This article by John Abbott and Terence Ryan appeared in the Spring, 1999 issue of Education Canada. We thank all those who commented on our preliminary draft via email.

If young people are to be equipped effectively to meet the challenges of the 21st century it is surely prudent to seek out the very best understandings from current scientific research into the nature of how humans learn before considering further reform of the current system.

An analogy: we humans have been using our brains to think as long as we have been using our stomachs to nourish our bodies. We think we understand both processes well — they are both a matter of common sense. Yet, with the breakthroughs in the understanding of diet in the last 30 years, we are eating better and now live longer. This analogy is useful when we look at the brain and the opportunities that now present themselves to expand its capabilities. We are now in a position to understand the brain’s adaptive functions — learning — far better.

Researchers in the 1990s have uncovered a massive amount of evidence in the cognitive sciences, and in neurobiology, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, and even archaeology and anthropology which shows us in great detail how it is that humans actually learn. We now can see why learning is much more than just the flip-side of good teaching and schooling. Much of this evidence confirms what many people have always intuitively thought; learning involves far more than schooling. People are quick to recognise that many successful public figures were either school failures or removed themselves from formal schooling at an early date. Conversely many successful people in school seemed to have disappeared without a trace.

Why? Not surprisingly, long-term studies, such as exist, show that the greatest predictors of success at University level (I know of no research over a longer period of time) are: 1) the quantity and quality of the discussion in the child’s home before entering school; 2) the amount of independent reading regardless of subject matter which the child did for itself; 3) the clarity of value systems as understood and practised; 4) strong positive peer group pressure; and 5) the primary school. Still further down the list is the secondary school. Formal schooling is only part of what fires up the inquisitiveness in a child’s mind.

Children’s learning is the most natural and innate of human skills; humans are born to learn — that’s what we are better at than any other species. As a result of brain imaging technologies researchers are now able literally to watch learning occur as specific patterns of brain activity within the brain light up on a computer screen. The unprecedented clarity that this technology reveals about brain function is causing scientists to revise many of their earlier assumptions about how individual learning actually takes place. These findings have undermined the behaviourist metaphor of the brain as a blank slate waiting for information. The brain is now seen as a far more flexible, self-adjusting, biological metaphor — the brain as a living, unique, ever-changing organism that grows and reshapes itself in response to challenge, with elements that wither through lack of use. The mass of evidence that is now emerging about learning and brain development has spawned a movement towards educational practice which confirms that thinking skills (meta-cognition), as well as significant aspects of intelligence, are learnable.

The prestigious Santa Fe Institute noted in 1995, in a collection of essays entitled The Mind, the Brain and Complex Adaptive Systems, the mismatch between emerging learning theory and dominant educational practice when they wrote, “The method people naturally employ to acquire knowledge is largely unsupported by traditional classroom practice. The human mind is better equipped to gather information about the world by operating within it than by reading about it, hearing lectures on it, or studying abstract models of it.” These new understandings about human learning and the brain question the long-term effectiveness of plans among many governments to place increasing emphasis on the role of the school and the classroom in young people’s learning.

Most school reform movements have been within the existing paradigm of pupils/teachers/schools, whereas what is now needed is that out-of-the-box thinking which starts more broadly by focusing on the brain’s ability to learn and how we become evermore effective humans. Only then can we think about how to develop and nurture appropriate learning environments.

We are who-we-are in large part because of our species’ evolutionary experience over millions of years. Those experiences are firmly encapsulated in all of our brains, with each of us carrying all those predispositions that previous generations found useful to their survival. The work of the Dartmouth cognitive neuroscientist, Michael Gazzaniga, shows that life is largely about discovering what is already built into our brains. He warns that “all the ways that human societies try to change minds and to change how humans truly interact with the environment are doomed to fail. Indeed, societies fail when they preach at their populations. They tend to succeed when they allow each individual to discover what millions of years of evolution have already bestowed upon mind and body.”