"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Monday, May 19, 2014

In Order To Learn, We Need To Be Taught

Orangutan females give birth only about once every eight years. One reason is that a young orangutan is very much dependent on the mother. Nursing takes up to about six years and in addition, the rain forest where these apes live is so rich and diverse in plant life that a mother orangutan must teach her young what food to eat and where to find the food. It is therefore not an easy task to return orangutans that have been orphaned and raised in a sanctuary back into the wild.

The Smithsonian National Zoo's Think Tank looks closely at orangutans, examining how these remarkable apes organize memory and make decisions.

The National Zoo's full grown orangutan male named Kiko
Teaching is remarkably important in the life of orangutans. This is the only way adult orangutans are able to pass their knowledge of the rain forest to their young. Otherwise, orangutans may have to take decades to repeat rediscovering their surroundings without older generations passing their knowledge to the younger ones. Mothers simply have to show their young what is already known. Besides, inquiry can be lethal. A young orangutan can not simply experiment on what can be eaten in the rain forest.


Human beings apparently are not so different from these primates. Daniel Willingham writes in a recent blog article, "Children need to be taught":

You often hear the phrase that small children are sponges, that they constantly learn. This sentiment is sometimes expressed in a way that makes it sound like the particulars don’t matter that much; as long as there is a lot to be learned in the environment, the child will learn it. A new study shows that for one core type of learning, it’s more complicated. Kids don’t learn important information that’s right in front of them, unless an adult is actively teaching them.

The core type of learning is categorization. Understanding that objects can be categorized is essential for kids’ thinking. Kids constantly encounter novel objects; for example, each apple they see is an apple they’ve never encountered before. The child cannot experiment with each new object to figure out its properties; she must benefit from her prior experience with other apples, so that she can know, for example, that this object, since it’s an apple, must be edible.
The study Willingham is talking about on his blog is the following:


Lucas P. Butler, Ellen M. Markman.Preschoolers use pedagogical cues to guide radical reorganization of category knowledgeCognition. Volume 130, Issue 1, January 2014, Pages 116–127
 The results are captured in the following figure:



To understand how the above data are obtained, here is the authors' description:




And after the above, various objects were placed in front of the child. The child is then asked to categorize which ones are "spoodles" (characterized by magnetic behavior). As the graph above indicates only those who were taught directly what a spoodle is knew what makes a spoodle a spoodle.

Yes, we do live in the age of the internet where everything can be "googled". Yet, the truth remains: We are primates just like the orangutans. We need to be taught....







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