The Science of How We Learn and How We Figured that Out

Understanding the science of how we learn is argued quite compellingly in this piece as something more akin to how we learn in school, and not how we actually learn naturally. Here are a few of the more powerful excerpts, but I encourage you to read the entire lengthy and insightful piece.

The Science of What Happens to People in Schools

“The problems with this process are many, but the one that I’d like to highlight is this: the available “data” that drives it is not, as a matter of fact, the “science of how people learn.” It is the “science of what happens to people in schools.”

“This is when it occurred to me: people today do not even know what children are actually like. They only know what children are like in schools.”

Literary Society without Phonics

“On the other hand, virtually all white American settlers in the northeastern colonies at the time of the American Revolution could read, not because they had all been to school, and certainly not because they had all been tutored in phonics, which didn’t exist at the time. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, not exactly light reading, sold over 500,000 copies in its first year of publication, the equivalent of a book selling sixty million copies today. People learned to read in a variety of ways, some from small one-room schools, but many from their mothers, from tutors, traveling ministers, apprentice’s masters, relatives, neighbors, friends. They could read because, in a literate population, it is really not that difficult to transmit literacy from one person to the next. When people really want a skill, it goes viral. You couldn’t stop it if you tried.

“In other words, they could read for all the same reasons that we can now use computers. We don’t know how to use computers because we learned it in school, but because we wanted to learn it and we were free to learn it in whatever way worked best for us. It is the saddest of ironies that many people now see the fluidity and effectiveness of this process as a characteristic of computers, rather than what it is, which is a characteristic of human beings.”

Observations from Sea World

“Any wildlife biologist knows that an animal in a zoo will not develop normally if the environment is incompatible with the evolved social needs of its species. But we no longer know this about ourselves. We have radically altered our own evolved species behavior by segregating children artificially in same-age peer groups instead of mixed-age communities, by compelling them to be indoors and sedentary for most of the day, by asking them to learn from text-based artificial materials instead of contextualized real-world activities, by dictating arbitrary timetables for learning rather than following the unfolding of a child’s developmental readiness. Common sense should tell us that all of this will have complex and unpredictable results. In fact, it does. While some children seem able to function in this completely artificial environment, really significant numbers of them cannot. Around the world, every day, millions and millions and millions of normal bright healthy children are labelled as failures in ways that damage them for life. And increasingly, those who cannot adapt to the artificial environment of school are diagnosed as brain-disordered and drugged.

“It is in this context that we set out to research how human beings learn. But collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.”

The Outliers

“Many of these outlying traits pertain to the type of education that we think of as “normal” in the United States. It turns out that Americans are at the far end of the spectrum in their preference for competition over cooperation; for self-promotion over humility; for analytical over holistic thinking; for individual rather than collective success; for direct rather than indirect communication; for hierarchical rather than egalitarian conceptions of status. So in school we urge our children to strive to be better than their friends and we praise them publicly if they succeed, where many other societies would consider this to be extremely bad manners. We focus on our children directly and tell them exactly what we want them to know, where in many other societies adults expect children to observe their elders closely and follow their example voluntarily. We control and direct and measure our children’s learning in excruciating detail, where many other societies assume children will learn at their own pace and don’t feel it necessary or appropriate to control their everyday activities and choices. In other words, what we take for granted as a“normal” learning environment is not at all normal to millions of people around the world.

“If Americans are outliers among outliers, then the subculture of American institutional schooling, which makes increasingly rigid demands on very young children and suppresses more and more of their natural energies and inclinations, is an outlier to that. Traits that would be valued in the larger American society –– energy, creativity, independence –– will get you into trouble in the classroom, and sadly, it turns out that some of our children just can’t follow us that far out on the bell curve. The human species is extremely malleable and variable, but not infinitely so, and what you see in individual children as our culture grows more and more extreme is that the underlying species nature re-emerges, sometimes disruptively. Like people who try to keep wolves as pets, we find that some of our children start to chew through their leashes.”

