Editor's note: This is based on a post on the author's website.
The human body, though exquisitely complex, is perfectly designed for learning, lots of learning. All day, every day, we are learning.
We receive innumerable inputs from within and outside our body through a wide variety of senses. So vast are our capabilities for sensing and observing the world around us that the human brain is designed to forget most of what passes through our senses, and our body must sleep in order to consolidate our learning.
The traditional formal educational system that most of us are familiar with typically only prizes a few forms of input and output for learning.
Typical educational systems prescribe heavy doses of reading and writing. As one who has spent many years deeply immersed in traditional academic fields, I do not wish to argue against the indispensable value of reading and writing as forms of learning. However, because the educational system as we know it was designed, built, codified and ossified in primarily a text-based media environment, I’m arguing for a broader view of how to help learners everywhere reignite their passion for the basic human characteristic of learning.
In essence, for all the incredible good the educational system does, those of us in the educational system would do well to practice more critical self-reflection about how to improve the system. We could unleash significant learning gains among learners if we allowed more of their natural learning proclivities to be sparked.
Human beings did not achieve all of their greatness by simply reading books and listening to experts. Rather, the most fundamental learning gains made by humans, which underscore all that humanity and civilization care about, were brought about by manually creating and handling tools.
For example, in the outback of Oregon, the Paisley Caves preserve some of the oldest datable evidence in North America of human occupation, including pre-Clovis point arrowheads and hand-sewn shoes. More spectacular due to their sheer age, but half-a-world away in Kenya, may be the world’s oldest stone tools ever discovered. These people were not reading books and listening to experts. They were doing, experimenting, failing, reflecting, learning and then improving.
To be a human is to be a tool maker, first and foremost. Any human who is not a tool maker is missing out on a significant area of human learning. And it isn’t just the making of tools that matters.
Dexterously handling and implementing tools for creative ends is the foundation of human civilization and society. When one studies world civilization, preserved ancient texts alone do not fully represent the vastness and accomplishment of human civilization. Rather art, architecture, music, food, weapons, trade, metallurgy and a host of other disciplines round out the picture, all of which require the human making or use of tools.
Since using our hands to create is core to being human, why don’t we require more of this form of learning in our educational system? This is an especially relevant question given the fact that the brain has already devoted significant resources to the hands.
I love books. There are several thousand books in my home and, yes, most of them have been read by at least one member of the family. But again, the human brain is also well designed to learn through active manipulation of the world around us. Therefore, more must be done to engage learners through physicality and active manipulation. Technology developers are already starting to move in that direction through touch-screen smart devices. This is a huge leap from the static page of books.
My kids, when they reach college, will demand learning resources far more substantive than are currently available. Already at home when I open a book, my kids sometimes want to “manipulate” objects on the print pages as though they were interacting with an iPad app.
As they have matured, my kids have tempered their expectations of books as manipulatable objects, recognizing the significant interactive limitations presented by the bricks we call books.
The business of education will not be serving the needs of learners if we do not redesign learning experiences for what people need: manipulation.
Just for fun: The root of the word manipulation derives from the Latin word “mani,” which means hand. And check out the etymology of the word hand and related words at eatonhand.com.
Taylor Halverson (Ph.D.s: biblical studies, instructional technology) is a BYU teaching and learning consultant. http://taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.