Kieran Egan offers us “A Very Brief History of Learning” that goes like this:
“I suppose our educational problems began about a quarter of a million years ago—not that I intend to work up to the present year by year. According to the current evolutionary story, that was the period of the last rapid burst of brain growth in our hominid ancestors. This growth presented a particular problem to half the members of our ancestors’ societies. The female pelvis had to widen to allow these bigger-brained babies to be born, but it couldn’t widen so much that rapid walking would become difficult or impossible. For some reason, having bigger brains gave a significant advantage to these hominids, and so those with the bigger brains had more chances to have children, and so the brain growth continued. But there was obviously a limit to how far the architecture of the female pelvis could accommodate to what might well be an evolutionary advantage but was a major pain in childbirth. The pain has remained, but a solution of a kind was worked out.
The solution was that humans began to give birth while their babies’ brains were immature, and the bulk of the brain’s growth took place outside the womb. You can get a sense of the scale of this solution by comparing modern human brains and their growth with that of our chimpanzee cousins. Both of us have a brain of about 350 cubic centimeters at birth. As it grows to adulthood, the chimpanzee adds around another hundred cubic centimeters, whereas the human adds well over a thousand cubic centimeters, and most of that growth occurs in the first few years of life.
What is going on? What is the use of all this extra brain tissue that has cost so many of our species so much pain and trouble? It seems to be tied up with symbols, or at least a lot of it is. Unlike all other species, we are fantastically clever at associating sounds and images with meanings. Clever us. But this is also the source of nearly all our educational problems. Some of the symbols we learn and use seem fairly simple for us. Indeed, they are so simple that we cannot not learn them in normal circumstances. In a language-using environment, children cannot fail to learn the language or languages used around them. If two languages are in use, they will learn them both and hardly ever confuse them. Quite remarkable.”
“After a couple of hundred thousand years or more—I told you the history would move fast—people invented ways of representing language in written symbols. This is an enormously clever trick, later made even more useful by some people in the east of the Mediterranean who simplified the symbols to represent the sounds of language. The ancient Greeks brought this trick to even greater refinement by constructing a compact alphabet learnable by almost everyone. We haven’t made any significant advance on their alphabet since. The trouble with this clever trick is that it both justified the profession of educator and left us with some subtle and not-so-subtle problems to deal with.
The not-so-subtle problems appear when we set about teaching children to read and write alphabetic symbols and recognize how they resemble oral language as means of representing thoughts and feelings and conveying information. If we work hard at this, or make the children work hard, most of them can pick up the basic trick quite quickly. They can learn to read the oddly shaped lines and dots and squiggles as having specific meanings. But the more subtle problems become evident when we realize that this basic skill acquisition is only the beginning of the business of literacy. The more subtle problems are tied up with the kind and degree of meaning students can learn, and the problems extend even to such issues as teaching literacy so that students will enjoy engaging with it. If they don’t find that the skill provides rewards of pleasure, of course, it will not develop in the ways necessary for what we consider some of the central purposes of education.
This might seem like an excessively refined thing for a teacher to worry about while struggling with the problems of ensuring basic literacy in unsupportive conditions. Working with students whose families read little, or for whom the purposes of education play little role in the life around them, doesn’t often leave much time or mental space to dwell on how to make the experience return pleasure as well as utility to the student. The latter is often triumph enough.”