Monkey See, Monkey Do

Mortarboard and Diploma
Symbols of the West’s educational system — a thinking cap and some writing

When we talk about “education” in the West, we’re usually really talking about one small slice of learning — formal education with its certifications, degrees, and specific areas of study. Yet this method of teaching doesn’t cover all learning. It simply covers one kind of learning, one culturally valued by us.

Western education, by and large, is focused on learning to think abstractly. Even when it addresses “practical” matters (making things and earning money, usually) it follows these same patterns of abstract thought. We study models of the world, and learn to apply them to our experiences. When we study economics or business, we start by learning principles, absorbing a whole cosmology that we can then apply to the world around us.

Nearly all Western education is focused around studying information, and then going on to study the patterns that the information forms. This is not, however, the only way to learn about the world. If we look outside of the Western world, we can also find another pattern of formal education.

Abstract Learning Vs. Experiential Learning

In the book, Ways of Knowing: Experience, Knowledge, and Power among the Dene Tha (1998) by Jean-Guy A. Goulet, the author looks at another approach to learning, as found among the Dene Tha of northern Canada.

Western learning follows the model of taking an experience and abstracting it, before passing on these abstractions to students, The students must then learn (often on their own) to apply it back into the “real world.” Learning is based on studying abstract commonalities that describe the world.

Especially in the area of religious learning, the Dene Tha do not follow this pattern. Instead, they teach by demonstration and replication. Such a method of study seems really hard at first to people raised in Western culture. That is because learning this way is a skill — it can be learned through practice and repetition.

Can you really imagine learning to use a piece of technology without first learning all of the terminology? What’s the first thing we learn about computers? Someone tells us where the on switch is — and by doing so, also informs us that this is called the “on switch” or the “power button” or something like that. They don’t just push the button and show us what happens. It’s so natural to us, we don’t even think about it.

In recent years, we in the West have begun to focus more and more on experiential learning as part of the educational process. For instance, that is part of the importance of the internship. It’s one thing to talk and think about information — it’s another thing entirely to get your hands dirty and get the job done.

Western Examples of Experiential Learning

The Dene Tha pattern of education — relying strongly on observation, repetition, and experiential learning — might seem odd and foreign to us. But if we look at the wider world, this teaching method is not limited only to one Native American group in Canada. In fact, this type of learning can be found around the world.

Perhaps more interestingly, and more importantly, it is found here in the West as well. In any area of study where there is an “apprenticeship,” this method of teaching comes into play; in any internship, we learn by observation.

For some types of learning, the process of abstraction is inefficient. While there might be a hundred little details to learn when we study something as basic as a martial arts punch, or a chemical tritration, with the Western model, we focus on the ten “important” ones, at least at first.

But which abstract rules are the important ones? That ends up being something that the teacher decides — and heaven help you if you and your teacher focus on parts of the training that aren’t the ones you need to work on yourself.

Repeat after Me

OKIData Microline 320
The printer looked a lot like this one.

At my first real job after college, I was put to work repairing printers and computers. Oh, I knew plenty (abstractly), but I didn’t have the actual experience that the job would require. So my supervisor and my boss got together, and devised a plan (though some might call it hazing, and they’d be right).

I was taken to a client’s office and left in a room with:

  • a screwdriver,
  • a printer,
  • the parts I needed to replace, and
  • an out-of-date instruction and repair manual.

The part I needed to replace was deep in the bowels of the printer, and I’d never had one like this apart before. What a nightmare!

The job did eventually get done. After an hour in there, sweating, cursing, and generally learning the shortcomings of my education, my supervisor waltzed in and showed me how to do the work.

I learned something important that day: all the abstract knowledge in the world isn’t really a huge help when you need to actually take that screwdriver and open up the darned printer. And when it comes time to learn such things, monkey-see, monkey-do is worth a thousand books.


2 thoughts on “Monkey See, Monkey Do”

  1. That sounds about right in the “real world” outside of school, but thankfully there are some teachers who give enough individual attention to teach like your first boss. As a professor of mine put it on the first day of individual study, “In classical Japanese we don’t just take you to the deep end of the pool to see if you can swim. We say, ‘see that shark down there? Its name is Kakarimusubi. Go make friends’ and then push you in. Here’s a piece of prose, go have a shot at translating it.” My translations were terrible and I don’t remember much classical Japanese now, but that was my first translation attempt and I do regularly do translations for work now.

  2. Yes, there has been a trend toward “real world application” as a value in recent years. This has probably grown with the rising expectation that school is an “investment” in a direct sense — that college education will lead to a job.

    I think the most important words in your comment are “individual study.” Working one-on-one with a mentor is invaluable beside the group-work of classroom education. Whether that mentor is a boss or a professor probably depends on the field.

    Thanks for being a loyal reader!

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