: Every person self-constructs their own unique meaning from all that they subjectively experience, both consciously and unconsciously.
The Human Learning Principle is THE simple pattern that all humans follow ALL THE TIME in order to construct their understanding of the world they live in (To put this another way, this is how they learn). Recognising this as the key driver of all human learning should transform education completely. This explains why child-centred learning environments are more effective than the one-size-fits-all models that leave so many children feeling bored and stupid (the meaning they are being forced to construct has been defined and assembled by others who may, or may not, think or construct meaning like they do). Child-centred models at least recognise the subjective nature of all learning. It also explains why all teaching is only ever a potential catalyst to learning, and does not definitely result in learning in and of itself. And it explains why play is such an effective learning method – when a child plays they remain open to all of the stimuli in their world (sights, sounds, tastes, smells, feelings, relationships between things, the unseen, and a million other unmeasurable things), which they combine in their own unique way to create greater understanding of their world. This is as true for adults as for children.
Research has shown that the average human is exposed to millions of potential stimuli at any one time – their conscious minds filter out many of these stimuli to prevent them from becoming overwhelmed, but those stimuli are always potentially available for each person’s self-construction of meaning, and usually the teacher doesn’t have a clue what the student is focused on as a significant building block in his or her construction of meaning at that moment. The teacher might be teaching a science class, but the student notices how the teacher is dressed and gets an idea for an outfit they want to make, or they notice the teacher’s posture and decide they want to improve their own, or they like or dislike the tone of the teacher's voice, or they get the feeling the teacher doesn't like them and this feeling colours what they hear, or they notice a wasp building a nest above the teacher’s head and this leads them to think about insects, or building techniques, or they have a tune in their head that they are concentrating on and don’t notice any of the classroom stimuli at all, or maybe (to take this example to the nth degree) they are focused on the disincarnate beings floating around the classroom that nobody else can even see.
We have created a whole industry based on an extremely limited understanding of how humans learn, and as a result we have missed all of the infinite beauty and potential in human learning, and subjected many children to boredom and misery as a result.
Understanding the human learning principle explains how so many of the recognised geniuses of our culture figured out their genius ideas – they didn’t learn the idea – they combined an infinitely wide range of stimuli that they were exposed to, to self-construct an original idea that made logical sense to others when they shared it. This is what it means to be a human. We are capable of incredibly complex multi-sensory reasoning and original thinking, but this is so often disabled by the environments in which we learn, what we are forced to learn, and how our learning is measured. With the understanding that all learning is self-constructed and subjective, we need to radically shift the ways that we catalyse learning. It is time for an education evolution.
This blog is dedicated to sharing my thoughts about education with a wider audience than the inside of my brain. I have spent 11 years deeply immersed in this field: pondering, learning from experience, reflecting, contemplating, and making connections across all of the subjects that I am interested in. I have a lot to say about how education needs to change, and I think there are many who will find my thoughts interesting.
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