This Paper has been written in response to an increasing concern that formal education, especially at the secondary level, is failing to meet the needs and expectations of young people for an appropriate induction into adult life and responsibilities. This is a problem apparently common to many of the developed countries. This paper will argue that a better appreciation of the biological processes involved in human learning, and the way these interact with cultural practices, could provide the theoretical basis for a complete transformation of formal educational structures.
An analogy may help to explain this. Humans have been using their brains to think, and their stomachs to digest food, since the beginning of human times; both processes appear so normal that they are taken for granted. However in the past fifty years medical sciences have learned so much about the human digestive system, and the significance of different kinds of food to lifestyles, that most people are living longer – not through drugs but simply through treating their bodies more sensibly. In the past ten to fifteen years biomedical discoveries about the brain and how it works, how it relates to its present and inherited environments, and the way it changes at key stages in the human life cycle, could do for human learning what the past two to three generations have done for physical well being.
It could do this not through the application of expensive new institutional arrangements, but simply by creating systems of learning that go more effectively with “the grain of the brain.” Critical to this “grain” is a transformed understanding of adolescence as an essential evolutionary adaptation of great value, rather than a social construct associated with the apparent trauma and tension of the teenage experience. However, just as better bodily health has come through many sensible day-to-day adjustments to life styles, rather than through an over dependence on medicine, so improvements in the opportunity to use “the grain” of our brain more effectively will probably necessitate more emphasis on the way society does things informally from day-to-day, rather than any extended institutional arrangements for schooling.
To those readers unfamiliar with the basic tenets of evolution, or whose understanding of psychology largely predates the 1980’s, much of the explanation that follows in this Paper will seem novel, maybe unsettling, or even wildly speculative. Rather than learning being primarily dependent on external influences, which was the legacy of the Behaviourists until well into the 1970’s, we now know that “the complexities of our minds and bodies witness a long history of subtle adaptations to the nature of the world. Human beings, with all their likes and dislikes, their senses and sensibilities, did not fall ready-made from the sky, nor were they born with minds and bodies that bear no imprint of the history of their species. Many of our abilities and susceptibilities are specific adaptations to ancient environmental problems… (Barrow, 1995).” Chief of those abilities and susceptibilities is the human capacity to learn.
Some Important Definitions
Before setting out an explanation as to why the proposition that Adolescence is a biological state essential to human survival, rather than a recent social construct (teenagers), it is necessary to define certain terms.
Synthesis is the drawing together of ideas from different fields of study. It is “the coherent whole that results is considered to show the truth more completely than would a mere collection of the parts” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Synthesis is the opposite of the dominant academic methodology of western society, namely Reductionism, which is the solution of a problem by reducing every issue to its separate parts.
Adolescence; the period of transition between childhood and adulthood; a stressful and turbulent period of sexual, physical and psychological change; the development of a mature set of values and responsible self-direction, and the breaking of close emotional ties to parents. (A contemporary observation; “the (adolescent) has no defined role of his own in society, but is caught in the ambiguous overlap between the reasonably defined roles of childhood, and adulthood. Sometimes treated as a child, sometimes expected to be an adult, s/he is uncertain how to behave. Also society serves to frustrate important psychological needs of the young person (e.g. sex and the desire for independence) thus generating aggression, or other reactions.”
Evolution; “a change from a less coherent form to a more coherent form… from the lowest living forms upwards, the degree of development is marked by the degree to which the several parts constitute a cooperative assemblage”, explained Herbert Spencer (1884) seeking to define more clearly Darwin’s concept of transmutation (evolution) as a continuous process of gradual change from a simple into a more complex form.
Adaptation; a change by which an organism becomes better suited to its environment, and which becomes permanently “encased” in the organism’s new form so as to perpetuate the advantage.
Natural selection; “If within a species there is variation among individuals in their hereditary traits, and some traits are more conducive to survival and reproduction than others, then those traits will obviously become more wide spread within the population. The result will be that the species aggregate pool of heritable traits changes”, Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859.
Critical Point; a stage in the transition from one state to another which, if missed, prevents the transition from being fully completed and the organism never reaches its optimum state.
History; the past considered as a whole; historical interpretation – a description of events or propositions set in the context of the social/philosophical ideas prevalent at the time..
