Learning, the act of gaining knowledge, is a craft unto itself. It starts with questions - the what ifs, how abouts, whys, . . . leading from the unknown to the known, through inquiry, experimentation, travel, and of course pure accident.

This is about how it happens in my life.

Sense-Making and Symbolism

We've all experienced the ease of understanding that comes when we're engaged, as much as the difficulty of learning something we don't find meaningful.    The notion that we are more invested in learning what interests us surely comes as no surprise.

And it just might be built into our DNA.

On one of my recent browsings at S. Walter Stewart I found The First Idea how symbols, language and intelligence evolved from our primate ancestors to modern humans, by Stanley I. Greenspan and Stuart G. Shanker.  It is a powerful read, presenting a new theory of language acquisition and learning that is intertwined with a novel perspective on the evolution of human cognitive capacity. 

The crux of their argument is that language and learning is rooted in our human capacity to be emotionally affected by the world around us. 

The authors reject as unsatisfactory the Big Bang theory of language acquisition  (e.g. Chomsky and Pinker), which implicates sudden genetic mutations during the Pleistocene as primary forces in the development of language.  One such mutation created a change in human anatomy: the descent of the larynx, permitting the kind of vocalizations we now call speech. The Big Bang theory ties this ability to speak to the notion of language skills, reducing the acquisition of language to a set of innate heuristics set free from their physical constraints.


Greenspan and Shanker, on the other hand, present a compelling argument that our linguistic abilities have little to do with the noises we make, both now and in our evolutionary past. The authors draw on research with infants and children across a wide spectrum of developmental ability, as well as work with non-human primates, to show that our ability to employ symbols and provide meaningful signals to others is grounded in an emotive response to our environment which can be expressed in many ways, not just speech.

In other words, we developed language skills so we could communicate about what matters.

Knowing the importance of an emotional investment in learning means that culture and behaviour matter more than ever, especially in the presence of developmental disabilities.   This is perhaps the most significant aspect of the authors' research: positive outcomes for children and families living with Autism and other developmental disorders.

All this certainly seems to reinforce the importance of being passionate in what we do, reflecting the wisdom of the cliche "follow your heart" 

You can read more about Shanker's work at York University's Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative




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