Thursday, 21 October 2021

Learning is Human

Every animal is born with instinctive knowledge, yet as humans we are perhaps unique in the way that we transfer knowledge to each other throughout our lives. Knowledge is uniquely human, it doesn't come from anywhere other than another human mind. Knowledge isn't 'out there' in the world, it is 'in here' created by us and shared by us.

Learning, in whatever form that takes, only ever takes place from person to person. When we create 'learning technologies' such as websites, elearning, apps, presentations, videos, books, scrolls, cave paintings or marks in clay, we are creating only an intermediary for that knowledge.

Writers of science fiction have long dreamed of the ability to instantly transfer knowledge from one mind to another. In George Lucas' first film, THX 1138, a fugitive comes across a group of children in a school. Their lessons are delivered intravenously, though cylinders connected into their arms. In The Matrix, knowledge is transferred, on demand, into the recipient's brain through an electrical interface. In Johnny Mnemonic, Ghost in the Shell and Elysium, human brains are used to courier information.

It's so easy to focus on the technology of learning, but I will say again, technology is only ever an intermediary for knowledge. Technology does not create knowledge. Learning technologies make it easier and faster to compile, store and share knowledge, but we can so easily lose sight of the origin of that knowledge.

I see organisations investing in elearning and blended learning systems and then paying the lowest day rates for content writers to populate those systems with training courses. I see learning designers tasked with producing a new training course in a matter of hours. I see the value being placed on the technology, because that's where the money went. I see people asking for a short, cost effective training courses. The knowledge is already there. There are people you can talk to, people you can learn from. You don't need to buy some slides for a training course, the learning is not contained within them.

If you're wondering about the relevance of the cover image for this article then let me explain; it's a slide from a conference presentation that I'm delivered to teachers about the way that the human mind learns. Steve Grand set out to build an artificial orang-utan by emulating the structure of a brain to see what intelligence would emerge. He learned a lot along the way but didn't achieve his ultimate goal because the brain turned out to be far more complex than he had initially thought. However, his discoveries provide some extremely valuable insights into how the brain 'learns'. Other researchers taking a similar approach emulated the brain of a worm in the software of a robot, with the result that the worm's behaviour emerged from the physical structure of the worm's brain. A common experiment in neuroscience and psychology involves mice or rats learning to navigate mazes. In one experiment, artificial neurons were implanted into the brain of a mouse which learned a maze. Those neurons were then moved to the brain of a second mouse which inherited knowledge of the maze. Finally, a company in America will freeze your head when you die with the aim that one day these technologies will have developed to the point that your brain structure and therefore your mind can be transferred, perhaps into a software environment, or a robot body, or a cloned human body, so that you can live on. Our knowledge is part of what makes each of us unique and we are compelled to pass that on, to become immortal through sharing our life experience.

Have we become obsessed with the method of delivering information, and lost sight of the origin and purpose of knowledge?


Peter Freeth is an expert in learning, an author, an executive coach and a creator and consumer of knowledge.