This week’s posts made me wonder, are humans unique in their learning/teaching abilities, or do most (if not all) species exhibit some form of learning/teaching. This question kind of threw me through a loop, and I decided to dig into the literature to see what kinds of animal learning exists, and if there are any relevant examples that link back to our readings this week.
The field of ethology (the study of animal behavior and learning) reaches across many academic disciplines, including but not limited to psychology, computer science, and education. This field has the power to inform how we educate each other. To ensure successful evolution and survival, many animal species, including humans, must exhibit various levels of learning abilities. There seems to be three main animal learning mechanisms: Non-associative learning, associative learning, and social learning.
Adaptation is one of the most prevalent signs of an organism’s intelligence, and non-associative learning is a form of adaptation. This is the simplest, most natural form of learning, and is found in virtually every variety of organisms. It is considered a “low-level” learning mechanism, and often leads to other learning mechanisms such as associative learning. The two main types of non-associative learning are habituation and sensitization.
The primary type of non-associative learning is habituation, which is a decrease in response from a repeated stimulus. For example, if you hear loud bangs coming from a nearby building, you might initially wonder what the noise is for. If the banging persists over a span of a week, you will likely eventually tune out the sounds. Since the banging repeated over an extended amount of time, your response decreased during that time, and you have become habitualized to the noise. Habituation can last for an extended amount of time, or just a few minutes. Sensitization is the opposite of habituation, when irregularly repeated stimuli causes an increase in response. If during a thunderstorm the thunderclaps are at random intervals or have long gaps of time between them, you will be more prone to be startled by the noise.
Example: A relevant example of non-associative learning, specifically habituation, is continually using human presence to neutralize a wild animal’s natural response to escape or flee. When wild gorillas native to the mountains of Rwanda were continuously exposed to humans and over a period of time, they became tolerant of human presence, and learned that humans were not predators. Thus, these gorillas were used for primatological research where the gorillas could be observed at close quarters. This learning mechanism has been used as a method to domesticate animals, observe them for research purposes, and introduce them to captivity in zoos.
Human Context: Non-associative learning could be applied in a classroom focused on learning about construction by holding the class in a workspace where construction methods are actively being applied, such as a community makerspace focused on building construction. By repeatedly being exposed to members of a community who are practicing professionals, students would be habituated to this type of learning environment, breaking down the traditional barriers between the learners and the learnt. Through constant contact with such a space, students could observe basic construction methods and realize that they are attainable. This could have a domino effect, instilling a sense of self-efficacy and purpose for the students, aiding in their drive to be successful.
This type of learning is considered mindless and does not enable a species to learn complex behaviors such as migration or foraging. It is commonly a result of two main types of conditioning: classical and operant conditioning.
Classical conditioning is a basic learning behavior that teaches an animal to learn a new behavior through association. This type of conditioning contributes to animal adaptation by enabling them to anticipate events, by associating an unconditional stimulus with a conditional stimulus. The most well-known example of associative learning is Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who discovered the concept of classical conditioning. In his experiment with dogs, he used a repetitive tone and the natural response of salivating when presented with food. He then connected these two stimuli (tone and food) and observed that the tone alone could initiate a natural salivating response. The dog would eventually associate the tone with a reward, and would learn to perform specific behaviors with the purpose of hearing the tone.
Operant conditioning is a more complicated process than classical conditioning. It is the concept of strengthening behaviors through reinforcement from a desired response. Therefore, operant behavior is reflexive; there is both positive and negative reinforcement that affects behavior. This concept was first observed by B.F. Skinner in 1937, shortly following Pavlov’s discovery of classical conditioning. Skinner described operant conditioning as behavior “controlled by its consequences”. He put rats in a box that contained a lever, and as they moved around the box, they accidentally hit into the level, at which point a food pellet would be dispensed into a container next to the lever. Quickly, the rats learned to use the lever to receive food, and repeated this action whenever they were hungry.
Example: Endemic to southern Africa, pied-babblers are an avian species that exhibit associative teaching patterns. When a mother or father arrives at the nest, they make a “purr” call to their offspring. The offspring learn to associate this call with the arrival of food, and learn to be weary when the call is not made. This simple classical conditioning method helps ensures the survival of the offspring.
Human Context: Associative learning is important in human culture by enabling humans to associate certain feelings with certain stimulus, such as positive feelings in response to learning environments. In a classroom setting, associative learning pertains more to the specific student and skill performance rather than the learning content itself. To create a healthy learning environment, especially in a classroom setting related to the built environment, positive reinforcement is key. Students can receive encouragement and approval, thus enabling their positive learning behaviors. Positive reinforcement can lead to a more open and collaborative learning environment.
To guide their learning, many species have adopted the ability to learn from others, which is the complex learning mechanism of social learning. The most commonly used definition of social learning is “learning that is influenced by observation of, or interaction with, another animal”. Social learning is an umbrella term that encompasses many types of learning. Social learning includes, but is not limited to, imitation, observational conditioning, social facilitation, emulation, and inadvertent coaching. Animal behaviorists, dating back to Charles Darwin, have long focused on the ability of an animal to learn valuable life skills by observing and imitating others. Typically, young members of a species learn from more experienced members– most often their parents. Most adult species interact with their offspring in the early stages of life, where their learning is most critical to achieve independence. Examples of behaviors in which young members could learn from more experienced members include foraging for food, learning to fly or swim, and creating shelter. Learned behaviors such as these are central to ensuring a species’ survival.
As previous studies have suggested, social learning “depends on social dynamics that govern the relationships among individuals”. Most often, the young learn from their parents. However, there are other instances of social learning, where the young learn from the successful (regardless of age), where the young learn from others because they are dissatisfied with their own performance, where the young copy another that is behaving more efficiently than they are, etc. If two members of the same species share the same environment, it is beneficial to the young and experienced to learn from another. These alternative approaches to the conventional offspring-parent social learning techniques help shape a more resilient and adaptable species.
Example: There are many of relevant biological examples that include the concept of social learning. Social learning methods have been found in a diverse number of animal species: mammals, insects, amphibians, birds, fish, and more. A noteworthy and proven example of social learning is the resilient learning methods of wild Norway rats. Ecologist Fritz Steiniger discovered that Norway rats taught their young what to eat, after his attempt to improve a rodent control poison. Steiniger repeatedly introduced poison bait to a single colony of rats, and although their numbers decreased at first, they eventually returned to their initial size after a few months. It turns out that the rats who survived the first few rounds of attempted pest control learned to associate the poison bait with illness and death. These survivors taught their young to avoid the poison bait, and eventually every rat in the colony rejected the poison bait.
Human Context: An obvious and effective way to teach students about the built environment would be to bring a professional from industry in the classroom for a guest lecture or demonstration. Students could learn from the experiences of the professional, and share an open communication between them. Encounters like these are invaluable in educational environments.
This post isn’t completely relevant to our readings this week, but I think learning about these common animal behaviors is helpful to remember when discussing human learning and teaching mechanisms. There are many types of learning, and maybe it is worthwhile to further look at animal learning mechanisms and how they can inform our teaching methods. Afterall, we exhibit the same learning/teaching mechanisms as animals, so why not learn from them?