Individualism comes in many forms. In addition to looking different from each other, our minds and our methods of learning are also different. The education we receive in school, however, is usually quite standardized. Reflecting on my academic experience, while all my teachers had somewhat different approaches to how they presented their educational materials, many of them typically used an approach that required strong auditory learning skills. As I entered the world of education as a teacher, I became aware of different learning styles in my students—blends of kinesthetic, visual, and auditory learners—and did my best to design lessons encouraging students to engage all learning styles. I did this because when talking to other teachers about their personal educational experiences, many of them raised the point that despite having had good teachers, they wished that their education had been more visual or more hands-on. Upon further reflection of my personal situation, I would say that my educational achievements were indeed partly attributed to having had good teachers, and also partly to having grown up in a very well rounded caring environment. After all, our process of learning doesn’t start and end in school, does it?
Questions about learning are complicated and have been debated for many years. Philosophers across cultures have debated questions about the root of education and what makes us who we are. In more recent times, behavioral studies have also been conducted both on humans and animals. Many of these questions are ultimately incorporated into a more fundamental question of human nature, specifically whether humans are born good or otherwise. Central to this debate is the importance of “nature” and “nurture” in how we develop. The nature theory proposes that certain parts of who we are as individuals are hereditary. Certainly, we are born with a genetic makeup that is hereditary, but even our development before birth can be affected by our environment. This view that the environment affects our development is referred to as the nurture theory. When looking at the nature or nurture debate, the question is not exactly an either/or one, but rather a recognition that human development is a combination of both theories.
Looking more closely at the nurture theory and accepting that the environment we live in does affect our learning and development, we can begin asking more specific questions. How much of our environment, for example—including factors such as culture, economic class, or a family’s educational level—plays a part in how we learn and develop? I will present some arguments and examples below which illustrate the nurture perspective and which should at the minimum serve as a foundation for further debate.
One environmental input that I think is significant in learning and development is the role of the family unit. I grew up in Trinidad where my family was very close both in terms of our relationship with each other as well as in our physical proximity. Most of my extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins lived within easy walking distance from my home. Traditionally, individual actions were often thought of in terms of our larger family unit, and it was using that organizational method that my grandparents were able to send their three youngest children (of whom my father was one) to a professional school following graduation from high-school. One benefit of this extended family was that there was always adult supervision available for children, usually an uncle, aunt, or grandparent. Because of the strong family unit and because caretaking roles were being shared among adults, there was always a good commitment from everyone involved.
When I moved to the United States just before my teenage years, I found that many of my new friends had somewhat different experiences growing up. Caretakers during the hours following the end of the school day were not relatives; my friends were usually sent different places for after-school care. More notably was the emphasis on the individual as opposed to the family unit. What was remarkable was that we shared a similar respect for family and elders, and we all took education equally seriously—even at a relatively young age. The expectations of our elders were clear to us, and perhaps that was one of the most significant contributions from our families to our development.
Clearly, family is influential, but what about other environmental elements like technology? Technology is becoming more commonplace across the United States, and children have much easier access to media today. Many households have more than one television—sometimes even a television in almost every room. Computers are increasingly becoming ubiquitous in homes across the country, and internet access along with them. Radio programs are less censored today than they were in the past. With all these changes, how much effect do media have on how people learn and develop? Judging by news reports, one would be tempted to say that media plays a huge role in how and what we learn. One can think of both reported and hypothetical situations of when media is blamed for children’s behavior. A child guilty of a school shooting says in an interview that he listens to certain kinds of music which, upon analysis of the lyrical content, encourages antisocial behavior and glorifies suicidal tendencies. A teenager is arrested for stealing a car and informs us that she was acting out a scene from a videogame. A student touches a classmate inappropriately and justifies his actions saying that he saw it in a music video. A teenage girl speaks disrespectfully of her mother and other authority figures and reports that she learned these ideas from a song on a CD she owns.
Despite the sensational media coverage that these incidents may get, is the media truly to blame? Does the media really have that strong of an influence on our behavior? If the media were such an important player in where we learned how to act, shouldn’t we expect that incidents like the ones above should be occurring at much higher rates all around the country—maybe even the world? If the media were so powerful in shaping our lives, would that mean that we have no free will and instead that our lives are determined by the creators of the things we see and hear in the media? If the media were found to be as powerful as it is sometimes presented to be, why wouldn’t a larger portion of the public, thinking in terms of benefits for society overall, “disallow” its existence? Clearly, while the media is influential, it cannot bear the burden of all the blame for these incidents.
Many of the issues about how people learn are further complicated by matters of economics and by parent’s education. Lower income families, for example may have a higher tendency to use media as an impromptu babysitter especially if they do not have adequate resources to provide quality after-school care for their children. Older children may be given responsibilities which are not age appropriate (such as starting working young to bring in additional family income or being assigned the role of a babysitter for younger siblings) and these responsibilities may negatively affect their academic performance and their outlook on life. Parents with low education levels or migrant parents who do not know English very well are at a disadvantage because even if they were concerned with their children’s well-being, they may not be able to make the connection between what their children are exposed to and how they are behaving. Additionally, because of their own educational shortcomings, they may be more intimidated by the school environment, and consequently participate less in their children’s education.
With all these factors influencing how we develop, who is responsible for the education of children? Education should start from the home in the moments following birth. This is not the same education we expect from school, but during this time, children should be supported in their development of things like routines, structure, respect and responsibility. Children should be clearly shown that some behaviors result in rewards and some end unpleasantly. They should begin to understand why the results are as they are so that in our teaching of discipline, we are not just try to achieve automatic conditioning, but rather trying to develop a process whereby children start being more aware of their actions.
School naturally is the place where much of what we would consider traditional education would occur. Within the school students can begin to develop teamwork skills and build a sense of community. As students develop a stronger sense of how they fit into society, they can become more successful being autonomous in their decisions and actions. Although some parents place unreasonably high expectations on teachers, it is important for parents to recognize that while teachers do get to be with children for a significant portion of children’s daily lives, teachers do not usually get to be with the children in the after-school hours or during summer recess. Additionally, in some cases, the relationships which develop only last the academic year, so it is important that the responsibility isn’t perceived to be one which is borne by teachers alone.
This paper is just an introduction to some of the many things we need to consider when we think of the question of how people learn. Learning begins at birth and continues through the course of life. Some of the learning in our lives is structured and intentional. Some of the learning happens without our knowing, or are things “learned” by living in a particular environment. Being more aware of how we learn and of how others may learn allows teachers (who can be anyone in one’s environment) to be more effective at increasing the body of knowledge available.