Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Towards a Unified Theory of Learning?

Very young children, once thought to be blank slates who develop mentally through interactions with their environment, possess innate abilities and predilections for certain knowledge, according to research summarized by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999). Innate abilities include limited number sense, some grasp of causation, and understanding of rudimentary physical properties. Analysis of infant learning may lead to early intervention strategies or development of pedagogies sensitive to the intrinsic characteristics of human learning.

An area of infant learning with specific application to the manner in which adult learners function may be research conducted on infant behavior during violations of expectation. According to research conducted by Walden, Kim, McCoy, and Karrass (2007) infants are more attentive to events that are unexpected. When witnessing events that violate their expectations, children will look at such events longer than those which behave according to their expectations. When possible, confused children as young as three months will engage in “social looking;” or looking to adults for reference on how to react to unexpected events. Attention to novelty and a natural inclination to look to social partners for behavioral models in unusual situations may be innate human characteristics which carry on into adulthood.

In fact, Kuhn, Amlani, and Rensink (2008) argue that human attention to novelty and social modeling are the medium which stage magicians use to create illusions. Magician’s tricks include using an audience’s inclination to follow the line of a performer’s sight and novel gestures and props to misdirect attention when creating illusions. Witnessing magic is, itself, in defiance of an audience’s expectations, and responsible for the success of magical entertainment across gender, age, and cultural groups. Kuhn, Amlani, and Rensink advocate a scientific study of the methods of science and application to human learning and communication.

Many animals are born precocious; able to fend for themselves, and in most ways act as adults from birth. Humans are altricial, unable to survive without paternal aid. Because humans are born in such a physically helpless state it has been assumed that we are born mentally unformed. Current evidence refutes this assertion and posits that humans have innate mental capacities that can serve as a foundation for entertainment, such as magic, or the development of sophisticated forms of communication and pedagogy. By considering the commonalities of infant learning and magic, researchers may be able to examine the characteristics of learning which are least influenced by environment and culture; providing an opportunity to teach in a manner able to communicate effectively with all learners.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

Kuhn, G., Amlani, A. A., & Rensink, R. A. (2008). Towards a science of magic. Trends in Cognitive Science, 349-354.

Walden, T., Kim, G., McCoy, C., & Karrass, J. (2007). Do You Believe in Magic? Infants' social looking during violations of expectations. Developmental Science , 654-653.

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