INFANT LEARNING: KEY TO UNDERSTANDING ALL LEARNING
Wayne B. Jennings, Ph.D.
Isn't it remarkable how much we learn between birth and kindergarten in the informal home environment? By understanding how the infant learns without formal teachers or planned lessons, we see how powerful and productive the brain is in the management of learning.
It seems to make little difference to children whether they are bred in the midst of enormous distractions, large or small families, poor or affluent. They endure and learn to communicate--with the English language or other languages spoken in the home--without the help of formalized learning plans such as workbooks, ditto sheets, drills, or rote memory exercises, provided the environment contains sufficient stimuli and the child is healthy.
The informal home environment is every child's intense first school. This learning environment, and the learning that takes place, is not the result of some carefully developed plan or theory, but is simply -- learning taking place through a process known as brain based education.
Before attending a formal school, children have learned to walk, talk, feed themselves, identify and manipulate objects, and, respond to the world around them. As they are stimulated with more and more objects, sounds, and information, the child's brain collects these patterns and waits anxiously for additional data to make connections. The more data the brain receives, the more connections the child makes.
They learn other things too: responsibility, kinship, compassion, and respect for others. Children learn to recognize emotions -- anger, love, resentment, devotion, yearning, sadness, happiness, jealousy, envy, fear, and hate and how best to respond to them. They learn the excitement of anticipation its fulfillment and disappointment.
When we appreciate all that happens in that amazing learning period, we have the key to applying the brain's capacity to all learning for life.
Consider how we learned to sing, skip, eat with a spoon, catch and throw a ball -- none of which are easy to learn tasks for the first time. Recall how much the infant free of conscious effort practiced each of these and how much an adult would have to practice in order to relearn should a stroke damage that part of the brain.
At first it takes many experiences to distinguish differences and similarities between objects and species as well as differences within species. It takes many episodes of trial and error for a child to understand new phenomena. That is why a child will open and close a cupboard door many times to gain insight exactly how the door works, sometimes driving us to fits of distraction and puzzlement as well.
In our infant years, we learned to recognize the sights, sounds, and touch of mom, dad, sister Sue, and uncle Fred. We recognized Rufus as a dog, Cleo as a cat, and that grandpa Ed's cows are not horses. We learned that trees are not flowers, nor bushes trees, nor weeds bushes. We distinguished these remarkably similar items at an early age, far sooner than learning scientific definitions for them.
This, and vastly more, without a syllabus, logical lesson plan, or the latest teaching techniques. Could it be that, that is precisely why we learn so much in such a short time? Our brains do not require a logical and sequential order or lessons to learn in contrast to the crude linear approach in the school classrooms of today. In fact, it appears that our brains deal quite efficiently in deriving patterns from confusion.
Should you doubt these statements about logical sequential learning, think about your own learning of new material as an adult. Assuming you learned about computers as an adult, recall the logical explanations, definitions of terms and how baffled you were in spite of that helpful teaching. Only a vast amount of experience and input solved the problem. Do you recall your struggles with such concepts as Aparadigms@ or Atriage@ when you first heard them, even with helpful and coherent explanations.
Our brain has great powers to make sense of the world by extracting meaning from the surrounding chaos if we give it ample input and experience, as Leslie Hart's Proster Theory1 contends. We may need to rethink what is confusion? Does it have merit? According to Proster theory, we need lots of raw material or input to the brain to extract patterns or as others have said, meaning. We all have experienced confusion in our progress with a new learning task when suddenly bits of sense begin to emerge and meaning materializes.
In other words, we need to hear lots of talk if we are to discover how the past tense works. At first, the infant says, "I falled down." What an extraordinary feat to have extracted the "ed" ending of other past tense verbs! The brain then applies the "ed" ending to the word fall, even though the child has never heard the word, "falled."
