Last week at our regular Breakfast at Flo’s meeting of KM practitioners we were talking about how people learn, and the significance of different learning styles and preferences for the successes and failures of various Knowledge Management programs and projects. One of the subjects we talked about in this context, for example, was apparent gender differences in learning.
At the end of the meeting I walked across the street to a bookstore and happened upon Becoming a Tiger: How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild, by Susan McCarthy. Ms McCarthy was Jeff Masson’s co-author of When Elephants Weep, one of the 14 books on my critical How to Save the World reading list. This book is hugely entertaining, and consists almost entirely of hundreds of short anecdotes of learning experiences by animals of all types, thoroughly documented by animal scientists. Just to give you a taste, here is one of them:
Trainer Karen Pryor [showing that the reason otters are so poor at ‘learning’ to do tricks is that they get bored too easily] took behaviorists to see [a group of otters she had been working with]. She tried to condition an otter to swim through a hoop. She put the hoop in the water, the otter swam through, and she gave it a fish. The otter swam through again, and she rewarded it again. Very good, but from the otter’s point of view already old news. The otter swam through the hoop, and stopped half way through. And looked up for a reward — no reward. It swam through the hoop, but as it was almost through, grabbed the hoop with its hind foot and pulled it away. And looked up for a reward — no reward. OK. The otter lay in the hoop, bit the hoop, backed through the hoop, each time checking to see if that rated a prize. “See?”, said Pryor, “Otters are natural experimenters”. One bemused scientist replied that it took him four years to teach students to think like that. Pryor [also] describes an incident in which her daughter spent an hour teaching her small poodle to jump into a child’s rocking chair and then make it rock. She rewarded its efforts with bits of chopped ham. At the end of the lesson the poodle jumped down and a cat who had been watching jumped into the chair, unbidden, set it rocking, and looked up for her ham.
Some other amazing stories and observations from the book:
The book is written with great wit, and Ms McCarthy might consider writing a book of humour next. An example:
The male village weaver [bird], a good-looking black and orange individual, builds his nest in a day. To attract females, he hangs upside-down alluringly from the bottom of his nest, flapping his wings and singing. Females like this. (It is a good bet that a guy who builds a house and hangs by his feet in the doorway singing in an attempt to attract a woman who will settle down with him is not a guy with commitment issues.) If a female likes the nest and the bird enough, she moves in and lines the nest chamber with fine soft materials. At this point the male adds a short hanging entrance tube.
The primary message of this book is that all of the qualities that define learning, intelligence, knowledge, technology and culture (including songs, dances, shared social behaviours and skills, mating rituals, habits, tendencies, preferences, work-product, language, and socialization) are present in abundance throughout the animal kingdom.
But the more important message, I think, are these five universal truths about how we learn:
The book introduces a complete taxonomy of ways of learning, but (to the frustration of people like me that like our lesson summaries well-organized) there is no ontology, no overall framework for these twenty ways of learning. Here they are in alphabetical order:
All of these build on and dovetail with our inherent knowledge — the things we don’t have to learn (though humans are so skeptical of instinct that I would suggest our inherent knowledge is seriously stunted and mostly needs to be relearned). Concept learning is probably the most sophisticated technique, but lots of animals exhibit it — like the dolphins and pigeons who, after many bewildering failures, finally figured out that they would be rewarded for doing tricks that were completely novel, of their own invention, and not for just repeating what was rewarded before.
Like much other learning, we can learn this from observing others doing it. When I taught auditing in university, I often used the example of a water utility, handing out a flowchart that showed how the water company billed and collected for usage from households and businesses. “OK” I would ask the class, “now tell me what could go wrong — how might the utility be deprived of revenue to which it was entitled?” There would be a great pause and a lot of blank stares. And then someone would volunteer: “How about using a magnet to roll back the meter reading?” And another would pipe up: “Or putting in a connection to the water line yourself, so you don’t get a bill at all.” And then: “Why not just bribe the meter installer to hook up your water but not install a meter?” And “What if there was an underground leak in the pipe — that could waste more water than any fraud?” The class was off — the first examples were all they needed to think the right way to solve the problem, but without those examples they would have been stumped.
If you’re a teacher, all of this might be interesting, but how might you use it? I think we need to develop a model that shows how these twenty ways of learning are connected — since many learning experiences use a combination of two, three or more of these methods. And then what we need is a method of allowing each learner to self-profile their preferred learning methods, which ones work best for them. And then, we need a way to map from our preferred ways of learning to the alternative media and programs available in the subject areas we’re interested in.
So if I want to learn about Intentional Communities, and about meditation, for example, and I learn best by Q&A, from personal coaching, from play, and from serendipitous learning, the map might tell me: (1) Here’s a game that simulates the establishment and operation of an Intentional Community, and (2) Here’s a personal coach in your area who will observe your meditation attempts and counsel you quite quickly how to get better at it.
Or, I suppose, I could just emulate Ms McCarthy — go sit out back by the pond and observe the geese, the beavers, the crows and the foxes and learn from them how a brilliantly successful ten-million-year-old Intentional Community model works, and meditate on why humans are so dumb at learning we can’t see that nature offers us examples of how to do just about anything important, and how to do just about anything better we do now.
Obviously, we have a lot to learn.
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What a terrific piece! As a psychology teacher and “animal lover,” I’ve long ago learned through observation and empirical evidence, of the complexity and fullness of intelligence at every level of the animal kingdom. As an educational futurist and lecturer, the question of how we learn (and the significance of “learner self-determination” in a networked universe), particularly in the face of the challenges of the 21st century, is at the heart of determining how our relationships – to our human family and all our natural surroundings – will lead human-kind to create a “sustainable” quality of life for all living beings. To anyone who has ever thought of non-human beings as so many pounds of flesh, I shall happily refer them to this posting.
Thanks, Stephen. I wonder if we need a new name for ‘teacher’ that shifts the focus from the giver to the receiver of knowledge.
Oh, that’s so interesting. Now I have another book to add to my reading list. The second half of Songs of a Gorilla Nation has observations along these lines as well.
People learn through play. And people learn throughcareful thought – through analysis.Learning is a thing which comes from within, and cannotbe imposed upon somebody from the outside.Everyone has a natural curiousity, and that curiousityought to be indulged.
Pearl: Thanks for adding a book to *my* reading list.