Why do we Learn?

It seems funny that when you ask people or even the great font of all knowledge (Google) what the purpose of learning is, almost all of the respondent’s answer the question with a reference to education. When did learning become all about education?

We are born to learn. All of us. Learning is what we do. From the moment we enter this world, we are learning. From the recognition of a smile to the realization that we are finished with the world, we are learning. How did learning become education?

Learning is about figuring out how to understand reality. From our first to our last breath, we are trying to gain a better understanding of an internal representation of reality and will slow down only when our understanding of reality meets our need or desire. We begin by gaining a perceptual understanding of what is around us through the development of our senses: seeing, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and kinesthetic. Through our senses, we begin to construct an understanding of the world.

Following the basic understanding of our sensory world, we begin to explore causal relationships – if I do this, it will cause something else to happen. This exploration of causal relationships in order to better understand reality begins very young and continues throughout most of our lives. An important aspect of building our internal representation of for understanding our reality is through the recognition of patterns, which arise from our exploration of causal relationships and lead to an understanding of basic symbolic relationships.

The basic understanding of symbolic relationships and patterns allow us to understand and process language. From the ability to understand symbolic and pattern relationships, we can begin the rudimentary understanding of abstractions, the most fundamental of which are reading, writing and math.

These symbolic abstractions are initially tied to very concrete concepts, and our representation of reality is greatly enriched by learning these fundamental skills. Thoughts and memories can be recorded for either future reference or sharing with others. Thoughts and knowledge that others have acquired can be found through reading. Although rudimentary quantification precedes the symbolic representation of number, math allows for a more complex understanding of quantity with which the world can be better understood.

The exploration and understanding of causal relationships, the ability to record and retrieve information through reading and writing, as well as some fairly sophisticated manipulations of quantity through basic math are absolutely brilliant tools that we use to gain a better understanding of reality. Not just our customized representation of reality, but the reality of the world around us.

Our individual representation of reality proceeds from a basic sensory reality to catholic and complex social relationships that have allowed us to build the sophisticated society that we live in today. Given the complexity and importance of social relationships and our sophisticated ability to recognize patterns, coupled with early environmental experiences, we are motivated to gain an enriched understanding of, not only the social structure of our customized reality, but where we fit, and where we want to fit, in our personalized social structure.

At this point, much of our implicitly driven learning is focussed on gaining the fundamental thinking skills that we need and then optimizing the abilities that we value in order to not only fit but even improve our standing in the social structure we have constructed.

For most of us, learning anything beyond the acquisition of the fundamental tools that we use to function in our society is not greatly valued as we focus on our personalized value system. As a result, formal learning, unless formal learning is what we value as a way to optimize their standing in our customized view of reality, becomes a wider social requirement or rite of passage that is often seen as nothing more than an impediment to individualistic progress or a necessary vehicle that is used to arrive at the social destination we desire.

The purpose of learning, at an individual level, is to attain the desired standing in the internally represented reality or, the social structure that they live in.

So, where does formal education come into this? Basic formal education is an efficient manner to equip people with the fundamental, concrete thinking skill set that can be used to vastly improve our actual understanding of reality. There is also a recognition that a higher level of abstract thinking skills, are of great benefit to our society, and are only attainable through sophisticated formal training.

For the vast majority of the members of our society, the fundamental, concrete thinking skills are all that is necessary for them to achieve their desired place in our society. Their reality is satisfied with basic concrete thinking skills.

For a smaller subset of society, higher order thinking skills that rely on fostering the ability to understand and manipulate abstract concepts are highly valued. Barring some developmental disability, everyone is capable of acquiring these higher order thinking skills, but individuals must have the intrinsic motivation to gain them or they will not apply the effort necessary. Developing higher order thinking is difficult, just as developing athletic, artistic, business or whatever skills beyond a basic level.

One of the things that make higher order thinking skills so difficult to learn is that the primary purpose of these skills is to improve our individual and collective understanding of reality. Not an internal representation of reality, but the reality of the physical world that we live in. Since most of us are quite satisfied with the reality we enjoy, having to rebuild our reality in order to gain a better understanding of the world is an uncomfortable endeavor and it is easier to simply avoid it.

As society developed through the age of enlightenment and invention, recognition of the value of these higher order thinking skills emerged. Society tasked the institution of higher education with developing these skills in people. The direction that higher education has taken in recent decades means that very few graduates emerge with a fully developed suite of higher order thinking skills that are available for application in any context.

It took me some time to understand why so many individuals, with the best learning, that higher education has to offer, have failed to both develop a full suite of these skills and/or be able to apply these skills across a wide range of contexts and domains. In the next few articles, I will explore why this is the case and what we can do to address this issue – if we feel that we need to address the issue at all.

In my next article, I’ll be considering what this restructuring of our internal representation of reality as we learn means in relation to memory.

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