Just as remarkable, the brain in a short period of time makes a correction or refinement of past tense and comes up with "fell" as in "I fell down." This happens without a grammar lesson or explanation from anyone. The most mom or dad might say is, "You mean fell; you fell down." This example repeated about thousands of learning instances during infancy represents incredibly efficient learning from a brain far from being fully stocked with learning experiences.
The secret lies in the abundance of input to the brain and the opportunities to test the learnings through trial and error. The simple fact is that in the school classrooms of today, the brain is starved for input.
We need to see lots of furniture to discover and distinguish the numerous things we sit on -- sofa, chair, bench, or stool. Experience and input help us modify the patterns we extract and provide us with programs in the brain for action. The more we see, hear, touch, smell, and manipulate, the more patterns and programs we create.
The key then is an abundance of materials and lots of opportunities to "play" with these materials. We understand from this, the persuasiveness in the statement, "Play is a child's work." John Dewey's "learning by doing" says much the same. This may be true at any age with play taking on different dimensions: role playing, simulations and the arts.
What happens to us as we enter the class and grade conventional school with its one uncompromisingly, sequentially ordered, slow paced protocol? What happens to us after 12 years struggling to remain steadfast and hopeful of a future?
Where is the profusion of input the brain needs minute by minute? Never mind that the twelve years amounts to much input in total. The brain needs vastly more input day by day, hour by hour, and minute by minute from every direction to establish a foothold with new material. It needs to try out its patterns by running programs. That is, the learner needs to talk, to practice, to act on ideas, to experiment, to "mess around," to muck about, as the English say it. Only in this way, does deep lasting learning emerge.
Les Hart once paused during a speech and remarked about a sign in a school classroom reading, "If you are talking, you are not learning." He was alarmed with the sign's message and declared it as insanely false. Humans need to talk to learn. They must talk to relate their ideas, to work out the bugs, to test their learning, and to get feedback.
We often hear college professors say, "Students don't know how to read. All they know how to do is retrieve information." What happens when a student tries to retrieve information from a literary text that is not a conventional novel, with a beginning, a middle, an end, and a hero? But in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, where the beginning is near the end; there is no middle; there is no hero; space and time are scattered about; and the author interrupts the first chapter with a disclaimer.
What happens when a student reads Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," where essays read like stories, stories like essays, character interrupt their own stories, and the author appears as a fictional character in a story. What happens when information is not retrievable in narratives that are sporadic and elusive--when the furniture has been rearranged?
In other words, what happens when we confront reality? Confusion. A confusion from which, after 12 years of ordered, sequential school "programming," we've been trained and detoured from the natural learning processes of the brain. Like the conventional novel, the conventional classroom has given us the illusion of reality. It has convinced us that we live in a chronologically ordered universe. It has not allowed us to use our uniquely human brain, which absolutely needs confusion to learn, not predigested material.
Conventional schools condition us to prefer comfortable habit, a lower brain function. Like an adult who has a stroke, whole programs are damaged, and we need to learn all over again: how to walk, talk, eat, how to "read" actively and aggressively as we did before we started school. We must relearn what we originally knew and unlearn the inefficient learning habits we learn in school. It can be done. Many of us have done it. But what a useless adventure born out of blunder.
What are the implications for schools? Increase input and experiential learning. Have more use of the community: field trips, speakers, action projects. Involve students in planning the what and how of learning, the operation of the school, the events and activities of classrooms. Work on real products and services to the school and community. Increase simulations, role playing, panels, debates, newsletters, establishing and running small businesses, researching topics of interest, surveys, etc.
Textbooks become references as needed; use more libraries (there are many kinds), museums, videos, films, magazines, newspapers, booklets, interviews. Minimize worksheets by 90 percent; use more word processing, spreadsheets, data bases, real letters, memos, Email. Reduce lecturing; use more panels, student presentations, workshop ways, small group projects. Perhaps, most important of all is that the learning experiences are shared between student/teacher/ and parent in a spirit of brain compatible education.
Human Brain and Human Learning. Leslie A. Hart, Books For Educators, Kent, WA, 1983.
All Contents Copyright © 2004 Wayne Jennings.