‘Is it possible to apply the basic principle of “emulating Nature's best biological ideas to solve a human problem” to an area of the social sciences, (in this case learning to read)?”
In it I address the fourth and final question I listed in the first of these four blogs, namely:
‘What does a “biological perspective for addressing the problem of learning to read” look like?
Describing ‘a biological perspective for addressing the human problem of learning to read’ is a bit like describing a complex tapestry, in that understanding the ‘big picture’ which the tapestry represents requires understanding how the individual threads of warp and weft intertwine to create the final product. In what follows I present a dot point summary of the threads of meaning and conceptual thinking I wove together to create the final tapestry of ‘‘a biological perspective for addressing the human problem of learning to read’.
• First I had to re-frame the term 'learning' and its cognates (e.g. “knowledge”, “understanding”, “comprehension”, “knowledge-building”, etc. as “meaning”, and/or “meaning-making”. This meant that whenever I wanted to talk about, write about or think about ‘learning’ or any of its synonyms (i.e.‘cognate terms’) I forced myself to use the terms like ‘making (or ‘constructiing) meanings’, rather than discourse which suggested that ‘learning’, ‘knowledge’ etc. was some kind of tangible ‘stuff’ which existed independently of the human mind. Instead of saying, thinking, or writing ‘I’m going to learn topic x’ I would say, think or write ‘I’m going to make or construct meaning about topic x using symbols’.
• Secondly I needed an ‘operational definition’ of ‘meaning’. This is an ongoing task. Currently I operationally define ‘meaning’ thus:
“Meaning refers to the unpredictable mix of personally constructed internal, pictures, sounds, smells, feelings, thoughts, emotions constructed in the mind. They seem to be unleashed by, and closely related to the range of symbol systems humans are constantly using and manipulating to make sense of the world". This will certainly be fine-tuned as I learn more.
• Thirdly I had to locate meaning –making firmly within valid scientific principles from biology, evolution, and cognitive science. Here is a dot point summary of these principles:
o 'meaning' is an internal cognitive construction of the human mind which serves to make sense of the world.
o 'making sense of the world' is essential for survival of the individual and the species.
o the human mind is capable of constructing meaning using a range of symbol systems.
o biological and cultural evolution has 'selected' the construction of meaning using a range of symbol systems as a species-survival trait for homo sapiens.
o this ability has been so successful as a species-survival mechanism that evolution has ensured that its acquisition by newly born members of the culture is as 'fail-safe' as possible.
o as learning to control the oral form of language of the culture into which one is born is the primary and predominant symbol system which members of a culture need to learn, the principle Occam’s razor (or “evolutionary parsimony” (Dawkins 1976) states that the same conditions should also support learning to control all the other symbol systems our cultures value and use , such as the written form of language. (i.e. reading and writing)
• Fourthly, when I pulled all these threads together I concluded that the ecological, social, physical, emotional, conditions that support learning to talk provided a scientifically rigorous framework for a pedagogy that supports learning to read.
So What Do The ‘Ecological, Social, Physical, Emotional, Conditions That Support Learning To Talk’ Actually ‘Look Like’?
In order to find out I spent several years “bugging” and “spying' on urban and rural toddlers as they interacted with parents, siblings, peers, neighbours, relatives, teachers, and strangers over the course of a day. (Cambourne, 1972) My data comprised hundreds of hours of audio transcripts of the verbal interactions in which these children participated, as well as all the language of others they overheard. These were transcribed into thousands of pages of “raw’ language used by the focal children and their interlocutors. This corpus of language was complemented by “specimen records” (i.e. rich field notes, see Barker 1968) which described both the behaviour and the contexts in which the linguistic behaviour took place. Ecological psychologists describe these kinds of data as “rich archival lodes'” which can be “mined'” again and again for different purposes. (Barker, 1968, 1978)
I re-mined this “archival lode” from the perspective of the role which the ecological environment played in learning to use language. I used these data to identify examples of language-use which occurred in experimenter-free contexts, seeking insights into the role which ecological and social conditions played in supporting the complex learning which was taking place. I identified this set of ecological conditions that supported language learning.
As such they also represent the conditions of learning which evolution has endorsed. They are yet another example of how “evolution has already solved many of the human problems with which science is currently grappling”. They ‘look like’ the figure I use to identify my ‘ Conditions of Learning’ Facebook page - a web.
We are capable of learning how to create and apply the symbol systems we find most useful to construct the complex meanings we need , if (and only if) the environmental conditions which make such complex learning possible are present in the learning setting. This strongly suggests that Nature has already worked out what social, cultural and physical factors need to be the basis of scientifically derived learning-to-read pedagogy.
Figure 2 above shows what they are.
Now all we have to do is sell this theory as "good science" to the Reading Education community. I'm hopeful that Biomimicry will help me do this.