People & Performance – June 1999 issue – Cover Story              back to articles menu

"Training through the Millennia - So what's NEW!"

I appreciate the singular honour done to me in the invitation to write a cover story, and also the degree of risk involved by those doing the inviting, since my track record is a known factor...

Since I started writing for People & Performance, back in March 94, although I have contributed in every issue (good grief - this is my 23rd article), I have managed by dint of stubborn-ness to avoid writing something totally serious. Even when I’ve been critical, the humour is still there. It’s a tough job, being the balancing factor that evens out the deadening effect of the terminally serious. As Bernard Cornwell writes of Merlin, "Life itself is but a jest of the Gods", and who am I to argue with a Druid. In AD 540 at least, one person had it right. True to form, even as I write this, my tongue will wander irrepressibly into my cheek, of its own volition and without the merest hint of apology. It’s my Saxon/Celtic blood, however I will try to be serious.

And so I approach my task with a degree of misgiving – where to start? In a consideration of ‘training through the millennia’, I guess I need to go right back to the beginning and restrict my comments to the training of Humans. References to Chimps and Gorillas may creep in since molecular evidence suggests that our last common ancestor with chimpanzees and gorillas lived not much more than five million years ago. The similarities are so startling. If a Gorilla can learn a vocabulary of 2500 signed words which she (I forget her name) uses in context and spontaneously, then there is hope for all of us. But of course, Human intervention is involved – a ‘trainer’. So, how much of Learning is ‘instinctive’ or ‘genetic’?

While not wanting to get too up-close and personal, I am intrigued at the learning activity of our daughter, now 14 months old. I am not sure which day it was that she actually took her first steps – I have it on film – but I do not remember either myself or my partner teaching her how to do it. I do remember our attempts to get her to hold the bottle herself, failing utterly until one day she just decided to do it. Likewise, her learning to crawl up stairs seemed instinctive, but the reverse has had to be taught, after one or two kamikaze leaps. Since we have three flights of stairs, this is critical learning. As Steve Brookfield says ‘Learning is a voluntary experience’ and although his book addresses adult learning, I’m sure this applies to all learning. In this case it appears our daughter is demonstrating to us that she will learn when she is damn well good & ready and not before, unless we are seeing some maternal obstinacy genes being passed on.

So to pursue that ‘instinctive’ question, let’s go right back as far as we can. Australopithecus Afarensis (4.5 million years ago) is our earliest-known hominid ancestor – but not of direct lineage. If we go back to our oldest fossil of a direct lineage we arrive at the skull fragments of ‘African Eve’, dated at around 250,000 years ago. How did she know which berries were safe to eat, which animals were dangerous – to be avoided – and which were food? Surely it must have been the Pleistocene equivalent of Experiential Learning mixed with Observation. In a brush with a Lion, assuming one is not killed outright, and manages to escape, then one has learned that the Lion will bite and should not be approached. Come forward in time and we modern people know that Experiential Learning is not the way to learn how to defuse unexploded bombs unless the learner is video’d, wired for sound and observed (from a distance) by an unlimited number of similarly expendable learners, and a ready supply of unexploded bombs.

Pleistocene Man didn’t magically learn to hunt in deliberately planned groups (I’m reliably informed that only men hunted, so the PC Brigade can sit down please). Did they watch the way the wolf pack hunts? Communication – so I’ve read – could only have been via sign language and a range of grunts and whoops (Parliament, during Question Time?), which implies that a team-member out of the direct line of sight must have been able to use some intuitive discretion or fall back on some pre-arranged ‘plan’ or customary practice. All this required some form of training. Once fire was discovered, women - who did all the cooking since TV Dinners, couches and microwaves weren’t around yet – must have learned experientially and by observation.

It’s easy to believe then that all learning must have been that way – one-on-one, skill transfer by observation, trial & error, and practice. Casting my (fertile) imagination back a couple of aeons, the picture of distance learning by stone tablet and flint chisel distributed via riders of the Mammoth Express, with lesson-plans organised by the Pliocene Correspondence Clan and aimed at those living above the tree-line (or those expelled from a succession of local school caves) just doesn’t work. There was no ‘formal’ learning. CD-Interactive wasn’t around, nor PowerPoint.

So, how far forward do we have to come before we discover ‘organised learning’ conducted by a ‘Teacher’ in a formal, academic sense?

We can go back to ancient Egypt and find ‘formal’ training going on – on a foundation of religious learning – in mathematics, science, writing, and architecture. A Chinese system of civil-service examinations, originating 2000 years ago, was based on prior formal learning and used to select the best scholars for Government. Guess what – it was still in use last century. The Greeks mixed Gymnastics with Mathematics and Music – (first attempts at ‘holistic’ learning?) and Plutarch, bless his cotton socks, urged the education of parents as an essential first step in the education of children. Perhaps he didn’t shout loud enough.

Anyway, the disciplines of War were (and still are) taught Experientially – the only way to find out whether you can attack a castle wall with a siege-engine is to wheel the blasted thing up against a friendly castle wall and try it. But sooner or later, in order to ‘learn’ truly what is involved in reality can only be learned while at the same time having arrows, spears, rocks, boiling tar, curses and dead bodies hurled down at you. Now that is experiential learning, for those who survive. Likewise, an 18th Century seaman-gunner applying flame to cannon fuse, learned to stand to the side and not behind the cannon, or had his career cut dramatically short while his mates cleared up the mess. You may ‘talk’ about the recoil effect, you can even ‘study’ it, but to really ‘know’ it, you have to experience it. The task of the Military trainer is to show & tell, allow practice, show & tell again until the correct behaviour is exhibited, then drill, drill and drill again until the behaviour becomes automatic and burned into the learners brain so that, even under trauma, the exact same behaviour is exhibited and never forgotten. I am reminded of the very old military tale of the retired geriatric Gunner, snoozing in front of the old kitchen range, cat asleep on lap, half eaten plate of sausages kept warm on the range. A piece of ash escapes through the range top and sets fire to a tea towel. The wife smells smoke and yells ‘Fire!’ upon which the old man grabs the cat, leaps to his feet, takes a sausage off the plate, rams it up a certain part of the cat’s anatomy, shoves cat & inserted sausage in the oven, slams the door shut, salutes and roars "Number One Gun Ready Sir!" Those of you who have never seen a naval or field-gun loaded and fired will miss the humour, but the joke is based upon the drill, drill, drill method of training.

Through the first 1000 years from the birth of Christ we still see education (apart from Military) being initiated and controlled by religion, King Alfred the Great urging his monks to continue their scholarly work and provide education. Persia and Arabia from the 6th – 9th century had institutional centres for the research and study of science and languages, and in medieval times the Jesuits brought education (along with Christianity, politics and economic intervention) to the Orient.

Back in 1693, John Locke (in a book called ‘Some thoughts concerning Education’) advised students "to study a tree rather than a book about trees, to go to France rather than read a book about France". Perhaps he was a kinesthetic, but he wouldn’t have known what that was. An early attempt to encourage Experiential Learning?

If we focus on children for a minute (which is after all where learning starts), and consider two arguments on ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ that span the last 200 years:

Traditional education, in an extreme form and referring to children, was described by Charles Dickens in Hard Times as seeing them as: "little vessels arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim." In short, like a kettle that has to be filled from a tap, the traditional learner is taken to be a passive recipient of whatever is being taught. Critics argue that the Teacher is therefore the locus of control in terms of what is learned, and the focus is on historical knowledge i.e. ‘what is’.

Progressive Education, allows the learner to decide when and how they are to learn anything. Critics argue that this implies that the learner somehow is automatically aware of what needs to be learned, and that the focus of control rests with the learner who, by definition, is in a state of ‘not knowing’. Finally, because the teacher is not seen as at the centre of the educational process, he or she is reduced to becoming a "facilitator" of children’s learning; in extreme cases unprepared even to answer simple questions or directly to teach anything at all, on the assumption that the only things a learner really learns are those things which he or she has "discovered for himself".

(These two definitions, somewhat edited, are taken from a paper by Sir Peter Newsam, an educationalist and former Director of the Institute of Education, University of London)

He then goes on to say: " In practice, neither of the(se) two extreme approaches to teaching and learning has proved generally satisfactory. In its starkest form, traditional education has often served able pupils well but has been less successful with others. On the other hand, progressive education has tended to work well enough in the early years of schooling, in the hands of able and committed teachers, but has had less success when attempted in other circumstances."

My experience of teaching young adults is limited to ten years or so as an instructor in NZ Cadet Forces. In an environment of military (Naval) discipline and where the learners are there voluntarily, I can hardly say that I am any expert on learning in schools. However, as a parent since 1978 and as an observer of the change from Traditional (my childhood experience) to Progressive (what I have observed in my older children through the 1980’s and 1990’s) I can say that I am dubious about the benefits of the latter… with the lack of imposed discipline we seem to have far more ‘problem children’ than we used to, although whether this is an effect of social change or something else I concede is an arguable point. As a kid I don’t remember other kids carrying semi-automatic weapons or pipe bombs and blowing away their classmates. Carrying a packet of Pall Mall was pretty daring in my day, and to be caught inflating a condom with coal gas in the science lab made one famous for a few days (and unable to sit down for a similar period).

Everything I have read or seen to do with Learning in older days leads me to believe that the process was either Traditional, where students of philosophy learned ‘by rote’ at the feet of Socrates or Confucius, or Experiential/ Observational in terms of survival skills like hunting and warfare. Under the Traditional system we had lots of uneducated people running around, and we had wars. Under the Progressive system we have just as many wars, but both Primary & Secondary Teachers suffer physical assault and verbal abuse on a scale hitherto unimaginable, and 36% of students in their first year at a certain NZ University in 1996 were found to be functionally illiterate (meaning they required remedial literacy help to prepare their first assignments). So which system is best?

