People have been thinking about learning for a long time. No one studied it experimentally until Ebbinghaus but it was the subject of many conversations before that. The focus was the mind, which was considered more of a spiritual force than a physical structure.
Learning was thought to be the mind forming associations. In particular, Aristotle proposed three laws of association: contiguity, similarity and opposites.
Contiguity is closeness or touching. The contiguous United States are all those who share physical borders. Aristotle and his fellow philosophers used contiguity to explain how two events in time and space are associated with each other. There is no causal connection but they are connected by proximity.
Memory was thought to build on contiguous associations. A knife and fork go together because we frequently see them together. And the more often we see things together, the stronger the relationship. The modern application of contiguous associations is priming and retrieval cues. Words found together on a list are easier to remember because of contiguity.
Classical conditioning is built on contiguity of time. Two stimuli that are closely presented in time become associated together. If one of those stimuli is the trigger for a reflex, the other stimuli can, after many pairings, also be used to trigger the reflex.
Similarity builds on contiguity. The more similar things are, the easier it is for one to act as a cue of the other. Similarity matches features two ideas or circumstance have in common. We learn to associate all items that are round. We recognize one person because they look similar to another. We find that having some similar words on a list helps make the list easier to remember.
Opposites is similarity in reverse. We remember things that are the opposite of what we expected. We have formed bonds between black and white, thin and fat, and fuzzy and smooth. We remember opposites because of the contrast.
Rene Descartes divided behavior into two categories: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary is where we exercise our free will. The mind chooses, thinks, decides and remembers. Learning is an act of will. The mind comes with an innate ability to think logically. Involuntary behavior are reflexes. They occur automatically. You get hit in the knee with a little hammer and your leg jerks. It’s a reflex.
John Locke was a British empiricist. He rejected the notion that the mind comes prepacked with innate ideas. He believed that we learn everything. We start as a blank slate (similar to Plato’s wax tablet). Everything is the result of learning.
But Locke didn’t explain how learning occurs. He proposed that education should give a study a healthy body, virtuous character and a trained mind. He believed in training the mind didn’t need to be limited to learning Greek and Latin. It could include good literature, emerging sciences, and mathematics.
Locke believed that education made the man. People should discover their innate abilities and actively seek knowledge.
In 1693, he published Some Thoughts Concerning Education. It included practical advice for raising children. It is important to guide a child’s learning because the associations of ideas make when young form the foundation of their lives. Children should be well fed and get plenty of sleep but they should not be sheltered. They should be exposed to heat and cold when young so they get used to it.
He suggests “his feet to be washed every day in cold water, and to have his shoes so thin that they might leak and let in water whenever he comes near it.” Harsh conditions are good for you.
Two examples of discussing the larger picture but not explaining the process of learning were followers of Charles Darwin. Darwin is best known for his ideas of common ancestors and the importance of natural selection (as opposed to the artificial selection of breeding show dogs, for example).
Darwin’s influential work was a combination of two theories. He took the dynamic change aspects of Charles Lyell’s dynamic view of the earth. Darwin matched Lyell’s dynamism with Thomas Mathus’ economic theory. Mathus described how resource scarcity impacted the struggle to succeed in business. The merged over-theory was illustrated with Darwin’s naturalistic observations.
Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton (1822-1911) tried to apply natural selection to human intelligence. Galton believed intelligence is a single factor that can be seen in any task. He also believed that people vary in intelligence. Galton’s ideas then went astray. He proposed that the government should assign people partners so that their children could be breed to be more intelligent.
Darwin’s young friend, George Romanes (1848-1894) was born in Canada but raised in England. Romanes wanted to logically prove Darwin’s assertion that there is continuity between humans and animals. His approach was to use analogies and anecdotal evidence.
Romanes defined intelligence as the ability to learn. He saw it as a way to modify behavior as a result of experience.
While watching a column of ants, he put a small stone on one of them, pinning an ant underneath. When the next ant in line reached the stone and pinned ant, it ran back to the other ants. Then the ants rushed to the rescue, trying a variety of solutions, including biting at the stone, trying to tug out the aunt, and covering it with clay.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that it is not easily replicated, the events are witnessed by only one person, and stories tend to become more embellished over time. Obviously, there is an increased likelihood of reporting only the behaviors that appear intelligent.
A good example of observation without experimentation is the case of Clever Hans. In the early 1900s, a horse named Clever Hans could be observed solving math problems. Hans could add, subtract, multiply and divide. He could even do fractions. His trainer, Wilhelm van Osten, held public demonstrations, never charging anyone to see his amazing horse.
Ever since Darwin’s research was published, people were interested in animal intelligence. Obviously, anything this amazing demands an investigation. In 1907, Oskar Pfunst discovered that the horse was responding to the trainer’s body language. The trainer had no idea he was producing these involuntary cues.
Clever Hans had no ability to tell time, differentiate musical tones, read, spell and figure out that “If the eighth day of the month comes on a Tuesday, what is the date of the following Friday?” He had the ability to watch his trainer and tap his hoof until the trainer’s shoulder’s relaxed. But Hans could answer other people’s questions too.
Hans was clever at reading people. He could get the correct answer only if the questioner knew the answer and Hans could see him. Horses are very keen at detecting small postural changes. This may explain why riders think their horses are telepathic. It might be subtle changes in the saddle and not mind meld that the horses are receiving.
After the study, Pfunst used to perform in front of an audience, playing the role of the horse. Individuals were asked to stand on his right and concentrate on a number or simple math problem. Then, like a Clever Hans, Pfungst would tap out the answer with his hand. When he observed a slight upward jerk of the head, he stopped.
Beware of animal studies where the experimenter knows the answer and the subject can see them. The means that drug-sniffing dogs need handlers to not care what the outcome will be. And it means beware of human research that aren’t double blind studies.