Connecting the Known and the New

Several years ago, I defined learning as “a reflective activity that enables the learner to draw upon previous experience to understand and evaluate the present, so as to shape future action and formulate new knowledge” (Learning Makes Sense, 1994). Learning is about making connections between the known and the new. It is a highly reflective activity involving personal and continuous improvement.

Are our schools places that encourage reflection? Do young minds formulate hypotheses that link a study of history with the issues of global warming or economic instability? Because that is what the world will need. Powerful, connected thinking. If not, we will have failed disastrously. That’s why I entitled my speech “Battery Hens, or Free Range Chickens?” Cleverness will never be enough – our world needs creativity, and the ability to think holistically and ethically.

“The test of a successful education is not the amount of knowledge that a pupil takes away from a school, but his appetite to know and his capacity to learn. If the school sends out children with the desire for knowledge and some idea of how to acquire and use it, it will have done its work. Too many leave school with the appetite killed and the mind loaded with undigested lumps of information. The good schoolmaster is known by the number of valuable subjects he declines to teach” (Sir Richard Livingston, The Future in Education, 1941).

These thoughts illustrate the historic tension – is education about content or process? The pendulum has been swinging rapidly from side to side. Political positions continue to be staked out. But neither polarity is good enough.

The challenge is to better understand metacognition – how we can make thinking visible and consciously direct our multiple learning strategies. This will give us the key to transform education. We really can learn how to learn, with a clarity that was not possible even five years ago.

Learning How to Learn

To achieve this synthesis, we have to study five key issues:

  1. The biological nature of learning
    • the brain of the developing fetus
    • the brain of the young child
    • the brain of the adolescent
    • brain plasticity
  2. The science of the learning
  3. Construction of knowledge
  4. The impact of new technology
  5. The nature of home and community.

Each issue is highly significant, but only when we consider them all do we find the design brief for a new model of learning. The future belongs to those countries first able to synthesize findings from these disparate subjects. Therein lies the opportunity for genuine innovation.

Pregnancy and the Developing Brain

“There is no period of parenthood with a more direct and formative effect on the child’s developing brain, than the nine months of pregnancy leading to the birth of a full term baby” (Marion Diamond & Janet Hopson (1998), The Magic Trees of the Mind).

A child’s brain is most malleable to external influence during the last three months of pregnancy. Maternal well-being in the third trimester influences the way the neurons begin to work together in the fetus more profoundly than at any other stage in life. The mother who becomes over-stressed risks developing a chain reaction of micro-chemical imbalances that could inhibit a child’s neural development in ways that require months of expensive schooling to compensate later.

The argument about breast-feeding producing a greater range of essential nutrients is well-known. Far more significant may be the baby’s emotional need for long periods of mother-baby contact to trigger early brain growth. Not for nothing do the young baby’s eyes first come to focus at 13 inches – the normal distance between a baby at the breast and a mother’s eyes. Emotional well-being may be more important in developing general intelligence than early intellectual precocity.

The clearest operation of predispositions is in language development. Every human baby is born with the ability to form basic grammar and word sequencing, and to make about a hundred structured sounds, which, in various combinations, can be used to create every letter in each of the earth’s existing 6,000 languages. Learning language, a child subconsciously draws upon some 60 of those structured phonemes. And the brain is very economic. Those phonemes not needed are “pruned” as early as the age of four, and pruning is completed by the age of six or seven. That’s why some people are unable to reproduce certain sounds in another language.

Learning is a delicate balance between genetics and the environment. If we are to develop a science of learning, we have to understand both better.

We are finding molecular answers to things that happen in the brain. By failing to provide young children with supportive and nurturing enviromnents in which they can develop their predispositions toward social, collaborative and team-building skills, young children’s brains react with astounding speed and efficiency to the violent world they experience around them, rewiring trillions of brain cells that literally create the chemical pathways for aggression. Aggression, rather than conciliation, becomes the action of first response. (Ronald Kotulak (1996), Inside the Brain).