In my last days (months? years?) of increasing decrepitude I’ve been appointed by the family to give art lessons to my 10-year old grandson who is keen to learn. So I’ve dutifully drawn up a syllabus of 18 lessons ranging from still-life drawing and simple perspectives, thro’ the ancient Egyptian art of egg tempera and up to painting with modern acrylics. Whether Joss or I will stay the course remains to be seen. I’ve never taught in a formal way before so it’s caused me to think about the process of teaching and learning in a fundamental way.
Of which I am an expert. Or at least I like to think so. Or used to think so anyway. Some 30 years ago, after a marriage failure and total insolvency due to the collapse of a business, I holed up in a 10ft x 12ft bed-sit and decided to take a Sabbatical and study the brain, this being a subject I’d always been interested in but difficult enough, I thought, to give me a therapeutic diversion for the while. Indeed, it became the most intellectually fascinating period of my life and towards the end of the two-year period I was in correspondence with two of the world’s leading specialists, Benjamin Libet and Sir John Eccles. By this I mean that they were both kind enough to exchange more than a few letters with a layman, giving me guidance on this or that tricky point.
So, thus qualified, I will describe the learning process from the brain point of view, such that it is not described by educationalists. By this I mean that educationalists cannot yet rid themselves of the Medieval context of sermons and congregations, or teachers and classes, or lecturers and audiences. Indeed, my description, while fully in accordance with modern neuroscience, was the method by which the massive computer industry of today picked itself up by its bootstraps 50 years ago before there was any teaching of programming in schools or universities (nor for many years thereafter). In old-fashioned language, it is called “Sitting next to Nellie” — though I will dress it up a bit.
Visual, auditory and bodily-sensing perceptions (mainly) from the outside world pour like Niagara Falls into the rear part of the outermost wrinkled portion of our brain called the cortex. There they are processed and the results concentrated in millions of multi-layered micro-modules, each as powerful as personal computer. These modules are then usefully connected together, mainly in childhood, in vast neuronal networks. Then (particularly in the years after puberty), the impulses of these networks are sent to the frontal parts of the cortex where they are given permission, or not, to proceed further. If yes, the impulses are sent to a thin central strip of cortex (stretching roughly from ear tip to ear tip) called the motor cortex which then sends instructions to the muscles.
It is only then — when the full cycle of perceptions to activities has been performed — that all the appropriate networks in the brain start to become strengthened and true learning has taken place. Ignoring the philosophical question of freewill, it is a pure case of the environment acting on us, and us acting on the environment. Otherwise, any descriptions of “teaching” or “learning” or “knowledge” are pure abstractions that dangle somewhere in the middle of the real cycle of events.
Apart from saying that most educational methods need to be dynamited, and replaced by learning-by-doing, there is nothing more I’m able to add. There are 1,001 specializations in the modern world and growing. At least 1,001 unique learning environments need to be developed. So far in the course of the industrial revolution, business has got away with the expense of education and gladly left it to the state. The result is that business is increasingly complaining of the sub-standard quality of school-leavers and graduates.
Well, what a pity! If nation-states can’t be prevailed upon to dynamite their educational methods, then business will have to start taking over — as indeed some large corporations are doing so already. Quod erat demonstrandum.