Sunday, March 16, 2008

Five Ways We Learn

Inheritance - Almost half (40%) of who we are is guided by our genetic inheritance. That genetic inheritance is over 99% the same as that of the chimpanzees, but that 1% change makes a huge difference. Among the approximately 23,000 genes found in human DNA, scientists currently estimate that there may be as few as 50 to 100 that have no counterparts in other species. Steven Pinker, for example, in "The Language Instinct" says that our ability to learn language is an inherited trait shared only by humans.
Once thought to be a fixed characteristic, science is now developing ways in which we can manipulate and make choices about our inheritance.

Accretion - Most of the rest of who we are (40%) is determined by acculturation and maturation - the stuff that happens to us just by growing up in a particular time and place - experience and the school of hard knocks. Variations in acculturation can be influenced by socio-economic factors, birth order, physical attractiveness, size, ethnicity, gender, etc. The process of accretion is so subtle that we often deny that we are shaped by the media, fashions, behaviors, morals, etc. of our peers and culture. Forgetting or being unaware of the learning that takes place everyday is called "cognitive agnosia". Cognitive Agnosia is the tendency for the brain to not know or remember when or how it learned something and therefore assume it knew it all along. Once something is in the brain circuits it seems like "common sense" rather than something learned (even if it is wrong)..

Acquisition - Another roughly 9% of who we are is the result of our own efforts when we set out to explore or learn something new. We acquire new ideas and knowledge by forcing ourselves to travel, explore the unknown, take on new jobs, read on our own, conduct research, etc. The is sometimes what we call Free Will. Because of cognitive agnosia many people over-estimate the degree to which they are who they are due to acquisition through free will. There are many people who benefit from social and cultural good fortune, schooling, life experiences provided by their families and social status who are nonetheless convinced they are "self-made".
The internet search engines, wikipedia and other digital information sources are tipping the balance toward acquisition over transmission as ways people get new information.

Transmission - We set up methods to systematically pass on knowledge to the next generation through formal systems of schooling, apprenticeships, training, parenting, etc. These efforts to transmit our culture and knowledge make up about 9% of who we are. While it seems like we go to school forever, over our lifetimes we spend proportionally little time in formal education settings. Considering this small influence, schools are often unfairly criticized for not having more of an impact on students. Schools are developing strategies to utilize other forms of learning like acquisition (project-based learning) and accretion (field trips, media literacy) to maximize the minimal time and effectiveness of transmission learning.

Emergence - There is about 2% of who we are that is not taught to us or gained through experience or enculturation but emerges out of the combination of our unique experiences, abilities, and interests. We generate new ideas and knowledge, sometimes by accident, sometimes by creative effort, but each of us can make a small contribution to the existing storehouse of knowledge and ideas. Edison said creativity is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. That 1 (or 2)% may be the most important and is the goal of design education.

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