Re: Milk Bottles & Animal IQ

Ton Maas (
Wed, 17 Dec 1997 15:33:18 +0100

Message-Id: <v03102808b0bd8c80fcd5@[]>
In-Reply-To: <>
Date: Wed, 17 Dec 1997 15:33:18 +0100
From: Ton Maas <>
Subject: Re: Milk Bottles & Animal IQ

>This seems to confirm that the bird was "taught" to count. One wonders
>how the bird was punished for mistakes!

Sounds like a good point. One would have to dig up Koehler's original data,
maybe. In any case Bateson doesn't get into this, although he is *very*
critical of Pavlovian conditioning and has demonstrated that even the old
guy's dog learned more than was "taught" to him in the lab: he found out
about appropriate contexts - realizing he only had to respond to the signal
when in the lab and not, say, on the street. This phenomenon - otherwise
known as "learning to learn" - plays a highly important but terribly
underrated role in education (as you obviously know from personal

>As an ex-teacher, I have some
>strong views on education. The empirical data would indicate that a
>skill can be transferred from teacher to student by imitation and
>repetitive practice. This could be interpreted as pattern recognition.

If you can read Dutch, I could send you some material from my book on
natural learning - "Ideale fouten & foute idealen" (Ideal Mistakes &
Mistaken Ideals) - which formally elaborates this difference along the
lines of "feedback" (involving the execution of instructions) versus
"calibration" (where repetitive practice plays a central role). Recognizing
patterns is obviously a skill which requires repetitive practice, leading
to a condition of being able to perceive certain patterns "spontaneously"
(because a skill is emobodied rather than conscious knowledge).

>However, this does not explain why some students have exceptional
>"talent" in a specific area. Is this genetic, memetic or pattern
>identification? (Or, dare I say, Instinct?)

I think it is quite clear (though maybe not obvious to some) that a lot of
what passes for "talent" is in fact the result of practice (as are skills
like intuition and judgement of character) - simply because mastership in
two skills make the third one easier to tackle - but possibly this doesn't
explain away all genetic, embryologic and biological variations.

>Having said that, I have always made a distinction between "skills
>training" and "teaching" which I define as leading the student to the
>discovery of concepts and the cognitive manipulation of concepts by
>duplicating the processes that enable comprehension.

Would you be willing to elaborate on this? I have a suspicion we don't see
eye to eye here, but there might be some terminological confusion involved.
According to me both "feedback" (F) and "calibration" (C) are necessarily
present in any real-world learning activity (being the two fundamental
means of correction), so the problem is one of balancing or proportion. It
seems to me that educators (and especially those involved in education
management) are one-sidedly propagating F-type learning, since it is ideal
from the perspective of testing, control, management and administration.
C-type learning is frowned upon, because it requires the making of repeated
mistakes (which is considered "inefficient"). But in real life, they often
are alternating phases. A violin teacher sometimes offers his student an
F-style clue to a skill, because the student has become too frustrated with
not being able to "get this damn thing straight". The resulting
breakthrough can be quite toxic for the student, who gets addicted to this
neat little trick. At that point the teacher has to correct the student and
point out that he has to go back to the "hard" way of C-style correction.
The philosopher R.G. Collingwood once said that the difference between art
and entertainment is actually very simple: the one thing requires an
initial effort but grants fulfillment in the end, while the other thing can
be absorbed without any effort, offering instant satisfaction, but
ultimately leaving you feeling dead and bored.

In the introduction to our book we paraphrase the old roman catholic
catechism, which had as an opening question: "Why are we here on Earth?"
Our answer to that question is as follows: "We are here to achieve
mastership, irrelevant of purpose or direction." That's why "even"
practicing the tea ceremony can be a worthwhile quest to pursue.

Kind regards,


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