Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ What We Learn and How We Learn

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 17, 2008

Originally posted on Half an Hour, August 17, 2008.

Responding to Joanne Jacobs, who writes:
DNA could determine whether children learn from mistakes or cope with abuse, some scientists now believe
Lots to criticize in this report. It doesn't even say who made this 'discovery' and where it was published (telling us that it was an experiment at the Max Planck Institute for Neurological Research in Germany is insufficient).

And the idea that a particular genetic difference will result in a particular behavioral change is a bit suspect. While genetics no doubt influences outcomes, there is a long and complex relationship between them. Brains are plastic, not static, which means that they are not built at birth, but rather, grow from a seed.

But all of that said, let's take these results at face value. Let's suppose that (among other things) children with fewer dopamine receptors are less able to learn from mistakes. Then it would follow that there *are* learning styles, as Howard Gardiner suggested. That, some children - such as these - do not learn as well by doing (trial and error), but rather, by hearing (being told).

Contra people like Willingham it would be the case that the way we learn influences what we can learn. It is not simply the case that there are different kinds of knowledge (linguistic, musical, interpersonal, etc.) but that these are also different ways to learn, that would correspond with these forms of knowledge.

And if this is the case, then it follows that the idea that there is a single way to teach children - and, indeed, a single way to test them - is absurd. Children with fewer dopamine receptors, say, may have the same knowledge as other children - that 'Paris is the capital of France', say - but it would be unreasonable to attempt to teach this knowledge to them in the same way, nor to test them for this knowledge in the same way,

What we learn and how we learn are influenced by a wide range of factors. The child's genetic structure is one of these factors, and rapidly becoming one of the easiest to detect. The nutrition a child receives, pre- and post-natal, is another factor. The child's exposure to varied environments, including the provision of role models and exemplars to follow, is another.

All of these have an impact on what we should teach and how we should teach it. Supposing that any single intervention - small schools, quality teachers, phonics - will resolve an education deficit is absurd and irresponsible.

The only effective intervention is also the most difficult - across the board improvements in a child's social and physical environment (good nutrition, quality experiences, positive social connection) along with personalized learning programs designed address the child's strengths (in both learning domain and learning methodology) where possible and weaknesses where necessary.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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