We Learn Through Selection Not Instruction
“Looking back into the history of biology, it appears that wherever a phenomenon resembles learning, an instructive theory was first proposed to account for the underlying mechanisms. In every case, this was later replaced by a selective theory.” – Niels Jerne
To anyone who has passed though our educational system, the title of this Element seems outrageous. The immediate retort is “Of course we learn through instruction. We spend the first 18 years of our lives being instructed by our parents and teachers, and the rest of our lives being instructed by seminars, corporate trainings, our bosses, and our mates. Instruction is how we learn.” What we are discovering from the worlds of neuroscience, biology, and genetics is that our observations are wrong. It may appear as if we acquire learning and long-term memory by being instructed, but, in fact, under the microscope of science, we are now realizing for the first time that Aristotle and Plato were off the mark.
Throughout history, every time science looked at how learning and change occur in biological systems, such as genes, bacteria, antibodies, enzymes, or brains, an instructive hypothesis has first been presented. In virtually every case, upon the acquisition of further knowledge, the instructive model was replaced by a selective one. Neuroscientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini nicely sums up the new scientific view: “There is no known process, either in biology or in cognition, that literally amounts to learning in the traditional ‘instructive’ sense. … All the mechanisms of acquisition … are due to a process of internal selection.”
Read on to learn more about how we learn through selection not instruction
Biological Versus Academic
There are substantial differences between the biological term “selection” and the academic term “instruction.” The academic term implies a method in which learning takes place through directives and orders from a central authority. Instructive methods view the brain as an empty container to be filled through authority’s direction, using the Newtonian tools of leverage that every learner is familiar with: the reward and punishment of good and bad grades (see “Breeding Out Personal Meaning by Extrinsic Motivation“)
The biological term “selection” defines the process of physiological change that takes place within an organism when it selects new information that helps it more effectively adapt to its world. The most important element of selective systems, such as our brain, is that all new information must in some way physically attach itself to data that has been previously encoded into our neurological structures”either by our genetic program or by our previous encounters with the environment. In selective systems, the individual has the power, not some authority like a teacher, because it is the individual who is doing the matching, as his or her brain unconsciously selects new information that resonates with previously acquired knowledge for inclusion into long-term memory.
Our efforts to develop effective learning systems that produce dramatic neurological change – and thus dramatic learning – have been hampered because we have failed to understand that learning takes place though the biological process of selection, not the academic process of instruction. In simplest terms, instructionists say learning can take place without accessing information that already exists in an individual’s brain, while selectionists maintain that all new learning is dependent upon what has been previously learned. This is not a subtle difference, and understanding this difference is paramount in building learning systems that create profound learning.
When comparing instructive and selective learning systems (which, at this time, are very few), it is important to recognize that they differ substantially on the value of personal meaning in creating long-term memory. Because instructionist methods approach the brain as if it is an empty vessel, information that the individual has previously acquired and deems personally meaningful is seen as having little relevance to the learning process. Conversely, selectionist learning systems recognize that what we hold meaningful in our lives is encoded into our existing neurological structures, and because all new information must attach itself to these preexisting structures, in the end, meaning is paramount to the creation of efficient long-term memory (see “No Meaning, No Learning”: The Meaning Network“).
After 25 years of working with, studying, and researching how the brain most effectively encodes data, it is my sincere belief that the concept of learning through selection, not instruction, will have a more profound impact on accelerating learning speed and increasing the joy of learning than any other previous learning advancement. Failure to understand this concept will keep us trapped in the world where painful and inefficient learning systems dominate.
In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:
That you learn through a selective process that has two stages – one at the level of genes and the other at the level of your neural tissue.
How understanding this two-stage process will allow you to learn more rapidly and effectively.
How the field of immunology led the way in the discovery that organisms learn through selection not instruction.
How our misunderstanding of Darwin’s phrase “survival of the fittest” has helped continue our reliance on faulty instructionist models of learning.
How Englishman John Locke and the school of psychology called behaviorism were wrong. Our brain is not a tabula rasa, or empty slate, upon which information can be forced by using the right reward (good grades) or punishment (bad grades).
How, in the 19th century, philosopher William James discovered “Selection is the very keel on which our mental ship is built.”
How, because instructive methods of learning have ruled science, our present scholastic, government and corporate learning systems have been built on a faulty premise.