We don’t really know

“How did this happen? We don’t really know. This is an important point. You don’t know. I don’t know. Nobody really knows. The cognitive processes which underlie literacy are complex beyond your wildest imagination; our scientific understanding of them is in its early infancy. But people whose kids don’t go to school are nodding their heads in recognition at my story, because among kids who don’t go to school, or who go to democratic or free schools, Isabel’s pattern of learning to read is common. It happens all the time. The fact that most literacy “researchers” and “experts,” not to mention school psychologists, don’t even realize that it is possible is something that should concern us all.

“We are embarrassing ourselves in the eyes of future generations with our claims that we can identify reading skills and disabilities with blurry patches of color on a functional MRI image. The science is just not there yet. Not even close.

“What should concern us even more is that these “experts” are claiming to know more about the cognitive processes of reading than they actually do, and policy that impacts millions of children –– that limits their horizons, that brands them as disabled, that drives them to frustration and despair –– is being based on their overweening claims. Philip Lieberman, a cognitive scientist who studies the evolutionary basis of the neural networks involved in language, refers to the current views which identify “brain centers” for language as a kind of “neo-phrenology” — an updated version of the 19th-century theory that you can identify types of intelligence by charting the lumps on a person’s skull. In other words, we are embarrassing ourselves in the eyes of future generations with our claims that we can identify reading skills and disabilities with blurry patches of color on a functional MRI image. The science is just not there yet. Not even close.”

Measuring WEIRD

“City kids who grow up among cartoon mice who talk and fish who sing show tunes are often so delayed in their grasp of real living systems that Henrich et al. suggest that studying the cognitive development of biological reasoning in urban children may be “the equivalent of studying “normal” physical growth in malnourished children.” But in schools, rural Native children are tested and all too often found to be less intelligent and more learning “disabled” than urban white children, a deeply disturbing phenomenon which turns up among traditional rural people all over the world.

“Why is this? As intelligence researcher James Flynn has discovered, if you calculate average U.S. IQ scores from a hundred years ago against today’s renormed tests, you find that by a modern definition the grandparents and great-grandparents of most white Americans would be categorized as mentally disabled. Does this mean your ancestors were morons? Yeah, maybe. But what it probably means is that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, most European-Americans, like many indigenous people today, lived in a world where real concrete contextualized knowledge and intelligence, not abstracted school-based knowledge, was necessary for survival. Malcolm Gladwell reports in The New Yorker that when psychologist Michael Cole gave members of the Kpelle tribe of Liberia a version of the WISC similarities test, they found that the Kpelle would consistently sort a knife and a potato into the same category “because a knife is used to cut a potato:”

A wise man could only do such-and- such,” they explained.

Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories.

“So the IQ test, like other school-based tests, turns out to be not so much a measure of intelligence as a measure of modernization — of a large-scale cultural shift in industrialized societies from concrete to abstract thinking, from holistic to analytic thinking, from contextualized systems thinking to de-contextualized linear thinking.

“In other words, your IQ is not a measure of how smart you are. It’s a measure of how WEIRD you are.”


“Since the Enlightenment, every generation of scientists has tended to fall into the fallacy that now we stand at the apex of human knowledge and understanding, that error has fallen away at our feet, and that now we “know” how things really are. Depending on the domain being studied, this intellectual hubris can yield results which are comical, awkward, destructive, or, when it comes to children, tragic. In the 1950’s scientists “knew” that baby formula was better for children than human milk, an absurdity which has been responsible for the deaths by diarrheal disease and malnutrition of millions of infants in the developing world. They “knew” that newborns, like animals, did not have sufficiently developed neural systems to feel pain, so they performed surgery on millions of infants (and animals) without anesthesia. They “knew” that people learn as a consequence of positive or negative reinforcements for behavior rather than as a result of internal passions, drives, and preferences –- let alone as a result of a celestial river running through them –– so they persuaded an entire education system to train children like pigeons and rats, with incessant scrutiny and “feedback,” punishments and rewards.

“Right now American phonics advocates are claiming that they “know” how children learn to read and how best to teach them. They know nothing of the kind. A key value in serious scientific inquiry is also a key value in every indigenous culture around the world: humility. We are learning.”


~ by Omaira on December 10, 2014.

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