Why We Learn

Sometimes big questions just sit under our noses and are too close and obvious to warrant attention. The matter of why we learn falls into this category. It seems obvious that we learn every day of our lives and that learning is important but why is it so?

Part of the answer lies in our evolutionary past. To understand why we learn we need to appreciate the benefits of learning in terms of survival and growth of human beings. Learning is a special way in which we can gain advantage in our quest for success.

Every person and indeed all animals have innate abilities developed through natural selection. Over many generations animals adapt to their environment and acquire specialist abilities for hunting, defence, reproduction and so on. When we observe animals in their environment we appreciate the usefulness of these assets. Mink have fur coats to survive the cold winter, cheetahs run very fast and hedgehogs have spines and roll in a ball when under threat.

Notice it is not easy to distinguish a behavioural ability such as knowing when to run and a physical ability such as well-developed muscle and skeleton for running. If you look at anatomy and physiology it only makes sense in terms of the behaviour it supports. Behaviour in turn, can be best understood when we look at context and environment.

Notice also that it is not always easy to see what is acquired through natural selection and what may be learned during the lifetime of an organism. Many animals display innate tendencies to behave in a certain way – dogs are curious because that’s the way they are. Other behaviours are learned through experiencing the world. Abilities such as knowing where to find food or how to avoid danger are developed through experience in the world. Even physical abilities such as speed, although primarily acquired through evolution, may be further enhanced during life. We can learn to run fast or stand on our heads – nature gives us the raw materials but we use learning to make the most of them.

We are better learners than all other animals. It is our ability to learn that has given human beings the competitive edge in terms of dominating the environment. Many animals do learn but very few can even approach the levels of sophistication in learning that we achieve. Learning is our ‘super ability’ and through our superior learning we achieve all that we are.

When viewed through the lens of evolution and survival, it is easy to appreciate why we need to learn. Here are some types of learning and why they are important to us:

  • We learn to REMEMBER – in this way we associate places, events and situations with what has gone before.
  • We learn to THINK – in this way we can imagine new situations, avoid dangers and harness our efforts toward desirable goals.
  • We learn skills in order to ACT – in this way we nurture specialist abilities to gain further advantage in anticipated situations – skills are not just physical,cognitive skills are also developed, of these language and literacies are perhaps the most important skills for humans.
  • We learn to PARTICIPATE – in this way we work together by contributing to and relying on others to achieve our social, economic and spiritual well being.

These four forms of learning are closely interlinked and Learning to Participate can be said to encapsulate the others.

So to answer the question of ‘why we learn’ we learn to participate as people in the world in order to make all our lives better.

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