The Lost Art of Learning


This is a very short post for a very BIG topic. Still, I hope to make 3 key points:

1. Learning has always been a natural one-on-one human process

2. Formal education, driven by the needs of the 19th century Industrial Revolution, disabled the natural learning process

3. Technology will take us back to where learning again is a natural one-on-one human process.

Learning as a Natural One-on-One Human Process

Millions of years ago we started out as learners. We know that we as a species — genus homo — began our evolutionary trek around two million years ago.  That makes us a relatively young species.  Current research by neuroscientists indicates that in the last two million years, the human brain has nearly tripled in mass, going from the 1¼-pound brain used by our Homo Habilis ancestors of 2,000,000 years ago, to the modern three-pounder that we Homo Sapiens carry between our ears. This entire transformation took place during the last 200,000 years, a blink in the evolutionary eye. Why?

When brains triple in size, they don’t just get bigger so they can store more memories, they actually gain new structures. The main reason our brains got so big is that they added a whole new part in the frontal lobe called the prefrontal cortex.

What amazing function did the brain need to perform to justify a complete redesign in a mere 200,000 years? What was so important to our survival as a species that we underwent a total overhaul that doubled the size of our brain in the mere blink of the evolutionary eye? The answer is learning.

The evolution of the human brain and our intelligence — called “encephalization” — was first driven by our need to learn the names of the ‘things’ in our concrete world. As we became more social, there was the need to learn how to live and work together. Or not. If that wasn’t enough brainfood to munch upon, we then evolved from the concrete to the abstract. Time. Space. Creation and more. So we grew a new part of the brain to handle the learning process.

What we needed to know and know-how to do, we learned directly from one another. Initially, before we invented words and language, we learned by mimicking. We watched someone and copied what they did – or did not – do. Then we invented language, so people no longer needed to be in the same place – or even time.  And so on …

We became Homo Sapiens because we had a better brain for learning, and because we could learn we became better Homo Sapiens. Round and round she goes. And after 200,000 or so years of intense learning and encephalization, we invented “school”.

Formal Education Disables Learning

War was the reason school was created. When you need to quickly teach a large number of men (back then) how to kill, school was a useful way to do it. Apparently in the 19th century, the Prussian army perfected the model. Later in that same century, when our consumer society needed to teach large numbers of men and women how to read, write, mass produce and buy things, the school model again was the answer. One problem with schools is that you take away the one-to-one learning and substitute one-to-many. What had been a very personal human interaction for 200,000 years – learning – became an impersonal, dehumanized distraction. What we really needed to learn disappeared into a curriculum dominated by ‘school boards’ and then handed to ‘teachers’. One-to-many.

Technology Will Take Us Back

The most profound impact of technology-driven online education will be to make face-to-face personal interaction as important as it was before the educational model of ‘school’ took over.

Think it through with me. Technology allows us now to flip a classroom. It enables the MOOC. It gave rise to the virtual online course. All instances where the lecture can be viewed anytime and anyplace. Classroom and teacher and student’s attending no longer required.

On the surface it seemed to displace the teacher or instructor even more. Until social learning began to emerge. Social learning that takes the teaching or instructing piece out of the education equation, and replaces it with mentoring or coaching. Teachers become coaches, instructor turn into mentors. Peer-to-peer networks are already starting to replace classes and courses. People are once again learning what they need from one another, instead of waiting to be told what to learn.

The lecture by teacher / instructor is becoming a canned anytime anyplace video learning tool similar to the etextbook. What used to be called “homework” has become the real work of learning when you get together with your learning mates, mentors or coaches. Real learning is moving back towards performance instead of remembering, regurgitating on a test and then forgetting. Back to one-on-one learning.

So here’s the point of this post:


One comment

  1. Jeff Walter · May 29, 2013

    Couldn’t agree more with your post. The sad reality is that most teacher, professors, and instructors spend most of their time and effort doing rote information dumps on their students and relatively little time helping students gain insights through one-on-one interactions.

    Technology enables students to consume the information without the instructor, thereby freeing the instructor to focus on the key insights.

    Unfortunately, I predict this is going to be a very disruptive experience for most teachers, professors and instructors.


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