Learning, Education and Schooling; Learning; the process by which an individual uses new information to improve on its earlier understanding, so as to make ever wiser judgements and so improve its chances of survival; Education; the conscious provision of opportunities and means of encouragement to transmit knowledge, and the lessons gained from experience, from an older to a younger generation; Schooling; a system of recent origin designed to formally transmit knowledge, expertise and skills to a group of young people under the institutional control of a teacher acting on behalf of the greater community.
Aberration; variously described as either a “wandering of the intellect”, or a “deviation from the normal type.” In the study of optics an aberration means the non-convergence of rays of light. (e.g. all the light you need is there, but it does not converge, and therefore you cannot actually see the picture); a development that departs, potentially disastrously, from previous practice.
Intuition; a non sequential non linear nor necessarily logical way of thought, often arising from unconscious perceptions; “an original, independent source of knowledge… designed to account for just those kinds of knowledge that other sources do not provide” (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
Teenager; a term first used in America between 1935-1940 to describe someone who was no longer a child but not yet employed in serious adult activity. First recorded in the Oxford Dictionary in 1954.
Section One. Where the current theories of learning have come from, and why modern society so often confuses schooling with learning.
Since the beginning of recorded history philosophers, observing the human condition, have noted many of the complexities (the “messiness”) of human learning. Confucius observed two and a half thousand years ago; “Tell me and I forget / show me and I remember / let me do and I understand.” Sometime later the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes, bemoaning the production of still more books, lamented that “much study wearies the mind.” St Augustine in the sixth century commented wryly “I learnt most not from those who taught me, but from those who talked with me.”
Fearful of what he saw as the weakness of the human spirit if it became too involved in practical, earthly and passionate affairs, the influential Elizabethan academic, Roger Ascham, argued in 1570 in his vastly influential book, “The Scholemaster”, that one year of study from a book was worth more than twenty years of learning from experience. Such academics saw justification for this in the earlier classical teaching of Plato for the control that this gave them over what their students learnt. Plato had argued that mankind could be divided into three groups according to whether they had gold, silver or iron in their constitutions – those with gold being the leaders, those with silver being administrators and those with iron the labourers.
To the post Reformation philosophers, as well as later school teachers, academic study was the means of perpetuating those divisions for, so they argued, only youngsters destined to rule needed access to intellectual thought uncluttered by practical concerns. John Milton, the seventeenth century poet, almost succeeded in persuading Oliver Cromwell seventy years later to abolish the Elizabethan grammar schools and replace their overly classical view of education with what he called Academies. Milton envisaged an Academy in every town of the land providing tuition in both practical affairs, and in the matters of the mind. Most people, Milton believed passionately, needed both kinds of knowledge; “though a man should pride himself to have all the tongues that Babel cleft the world into, yet if he had not studied solid things in them as well as words and lexicons he were nothing so much to be esteemed a learned man as any yeoman or tradesman.” Cromwell died early and Milton could well have been executed when Charles II returned as king for English society of the 1660’s was too busy enjoying itself to have any interest whatever in such a proposal to transform society through education. Milton’s plan was stillborn, and schooling, so well described by Shakespeare in his picture of “the whining school-boy, with his satchel and shinning morning face, creeping like a snail, unwillingly to school” remained a minority activity for perhaps as few as five percent of the population of England until less than two hundred years ago.
Yet it was little more than two hundred years ago that England led the world into the first Industrial Revolution that was to transform forever the nature of society in its own, and so many other, countries. How did this happen in such an apparently “unschooled” country? The Industrial Revolution was certainly not led by the classically-trained grammar school students, but rather by that great mass of the population, ignored by Roger Ascham and his successors, who had learnt their skills through the continuous problem-solving culture that defined the relationship of apprentice to master craftsman. Learning on the job was what ninety-five percent of the population did up to the end of the eighteenth century. Evidence would suggest that while formal schooling was very much a minority activity, nevertheless the “unschooled” mass of the population was far from illiterate. Four out of five of the soldiers in Cromwell’s New Model Army could sign their names, and the booksellers of London sold sufficient books at the turn of the seventeenth century to average two books to every household in the country. There was much reading going on in England three hundred and more years ago – and as people read, so they talked and argued. Most people saw little reason for writing things down; why should they, for the people they needed to communicate with they saw every day? Half the people who paid good money to attend a Shakespearean tragedy in the London of the 1620s, it is estimated, could not read, but they were well able to understand the subtleties of human behaviour as portrayed on the stage. Book learning alone does not necessarily define a society able to think well.