How we learn?
For millions of years we have been studying LANDSCAPES. Walking ever widening circles of meaning: looking at a detail of a path and then lifting eyes up to explore horizons, building practical knowledge of plants and yet stepping back to appreciate their beauty, navigating through unknown, trusting other peoples stories and constructing our own narratives, looking for metaphors and associations, attempting to communicate with radically different as well as finding and building comfort within our own tribe – all happening at the same time, all contributing to the WHOLE of understanding. Our LEARNING back then and now is still the same: we are trying to make sense about what happens to us as if opening a piece of puzzle one at a time, speculating where in the bigger picture it belongs. Making our way through life without having a full picture, being not perfect, but attempting to make sense of the little we know, to map relations, to put them in context, to substitute the missing parts of the puzzle by our imagination and then – action. The whole story was being read to us at bed time when we were kids, not only the words we understand. We learned to appropriate the lightnings of meaning within the dark matter of the unknown. We, humans are masters of sense making, navigators of uncertainty, incredible learners when it comes to life situations.
On the other end of the spectrum of learning experience there is a somewhat academic or more scientific approach where learning happens in a methodological – discursive way. The body of knowledge is already there and your job is to uncover it bit by bit – starting with the simple and aiming to arrive at the most complicated. Never breaching the order. Starting your learning journey as though it was a train ride – the rail tracks will surely get you there – you follow through the process that other people have gone before you. Your job is to focus and memorize the preexistent knowledge and if unclear – just ask.
This type of learning may be quite effective to build a particular skill, but many people report that the learning they have experienced in academic institutions or even traditional physical training has left them feeling empty of meaning – of their own meaning – as though it was separated from real life or the real life learning experience. On the contrary – the biggest development was experienced when meeting the real challenges and needs of life.
Learning in “one size fits all” prescribed situations may be likened to a situation where you are being driven around London by a taxi driver: you’ve been to places, but at the same time you have not mapped your own way, have not made your own narrative and sense on how and why different sites are connected. You have followed through somebody else’s route, did not have a chance to get lost or discover something outside the syllabus.
The methodological academic type of learning is a pretty recent (some 5 – 10 thousand years) experiment compared to millions of years of human development, surviving and thriving in nature. Our brains are still tuned to develop much more in the situations where we do get lost, experience uncertainty and struggle, in situations without one correct answer and high levels of discomfort.
The latest science on learning suggests that most learning and the biggest development happens when we do need to creatively answer the challenges in front of us and make sense of situations within a limited capacity of preexisting knowledge. “Being lost, confused, or disoriented creates a feeling of distress. To relieve that distress, the brain kicks into high gear, trying to find or make meaning, looking for patterns, some way out of its bind – some path back to the campsite. “We have a need for structure, for things to make sense, and when they don’t, we’re so motivated to get rid of that feeling that our response can be generative”. It is the real challenges and hunger for meaningful patterns that actually makes us learn.
What is true for the learning tendencies of the brain is only so because our brains are in the body (or embodied). From a perspective of evolutional biology the functioning structure of our brains are the result of the structure of our empirical experience foremost related to our exteroceptive (5 senses) and proprioceptive (kinesthetic, labyrinthine and visceral) awareness.
There is no such thing as pure reason or mind. We are thinking and sense making bodies. Even our reasoning and imagination is based on our bodily experience and (!) existence. Immanuel Kant’s a priori transcendental forms of space time and causation in my view are only possible to conceive BECAUSE we have bodies and we are only able to speak of them because we are BODIES.
Thus… The only true learning and overall development happens when we do need to solve problems, make sense and communicate ideas from the totality of our being – reason, imagination and our physical involvement combined. To truly develop we do need tasks where we do get lost and struggle, where we face limitations – both physical and mental at the same time, where there is a real urge to FIND OUR WAY through the unknown.
Want to grow? - Dance, fight, manipulate objects, challenge elements of nature, observe… Embrace uncertainty, grow in complexity. Make overall learning experience into your daily practice.
 B.Carey 2015; How We Learn The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens