Learning Well

Learning Well

If infants were taught to walk and talk in the same way they are later taught mathematics and English, this country (and many others) would be populated with sedentary mutes.  In the same vein, rewarding children with pizzas for the amount of books they read leads to over-weight kids who like short books!


Learning to walk and talk successfully involves a number of factors.  For example, a high tolerance for failure.  Imagine an eighteen month old refusing to try to walk because the first attempt ended with him plopped on the floor, even if his behind is protected by a well padded  diaper.  It’s a slow learning curve that requires persistence.  Fortunately  two year olds don’t refuse to talk because the words did not come out perfectly the first time.  It requires consistent encouragement from those who can, an absence of judgement (imagine grading an infant every time she opened her mouth,) frequent rest periods before trying again, and the ultimate reward is the sense of accomplishment when the task is mastered to the point that most of us walk and talk without giving a second thought to the complicated mechanisms involved. 


It’s a kinesthetic tactile process involving a willingness to experiment and to delight in small incremental achievements.  Again, imagine tiny tots having to listen to lectures and watch videos on how to walk! 


By comparison how many of us, in a traditional classroom, felt judged when we did not master, or even understand, a topic immediately?   How many of us felt that our success depended on the opinion of an external authority, whom we ultimately had to please if we were to ‘succeed’, or that a grade was not a fair reflection of the work done or the comprehension achieved? Or that there was no time for persistence because the teacher had to progress to the next item on the curriculum ?   Score well on a test that required short term recall and one is presumed to have understood the material.  Start a sentence with a word like mathematics, or art, or singing, or another language  and our anxiety levels escalate. For me that word is Latin; for reasons I cannot recall, possibly simple immaturity, I never got the basics (and having a first year graduate student as a teacher did not help.) Letting go was not an option, so for four years I endured ignominy and humiliation as the material got progressively beyond my reach with no offers of help and my lacking the necessary courage and confidence to ask for it.  


A honey bee responds primarily to pheromones and instincts, the latter triggered by day light hours, temperature, pressures of space and food in the hive, and hormonal and glandular changes in her body.   As she transitions to becoming a forager there is an increase in the levels of juvenile hormone as well as in the size of the ’mushroom bodies’ in her brain. The latter include neurons and glia, are involved in learning and memory, and their size is correlated to the capacity for complex behavior; the worker bee, who has been confined to the hive for the first four weeks of her life, now has to recognize and memorize landmarks if she is to successfully return to the colony with her loads of water, nectar, pollen and propolis.


This is finely tuned, situational-dependent, learning based on communal needs.  We by comparison have lost many of our finer senses, tend to learn in isolation, feel distanced from the natural world and rely on others to teach us using techniques that are increasingly  called into question. 


Please understand, I am not condemning the role of audio and visual learning, nor of qualified instruction. Rather, and as one who learns best from tactile experiences, I am appealing for the use of effective and varied instructional styles accompanied by efficacious learning strategies. For example, Annie Murphy Paul, the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The New Science of Smart, argues that “In a world as fast-changing and full of information as our own, every one of us — from schoolchildren to college students to working adults — needs to know how to learn well. Yet evidence suggests that most of us don’t use the learning techniques that science has proved most effective. Worse, research finds that learning strategies we do commonly employ are among the least effective.”

In a report released on 9th January of this year by the Association for Psychological Science, the authors, led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky, examine ten learning tactics and rate each from high to low utility on the basis of the evidence they’ve amassed.  Highlighting and underlining , for example, offer no benefit beyond simply reading the text. Some research even indicates that highlighting can get in the way of learning because by drawing attention to individual facts it may hamper the process of making connections and drawing inferences. Nearly as bad is the practice of simply rereading. 

More effective is distributed practice, which  involves spreading out one’s study sessions rather than engaging in a marathon. Cramming information at the last minute may get one through that test or meeting, but the material will quickly disappear from memory. It’s much more effective to dip into the material at intervals over time, and the longer one wants to remember the information, whether it’s two weeks or two years, the longer the intervals should be.

The second recommended learning strategy is elaborative interrogation, meaning  asking “why” as one reads, investigating the text in detail instead of passively reading it over, and practice testing. Research shows that the mere act of questioning information, of massaging it, and calling it to mind, strengthens that knowledge and aids in future retrieval.

So, how do we help new beekeepers to ‘learn well’, to use Annie Paul’s term? The Introduction to Beekeeping Class I took some fifteen years ago consisted of six evenings consisting of eleven hours of listening to a beekeeper talk, and one hour, at the very end of the class,  watching him manipulate a hive.  No wonder some of the students were taking the class for the third, fourth or even fifth time. More effective are those  classes that continue over a full season rather than the traditional 6 weeks, with each session related to what is happening in the colonies at that particular time (colony build up, nectar flows and brood rearing, honey extraction, disease detection, winter preparation, for example.)  Between these sessions are reading suggestions which encourage students to comprehend more deeply what they had experienced, with some questions at the end for self-interrogation and, at the next class, an opportunity to share and discuss thoughts and concerns that might have arisen.

The idea of a comprehensive weekend bee class consisting of two 8 hour days may be convenient for attendees but ineffective for learning, and much as I enjoy going to conferences about honey bees I invariable feel overwhelmed and my recall is poor; without extensive note-taking it would be zero.  The reason perhaps is that there is no time to assimilate, to examine, to discuss what one has heard in one presentation before one is exposed to another, and another.  Similarly, when beekeepers explain in detail the manipulations they have done in their apiary, and then ask for an opinion, I find it difficult to respond meaningfully; I need the full sensory exposure if I am to have more than a superficial understanding.  

A bee’s life is short and everything she does is oriented towards the long term health and survival of the colony.  Our lives are relatively long, all being well, and life-long learning as an adult requires passion, commitment, persistence, resilience for failure and the fulfillment that comes from both incremental and long term progress. We don’t need others to judge how well we are doing, to grade us, but rather to encourage, acknowledge and appreciate, which also incidentally describes the role of a successful beekeeping mentor. 

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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

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