The Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents


How People Learn

It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; with out this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail.

Albert Einstein


His eyes follow her as she moves through the room. As she bends to say hello she is surprised to see her baby’s legs and arms flailing about in effort, as he pushes his pink tongue out of his mouth. She doesn’t remember she stuck out her tongue at him this morning when trying to give him a bottle. He spent half his nap time thinking about it, and now he has returned this expression in an effort to communicate. Late for work she bundles him up and rushes to the baby-sitter’s, telling the care giver, “he spit up after his nap, and was making faces, I hope he’s not sick.

The evolving self knows itself through feeling.



There is a moment when we look into each other’s eyes and we know we are seeing ourselves. We hold each other’s hands and we realize ourselves. We speak each other’s name and we know each other. This baby is present and more aware than we tend to think.

The infant’s use of gestures, facial expressions, and sounds is at every stage of his progress the true medium of his being-with-others & the music of our ordinary conversations is of equal importance with the words. It is a kind of touching: our eyes “touch,” our facial expressions play back and forth, tones answer tones. We experience even the silences in a physical, structural way; they, too, are a species of contact. In short, the physical part of everyday speech is just as important as the “mental.”



What a miraculous self-regulating complexity we are! We have some tools to understand and explore but mostly we have what we have always had, if we chose to use it:


The Society for Neuroscience found that denial of a caregiver’s touch had serious biochemical consequences for the baby. A mother’s caresses seem to help moderate production of a hormone affecting the body’s reaction to stress. Abnormal levels of the hormone have been linked to changes in a part of the brain involved with learning and memory. Indeed, children with the greatest peaks and valleys in that hormone level scored lowest on test of mental and motor ability.

US News and World Report


I remember my niece when she was around 6 months old, lying in the carriage under the apple tree. I could see her chubby legs sticking up in the air as she ran her toes through the leaves of the overhanging branches. What amazed me most was listening to her as she went through, very methodically, all the sounds she knew. “baa baa baa, daa daa daa, maa maa, dee dee dee, laa laa laa, etc.”. She was practising. Children hear what corresponds to their own way of voicing words, not the sounds adults hear themselves making.



In regards to what is happening in the brain it is instructive to look at what we now know is happening in learning disabilities. It is no coincidence that both the acquired and developmental disorders affecting reading have in common a disruption within the neural systems.

National Academy of Sciences


With the use of new technology, called functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI), which enables researchers to look into the brain as it is working, it has been discovered that brain activation patterns of dyslexic readers were significantly different from those of non dyslexic readers. The saying “if the only tool you have is a hammer, every thing becomes a nail” is apt. If people access information in different ways, if they perceive things differently they will not learn in the same ways They will be described as having learning disabilities. This does not mean that they do not learn.

The individual’s internal store of information about the world is in fact a theory of what the world is like, and that all of our mental life —our perceptions, attitudes, plans, expectations— is colored by this constantly changing internal theory of the world…



It has been my experience when drawing or painting that I feel a shift or a ping, something like the sensation one feels when, going down a stairway, one expects there to be another step and there is not. As a child this sensation was more dramatic and I would have periods when after a lot of concentration I could not speak.

The magical mystery of drawing ability seems to be, in part at least, an ability to make a shift in brain state to a different mode of seeing/perceiving.



Temple is an autistic professor who cannot decipher the simplest social exchange between humans, but has built a career out of her intuitive understanding of animal behavior. In an article Temple wrote in 1990 she states: If the genes that caused these conditions (schizophrenia, autism, manic depression) were eliminated there might be a terrible price to pay. It is possible that persons with bits of these traits are more creative, or possibly even geniuses… If science eliminated these genes, maybe the whole world would be taken over by accountants.



I hope that the attention now being paid to the brain and how it works does not lead to some sort of attempt to genetically control human evolution.

As long as perhaps sixty percent of the school age population are “passing” the requirements of the education system, WAIT A MINUTE… What does any of that have to do with learning? My own experience working with children in a lunch time art program at a school in Ottawa was that often kids labeled “behavior problems” were actually very visually inclined. One such boy and I spent an hour pouring paint onto glass, making it run together, watching the colors blend into new colors, pressing paper onto the glass (his idea) and making prints. After picking out images on the prints we went back and tried to manipulate the paint in such a way that it would increase a desired effect. The degree of focus and attention this nine year old boy displayed surpassed that of most adults I know, artistic or otherwise. My disappointment at finding the class was over was genuine. It was a wonderful experience for me and I think for him too.

Unfortunately his teacher decided to use the art room as a “reward” for his good behavior and I did not see him again until the summer when we were able to take the program outside. Teaching, … is a process of arranging contingencies of reinforcement; do your arithmetic and then you may go out and play;…To us the current idiom, teaching is behavior modification —that is, the teacher causes the pupil to act in predetermined ways, as the master trains the dog.



We can not remove a child (or individual) from the learning of his own learning. We can participate in it. We can be a part of it. We can aid it by perhaps supplying more bits and pieces to be acted upon. One of the ways we can participate and aid learning is to understand the perceptions of the individual and work within his own “language”.

The subject (person) only learns to know himself when acting on the object, and the latter can become known only as a result of progress of the actions carried out on it. … Further more, and most importantly, this explains the harmony between thought and reality, since action springs from the laws of an organism that is simultaneously one physical object among many and the source of the acting, then thinking, subject (person).



There are a few new and old approaches available, though western science is only beginning to grasp what is happening during learning.

Work in the last decade has shown how plastic the cerebral cortex is, and how the cerebral “mapping” of body image, for example, may be drastically reorganized and revised, not only following injuries or immobilizations, but in consequence of the special use or disuse of individual parts. …there may be drastic remappings in the brain, …it seemed, (with Mr. I)…entire systems of representation, of meaning had been extinguished inside him, (while) entirely new systems had been brought into being.



Tai chi has been successful in maintaining and strengthening neuro-pathways in individuals with Multiple Sclerosis. Trager, a practice of movement, has also been effective in opening individuals to experience and increasing the availability of information necessary to learning. What I see foremost in the successes of individuals who have traveled through the limits of their own perceptions, whether they have been labeled “learning disabled” or simply human, is that there was a connection made, at some point, between their sense of self and the world.

So, let’s go back to the baby. Let’s stick out our tongue at him and show him we’re paying attention.



An Anthropologist on Mars, by Oliver Sacks

The Biochemistry of Touch, US NEWS & WORLD REPORT, Nov. 10, 1997, vol. 123, issue 18:

Biological Basis For Reading Disability Discovered, Findings released on March 3, 1998, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards

Education for the Individual, by T. Robert Bassett

Freedom to Learn, by Carl R. Rogers

The Grasp of Consciousness, by Jean Piaget

The lives of children, by George Dennison

The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks