On Learners

Learners and their brains are the natural phenomena in which the technology of education is grounded. To be educative, an experience must be compatible with the physiology and psychology of their bodies and brains. For the 21st century educator, the classroom is filled with learners who have much different relationships with technology compared to those who entered even a few years ago, and this affects their physiology and psychology. The differences arise from the vast information and ubiquitous technology in which they are immersed (and have been since birth). Educators also understand the brains entering their classroom to a level not previously possible.  

Human beings are unique creatures. We walk upright, and our freed forelimbs developed unusual dexterity allowing us to build and use tools. Because we walk upright, our pelvises are narrower than the pelvises of other primates. To accommodate birth through such a pelvis, human babies are born too small and helpless to support even the basic movements necessary for independent life until months after birth, and we are dependent on adults for years. During these years, we learn. We learn a lot.

We learn to recognize those who take care of us and we respond to their faces and voices moments after birth. We learn basic concepts of physics such as objects are solid, unsupported objects fall, and a moving object that strikes a still object will cause it to move. When crafty psychologists show us phenomena that appear to violate these physics, we react with surprise and stare longer at unusual situations than we stare at expected situations. We learn the basics of anatomy and are able to recognize (for example) our arms and we learn to move them and then control them at will. We learn to recognize emotions and we learn we can influence the behavior of others; “Dad smiles when I smile” and “Mom feeds me when I cry.”

We learn the nuances of human interaction; we compete and cooperate, lie and cheat, share and support, we trade and beg and borrow and steal. We learn to share information; we ask for help and give help when asked. We express empathy and sympathy and disgust. We learn to sense others’ states of mind and to communicate (and sometimes deceive others about) our state of mind. We act and react according to what we sense about the environment and what we learn about the environment from others. We learn to model our actions after the actions of others; from their examples we learn what to eat, how to avoid being eaten, how to protect ourselves from extremes of weather, to navigate the world, and to find and fill our role in society. We learn to capture the world in language and images, and we learn how to contemplate our place in the cosmos.

We learn to build physical tools to manipulate the external environment and to build conceptual models to explain and predict the environment (which includes our fellow humans), and these models become a very familiar (if unreliable) internal environment. We learn to test our models and modify them based on the results (or we explain away observations that are contrary to our models). Alone, we can begin to construct our models and conduct our contemplations, but we are even better at constructing and contemplating when we collaborate; much better.

Despite the central role of learning in human survival, the nature of learning is still an area of research that is very active. We are learning that behaviorism, the psychology in which instructionism is based, does not accurately predict and explain our observations of learners.