Being Hands On: Learning By Doing

Just as infants’ earliest impulses are to put everything into their mouths to find out what they feel and taste like, we have an innate drive to personally experience everything around us. Learning by doing is the central process of human adaptation to our social and physical environments.

The interplay between observation, problem solving, decision-making, flexible thinking, and creativity is embedded in everything we do. If this method of experiential learning is in fact the natural process by which humans learn, and has been a foundation of education for centuries, why does our current K-12 education system not prioritize this type of learning?

Mainstream education around the world demonstrates disconnect between the way humans learn and the way they are taught. For most, typical schooling provides little opportunity for experiential learning. The Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire poignantly describes the state of current schooling as a banking system. The teacher deposits knowledge into the minds of the students. For students to demonstrate learning, they need only withdraw the stored information. This is the difference between knowing and remembering.

By contrast, experiential learning shows us something different about how we must construct education. According to this philosophy, the creation of knowledge is an active process that comes from doing. There have been major efforts by educational philosophers to invite this practice back into the classroom, grounded in the works of great education reformers like John Dewey and Jean Piaget. According to Dr. David Kolb, an expert in experiential learning, the point of experiential learning is not to disregard other mainstream teaching practices. Rather, it is a holistic perspective on learning that combines experience, perception, cognition, and behavior.

From a neurological perspective, we see that learning happens as a result of the brain’s response to positive and negative feedback encountered while performing a task. Imagine a child hitting a fastball for the first time. When the bat connects with the ball, the child’s brain is flooded with dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter that is a crucial element of our reward system. The activation of the reward system maximizes the likelihood that the child will be able to hit the ball a second time.

In contrast, if the child misses the ball, her error-correction system will activate, and she will adjust her swing accordingly. This release of neurotransmitters encourages us to adapt our behavior in order to avoid errors.

Not only do people learn by doing, in fact this very process has evolved across species, particularly mammals. When examining the midbrain of mice, the brain region responsible for relaying auditory and visual information, we see increases in dopamine activity as a result of positive reinforcement. The increase in the levels of dopamine released in the midbrain acts as a teaching signal, demonstrating how mammals are neurologically programmed to respond to rewards.

Recently, with the use of live-brain imaging technology, a team of researchers in Germany found a similar pattern in the brains of humans. When asked to solve an open-ended problem with multiple steps, the study participants showed increased activity in the ventral striatum and midbrain when they successfully solved the problem. However, when participants responded incorrectly, they exhibited a direct reduction in activity in these same areas.

“Learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes,” Kolb reminds us. “Ideas are not fixed, innumerable elements of thought but are formed and reformed through experience.” If learning happens from cataloging positive feedback in relation to experience, we must acknowledge, “learning by doing” is not a specialized education model but rather simply reflects the natural neurological process of learning. For modern educators, the question is not so much whether they should implement it but the best ways to encourage this growth.

While just about every doctor or lawyer proudly has their degrees on display, showing off their credentials, hardly a single one has entered the profession knowing their duties inside and out, able to perform flawless brain surgery or take on a Supreme Court case at a moment’s notice. The degree is merely the beginning — they learn their signature in the trade by doing, continuously learning each day as their career ensues.

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Spring 2015 issue.

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