Sunday, March 24, 2013

What we can learn from the learning patterns of Birds

What we can learn from the learning patterns of Birds

 As most of my close friends know, I have two small birds as pets and housemates. I call them my “Innkeepers” as they are always busy running around the house and cleaning up crumbs of food they drop and leave behind. I call them my Innkeepers but everyone else refers to them as ‘Ricky and Daisy’.

One day I was in my office working away with Ricky and Daisy playing close by when all of a sudden, Daisy grabbed a plastic jar lid and pushed it across the carpet like it was a hockey puck. I thought this was very amusing so I did what most proud pet owners and parents would do. I got out my video camera and recorded her playing with her new toy. A friend of mine who watched the video said that this was amazing and asked how long it taught me to teach her this. I responded “I did not teach her a thing, she did this all by herself.”

Daisy is always curious about the world around her; she will look at a door handle and study it with great detail. Lately she has grown curious about the cabinets underneath the sink in the bathroom. Whenever she gets close to the cabinet doors, she will fly over to the doors and get as close as she can to spend time studying them from every angle. You can see the little wheels turning in her head as she walks in circles or flies closer to get a better look at something.

One day I opened the cabinet doors for her to walk in and take a look around. She did so and spent time investigating, touching things with her beak and looking around but did not seem quite as interested as what was inside the cabinet as much as the wooden doors themselves. Why she likes them, I have no idea but it is that insatiable curiosity that keeps her learning and intrigued about the world around her.  What is interesting is she never seems to grow bored, her curiosity grows and she investigates other things too that catch her attention that she may not have paid attention to before.

Along with that sense of curiosity is the desire to play. Picking up a plastic jar lid and running across the room with it like she was Wayne Gretzky was something that she did one day and has continued to do constantly ever since. Now, she has a whole collection of plastic milk bottle and jar lids that she will take and throw, toss and push across the room like a hockey puck. Her partner, Ricky, does not share the same enthusiasm that she has for playing hockey, but he will play along with her side by side to keep her company.

What I learned from all these observations is that these birds love to amuse and entertain themselves by playing, just like any child would do. I had previously read about this in books about Parrotlet birds,  so this was not news to me but what was a revelation to me was how they learn by playing. They learn how to take a flat disk and run with it along a carpet to emulate a hockey puck, they learn how to turn a pull chord from window blinds into an acrobatic swing and they learn to peel off sticker labels with patience and determination.

Why do they do these things? Because it is fun and it gives them a sense of accomplishment. After all, they are birds and they have time on their hands to eat, sleep and play.

Play, I have learned, is paramount to learning for these animals and to all animals. Animals learn by playing and they learn by being aware of their surroundings and studying things. Birds are natural problem solvers and will study something to figure out how it works, no matter how long it takes.

By the same token, how much more effective would we as humans be at learning if we realized that learning can and should be fun? Sure we tell our children and we tell ourselves that learning is fun but when you walk into the average school or college campus, it is all business. No one is laughing, no one is playing, it is rigorous, it is silent and it is stressful.

Children play and learn to interact with other children and how to get along with others. They play with an erector set and learn to become an engineer. They get out a crayon and a piece of paper and suddenly, they are an Artist. Actually, all children are artists until they grow up and the world tells them to ‘stop doing that’. The trick is to keep allowing them to be artists all the way through adulthood and inspire others to do the same.

Society, parents, employers and especially schools, have taken education and made it a rigorous, stressful and overwhelming job. Where is the fun in memorizing and having to pass an exam to make a grade or get a promotion at work? Where is the joy in laboring over a report or term paper all week or weekend long? Yes the end result is the same. We learn from this task but could the same result be obtained by watching a movie on a subject or taking a trip to a museum?

If we can take the stress out of learning for children and adults, how much more rewarding would it be and how much more would students retain what they learn? If we can follow the example of a little bird flying around a room , playing with its toys, studying its own environment and watching what she comes up with and how she reacts to her world, can’t we create the same kind of fun learning experiences as humans?

What would we have to lose? Do we dare allow our children to dream, to play and to interact with their world to learn at their own pace? As an Educator, artist and engineer, I keep hearing about a change that is about to take place in education and I am excited about the possibilities that idea presents.

Imagine a world where children and animals become our teachers and we as adults, learn to relax, laugh and experience the world that we have taken for granted through their eyes. Imagine the world of wonder it would reveal and the possibilities that would present themselves. Maybe it is time that education be turned upside down and we put the fun back in learning. We learn something new every day, whether we realize it or not.

What would that do to our health? Our blood pressure? Our anxiety levels and stress levels? How would that strengthen the bond between parents and children? Bosses and employees? Teachers and students? Think of the possibilities and the resulting relationships that would form.

The trick then to making education a fun experience is not to put the emphasis on learning itself but on enjoying the process and allow education to be a result of that experience. We need to reeducate our teachers, parents and ourselves to approach education from a different angle. In so doing, we would change the face of education and the negative attitudes towards it and end up changing society and the world around us.

-          Rick Short, March 2013.