There’s an interesting article in this week’s Journal of Neuroscience about the how we learn, specifically how our genes might influence our attitude towards learning from instruction or experience. It’s an interesting new perspective on the differences between learning and teaching.
According to researchers from Brown University, people genetically inclined to follow instructions can make sensible decisions much more quickly than if they had to learn the right thing to do from experience. They say “In some cases (e.g., “Danger: high voltage”) experience is a very dangerous way to learn. But in other cases (e.g. “The cable guy should be there at 1 p.m.” or “This slot machine pays off”), believing in advice for too long is just foolish.”
Recognising that learning from first principles can be slower and less effective is an important point. Of course there are times when working something out for ourselves is essential but only the most determined and diligent of us would want or be capable of doing that for even the essential disciplines and subjects required for twenty-first century life.
The concept of teaching has become rather unfashionable in many quarters. ‘Foisted teaching creates more harm than good; it blunts curiosity, promotes helplessness’ says Peter Gray over at Psychology Today. He stresses that it is ‘foisted’ or ‘forced’ teaching that is unhelpful but still there’s the implicit accusation that instructing someone on the basis of greater knowledge or experience is somehow morally dubious.
The dissatisfaction with ‘teaching’ also fails to acknowledge a key outcome in schools: that many of us would never choose to study some of the subjects that prove so valuable or enjoyable later in life. One could argue that coerced exposure to ideas outside our own tastes prevents us from being self-absorbed egotists, helps us grow into more rounded individuals and seeds occasionally wonderful, life changing, serendipity.
The examples from Brown University illustrate how we can learn from others’ mistakes (“believe me, touching that electricity pylon is going to sting”) but we also learn from earlier successes. It makes our lives easier. And hopefully encourages us to pursue greater knowledge and understanding for ourselves.
The shift from learning from instruction to learning from experience takes places inevitably as we mature cognitively and emotionally. Teaching and learning are not mutually exclusive or even competitive: if we’re taught well, we learn better.