In the two extreme arguments, what appears to be missing is any transmission of value sets. It’s true that Learning in older times was inextricably linked with either religious or political dogma. Hence the Catechism (of Roman Catholic learning - which still exists) and The Little Red SchoolBook. While one might say that learning should be pure of religio-political tainting, at least within those doctrines was an element of Values and Traditions. Mind you, my teachers were Nuns of a fairly strict order and it was years before I knew what ‘to covet thy neighbours wife’ really meant and by then I had seen so much coveting going on that I got a bit cynical about it all and joined the Merchant Navy. Only now have I wondered about the gender stereotyping that must have been rampant when that particular value-set was written, since I’ve seen plenty of coveting of husbands going on too, which is logical unless one is suggesting that all coveting is done in same-sex relationships... Interestingly, since coveting thy neighbours ‘house’ comes before ‘wife’, I’m wondering whether that was a hidden learning point...

As to the matter of ‘opportunity through technology’, in older times the tablet or scroll, quill pen or pencil, were the main required equipment for learning and usually provided by the ‘school’, along with the text-books such as they were. University libraries were the ‘storehouses’ of knowledge. Simply, if you wanted to access that knowledge, you had to physically go there.

Today, a learner of any age without keyboard skills or a computer at home is disadvantaged. Access to the Internet gives today’s learner a decided edge in terms of access to additional knowledge. Many corporate bodies and public sector organisations, provide training information on ‘Intranets’ for their employees to access. Much of the MBA assignment work required by Massey University (and others) is done by email. It is now possible to do a Degree without ever going to a University, unfortunately you still may experience a lecturer who has never worked outside one.

Not long ago, the old Apprenticeship Scheme, which had been around since pre-Roman times, was consigned to the dust-bin, and with it went the opportunity for young people to learn a craft, skill or trade, mixing academic with on-job training. We know better, said the Government. As far as I am aware, while various ITO’s have picked up some of the load, nothing like the opportunity that existed then, exists now. What I am aware of are the spoken concerns of some of my HR clients who report that they are finding it increasingly difficult to find skilled workers. No disrespect intended, but a two-year Polytech course including 6 weeks on-job experience does not equate to the learning that occurs in a four-year apprenticeship where the academic learning is done after-hours. Apprentice pay has always been low and the employer’s behaviour often exploitive. In the Merchant Marine ‘apprentice Master’s Mates’ – otherwise known as Cadet Officers - at sea were often called on duty when something happened in the wee small hours, to avoid paying double or triple-time to qualified deck-hands. In 1970 the first-year pay was $32 per lunar month, all found. Having said all that, in the main the system worked well – employers got cheap labour in return for four years of Experiential and Academic on-job training with a qualification at the end. Now all gone. NZQA has, as part of its charter, the recognition of prior learning – an attempt to motivate people who might otherwise think ‘it’s all too hard’ into engaging in learning by suggesting that their work experience might already be a significant part of a National Qualification. I support the concept wholeheartedly although NZQA as an organisation suffers like any other bureaucracy in that it seems to be cumbersome, sluggish, vulnerable to capture by the strongest factions, and doesn’t reply to letters you send it that it considers ‘too hard’. Like, how about telling us in the Invoice some detail about what you’re charging us for and why it was necessary…

As a final note, while I am an enthusiast in the employment of new technologies and techniques in the Learning process, let me say this:

Despite all our technology, despite all our knowledge and research about Learning, we are still turning out people who cannot read and write and to whom purchasing three items at $1.75 each requires a calculator unless the product is rolled in small packets of tinfoil and distributed behind the bike shed (except it would be $15.00ea).

Whether all this change and newness in the learning function is in fact ‘positive’ or ‘better’ I believe remains to be seen. The headlong rush to Progressive Learning in the late 70’s and through the 80’s was a grand experiment with our children’s future at risk. It is hard to separate and determine whether today’s academic failures are a result of a failure in the learning system or failure in our Social systems, and it’s not a cop-out to say that it might be a combination of both, since ‘role-models’ are an intricate part of Learning. Teachers used to be involved in the infusion of a set of Values. But it takes one hell of a Teacher to offset the parental role model of a dope-smoking, glue-sniffing, third-generation-unemployed and unemployable dropout. Let me bring you back to Plutarch’s urging of the education of parents as an essential first step in the education of children. Remarkably, as I wrote this article, I took a break and watched Holmes for a bit. He carried an item about a school that is using a commercial Sponsor (McDonalds I think) to ‘mentor in’ a set of Values for the classroom, including a reward system for adherence to it. I can only applaud the initiative. I’m sure some will object to the use of a commercial sponsor, but where those who should be providing the value set (i.e. the total parent group) clearly aren’t, the end justifies the means. As for adult education, after 10 years now of working with Adults in learning workshops, it’s my experience that children carry their Learning experiences, good or bad, forward into their work-place learning. Many of the participants on my programmes have never attended a workshop since they left school. For some of them, to find that they are expected to contribute, to argue, to have a point of view and speak it, is a traumatic and very new experience. To survive, they have to observe other participants and through the facilitator, learn about learning experientially. ‘Training through the millennia’ - I started by suggesting that primitive learning was observational and experiential. 250,000 years later, and for many people, are things so different?

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand. email:
Steve Punter 1999 All rights reserved by the author                                                                                                                                    back to articles menu