From Solo Artists to Knowledge Jockeys – The Story of Human Learning

Learning is in our DNA. All creatures learn and adapt; it is at the very core of evolution. Psychologist James Baldwin suggested that an organism’s ability to learn new behaviours affects its reproductive success and therefore, over generations, through natural selection, becomes part of the genetic makeup of that organism. This is called the Baldwin Effect.

The crows in Tokyo are a good example of this. They found an ingenious way to get themselves a meal by using the city traffic to crack open walnuts. Realising that picking the walnut pieces in the midst of the traffic was too dangerous, the crows figured out a new trick – use the traffic crossing instead and swoop down to pick the open walnut when the traffic stops to let the pedestrians cross! https://youtu.be/_5_DuZ8WuMM

Applying the Baldwin Effect logic here, it may well happen that future generations of Tokyo crows develop a walnut-cracking gene in their DNA, but this is still not the most efficient way of learning. Why? Because it is time consuming – it happens gradually over generations. And it is not widespread – the crows in London, for instance, may never figure out the “delicious” potential of Oxford Circus crossing!

Homo discens or ‘the learning man’ may have started out much like the Tokyo crows – observing, tinkering, imitating, experimenting and learning by trial and error, but the big difference, as Prof David Christian, historian and creator of the famous inter-disciplinary course titled Big History explains, is our ability to learn collectively. Advent of language, writing and printing press allowed us to codify, preserve and disseminate knowledge with very little transmission loss. This allowed Homo discens to become Homo sapiens (the knowing man) because we humans could quickly learn and build on the knowledge created by our predecessors and peers.

We learnt not only to preserve knowledge but also to disseminate it efficiently. The printing press was a milestone in this story and when it was invented, knowledge was created by subject-matter experts and filtered by editors. As a result, as David Weinberger, author of the book Too Big to Know explains, knowledge was scarce, but it was settled. Perhaps this was also why knowledge came to be associated with loftiness and eventually led to putting “the knowledgeable one” on a pedestal. One strong theory of learning as transmission of information – wherein the teacher is a sage on a stage and the learners are passive recipients of knowledge – evolved from this.

Homo sapiens sapiens (those who know that they know) learn through guided doing, inquiry and reflection. Eventually, this led to creation of knowledge through guided discovery and exploration, in which the teacher is a coach and a co-explorer and the learners are active participants who construct their own meaning.

And now with internet transforming the knowledge landscape once again, our theories and processes of learning are in the midst of yet another evolution. Today, anyone can publish – which, as Weinberger explains, has made “knowledge” unbounded, overwhelming and uncertain. The very complexion of knowledge is changing and it is becoming more messy and uncertain.

To deal with this abundant and fast-changing knowledge the way we learn also needs to change. The process of learning needs the added dimension of becoming social and participative besides having the conventional component of inquiry and reflection. Collective learning and sense making enhances the rate at which an individual learns and keeps the learners’ learning curve steep, which is imperative when knowledge is exploding.

Learners today are like performers in the Indian classical music tradition: they are bound by broad guidelines, but otherwise their music is all improvised. It’s up to the learner to figure out how a musical piece could be rendered – blending with the accompanying artists, sometimes taking the lead and performing a scintillating solo piece, sometimes stepping back to let others shine and sometimes performing a jugalbandi (a challenging duet).

In the 19th and 20th centuries learners were like solo artists but in the 21st century learners need to become knowledge jockeys who can take fragmented pieces of knowledge from different disciplines and blend them as a coherent whole that shapes a new synthesis.