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Faculty Development Center

November 2008 Archives

How We Learn

NOTE: This is one of a series of articles I wrote for a college newspaper. The idea was to explain to students what teachers thought about teaching and learning.


How do we learn? This is an innocent little question but it hides a universe of theories, none of which may provide comfort in the first moments of an exam when the concept of “brain freeze” takes on a new and ominous meaning.

The short answer is that we learn with our minds and that this is one of those important things that distinguish us from lentils and mayflies. Apparently, we are learning sponges, soaking up everything that comes along from the moment of entry into this “buzzing, blooming, confusion of life,” as William James put it. Sensory impressions, the foundation of experience, are the coins of this realm, and yet even as children we quickly discover that some of our coins may be counterfeit—not to be trusted.

But did you notice the metaphor used in the previous paragraph, the one about “learning sponges?” It implies that our minds are receptacles—empty ones at that—and experiences fill these receptacles up. Another variation is the mind as a blank slate, a tabula rasa, a concept that most of us take for granted as a given in the universe. In this view, we are born with empty blackboards for minds and experience of all kinds is writ large upon us. Thus, there is no possibility of innate ideas or of universal patterns of thought and feeling because everything we know relies on outside influences.

Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist teaching at Harvard, deals this viewpoint a devastating blow in his book, The Blank Slate. Our brains are wired, says Pinker, for certain kinds of thinking, acting, and feeling. Much of this comes from necessity, since those who can literally think on their feet can use their minds to calculate the odds of survival and can choose to run away, to stay and fight, or to engage in conflict resolution. Believers of the blank slate viewpoint are fearful that the concept of innate ideas might justify prejudice and injustice, for example, because they are completely “natural.” Not so, says Pinker, who notes that common patterns of thinking and feeling don’t relieve the user of that brain from moral actions and choices.

The real argument behind all this, however, is whether we have a human nature or not. Those who believe that we do, people like Steven Pinker, see a possibility for common ground between people from different cultures. No matter what the variations that might be played, says Pinker, there are certain themes that run through our thoughts and actions. If we know what those themes are we can act in ways that might offset the negatives and accentuate the positives. Moral choices are still our lot, says Pinker, but now we know why we must make them.

Here’s another fascinating look at the human experience as outlined by psychologist Richard Nisbett in his book, The Geography of Thought. Nisbett argues that Asians and Westerners think in completely different ways and thus have very different views on human nature and the nature of the universe. Western thought derives from Greek individuality, the belief in absolutes, and the eternal conflict of opposites. Asian thought, specifically Chinese thought, places the community first, looks at particular actions in their wider context, and believes in a balance of opposites. These differences, says Nisbett, are not a matter of choice or whimsy. Rather, they actually affect what Westerners and Asians perceive in the world around them.

Such research shows that many Asians really are much better at math and the sciences but not good as Westerners at producing revolutionary science. Westerners value assertiveness and directness while Easterners cultivate harmony in relationships between people. If we know these things, says Nisbett, we can communicate much better with people who are not like us. Prejudice—seemingly hardwired into us—will not spark new conflicts if we are genuinely working to understand and not simply to judge the other person.

So when teachers ask you to make connections between ideas and not just repeat the obvious, it’s an invitation to realize how you learn in the midst of this buzzing, blooming life.

Dr. Barry L. Casey is the Interim Director of the Faculty Development Center.