A Taxonomy of Learning, and Nature as Learning Role Model

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:

  • A dolphin imitating a tank cleaner by scrubbing the tank window with a seagull feather while making scuba-like bubbling noises
  • Conservationists who were awoken early by young birds who amused themselves repeatedly sliding down the canvas sides of their tent,
  • Other conservationists who came back from a 5-day journey to find the roof, wipers, upholstery and underdash wiring of their Jeep shredded by Keas (birds notorious in the area for wreaking havoc on antennas and siding and climbing down chimneys)
  • Dolphins and pigeons that, once they learned that they would be rewarded for doing new tricks of their own invention, came up with dozens of strange and creative stunts ranging from figure eights and spectacular aerials (the dolphins) to standing with both feet on one wing and hovering like hummingbirds (the pigeons)
  • Tree acrobatics by orangutans that are so sophisticated and so sensitive to the animal’s weight, flexibility and the fragility or strength of boughs and branches that they clearly require a high degree of ‘self-awareness’ (lots of stories about animals reacting to mirrors evidencing the same thing as well)
  • The explanation for cats getting stuck in trees: Climbing is instinctive, but the skill of climbing down must be learned by observing a parent’s example (which few pet kittens get the chance to do)
  • A rabbit raised with dogs, who learned to enjoy stalking squirrels with them
  • A gosling raised by an eagle who became a pure carnivore until the conservationists caring for him placed a daily bowl of bread and milk in the aviary, which the eagle would then carry up to her finicky but delighted ‘baby’
  • The discovery that birds, just like humans, raised in isolation from others of their kind to adolescence, never learn their species’ ‘language’ and speak only in primitive monosyllables
  • The astonishing variety, dialects and evolution of crows’ and ravens’ speech
  • The discovery of lyrebirds which picked up and retaught to their young the music of a local flutist, which was still in the birds’ descendants’ repertoire forty years later
  • A beluga whale that did a perfect imitation of the sound of a group of children at play
  • The discovery that when chimps who have been taught sign language teach their own offspring the language, they use it for more social (reassurance, interaction and invitation to play) and less pedagogical purposes than they had been taught it for
  • The discovery that wild monkeys rub themselves with millipedes — which turns out to be a more powerful and effective insect repellent than any invented by man
  • A human-raised lioness successfully released into the wild who returned much later to the house where she grew up — to keep her newborn cubs in the spare bedroom until they were old enough to face the wild
  • An abandoned lion cub raised with a sheepdog who learned — and loved — to herd sheep but had no inclination to harm or eat them
  • An amazing variety of stories of animals using tools — including sticks and stones to access and break open food, sticks to drum just for fun, leaves to construct sophisticated rainhats, markers and digging tools for caching food, leaves to transport fledglings, and use of up to six different knots (all of them in the book) in constructing a single nest
  • The high degree of awareness of most animals for what is, and what is not, dangerous to them (learned helplessness, it seems, afflicts only us humans)
  • The high levels of innovation evident in many species, most notably when they are most needed (suggesting that maybe the reason other species haven’t developed abstract language, the spear, the wheel and other conceptual, killing and mobility tools as man has done, is because unlike us, they don’t have to) — this innovation is most evident in the young, in females, and in non-alpha members of animal communities
  • Japanese monkeys who evolved in one generation from washing food (vegetables that were given to them by scientists to get them to emerge from the forest down to the beach for easier observation), to fishing (completely novel to the species, and self-taught)
  • Herons that use a variety of forms of bait to lure fish into their mouths

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:

  • We all learn differently, so no one way of conveying knowledge can ever be effective for most or all learners
  • We learn more from being shown than from being told (and we almost universally dislike pedagogical, classroom-type teaching — we learn from and within the real world)
  • We learn (a) from observing someone else learning something, (b) from being shown something directly ourselves, and (c) from thinking and practicing further on our own (most animals prefer to try hard new things while no one is watching them) — and all three types of learning are essential for a complete learning experienced
  • Rivalry, shyness, impatience, urgency, attention, and the desires for freedom, independence and control all influence our learning capacity as much as mental ability
  • In encouraging learning, rewards are important, but motivation is much more important — that’s why we learn much better just-in-time (when we’re motivated) than just-in-case
  • We learn best from role models — those we trust, respect and consider to be successful in the field we are learning about — and role models are self-selected, they cannot be imposed

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:

  1. Apprenticeship (“Watch me, and then you try it”)
  2. Being told (listening, reading)
  3. Classical conditioning (associative learning — “Aha, this always seems to correlate with this”)
  4. Coaching (“Next time try this”)
  5. Concept learning (learning to learn, putting two and two together — “Aha, I know what might work”)
  6. Emulation (“I see what he’s doing, but I think I know a better way to achieve the same end”)
  7. Imitation (“I can do that — watch”)
  8. Latent learning (“Well, that’s interesting, but it’s not immediately useful”)
  9. Local enhancement (“I see. That must be the right thing to do”)
  10. Model/rival learning (“The teacher is showing the other student how to do that. I get it. And I could do it better”)
  11. Observational enhancement (“I see. I know what I could do with that”)
  12. Operant conditioning (reward learning — “Give me another doughnut and I’ll do it again”)
  13. Playing
  14. Practice
  15. Question & answer (interviewing)
  16. Role modeling (“Wow, that’s good. Can I try now?”)
  17. Serendipitous learning (“Oops — hey, that’s interesting, we can use that”)
  18. Social facilitation (“Hey, that’s fun — you mean it’s also useful?”)
  19. Stimulus enhancement (“That got my attention, maybe I’ll try it sometime”)
  20. Trial and error

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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5 Responses to A Taxonomy of Learning, and Nature as Learning Role Model

  1. 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.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, Stephen. I wonder if we need a new name for ‘teacher’ that shifts the focus from the giver to the receiver of knowledge.

  3. Pearl says:

    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.

  4. Zephyr says:

    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.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Pearl: Thanks for adding a book to *my* reading list.

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