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In Education, Language and Learning Go Together

May 1, 2015


One of Frank Sinatra’s many hits was a Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen song entitled “Love and Marriage.” Sinatra introduced the song to the world in a 1955 television production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” The song’s most famous line is, “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.” I could use Sammy Cahn’s lyrical genius to help me find a clever rhyme for “language and learning”; perhaps something like, “Language and learning go together like a good job and earning.” There appears to be a strong link between language and learning that can be traced back to our ancient ancestors. Rhodi Lee writes, “The ability of humans to use language is among the things that make them distinct from other animals, but scientists were not certain as to why and how this trait has evolved.” [“Stone Age Butchery Tools Influenced Language Evolution More Than You Think,” Tech Times, 15 January 2015] As the headline to her article suggests, language is now thought to have developed as a direct result of one person needing to teach another person a new skill. Lee explains:

“A new study, however, suggests that how language has evolved is directly tied to ancient tool-making. For a new study published in the journal Nature Communications on Jan. 14, Thomas Morgan from the University of California at Berkeley and colleagues presented evidence that stone tool-making has played a very important role in the evolution of language and teaching among our prehistoric human ancestors. The first verbal communications, which likely happened 2.5 million years ago, were likely about tool-making. The study proposes that our human ancestors in the African savannah may have developed a primitive form of language so they could teach each other how to make stone age tools, a crucial skill for survival at the time.”

If the study’s theory is correct, then project-based learning is the oldest education model still in use. The theory didn’t spring from the researchers’ collective imaginations; rather it emerged from their collective experience. They developed their theory while trying to teach tool making skills to a group of volunteers.

“The researchers came up with this conclusion after conducting experiments on teaching the art of Oldowan stone knapping. Starting 2.5 million years ago and for about 700,000 years, the Oldowan stone tools were used to butcher animals. Oldowan stone knapping involved creating butchering flakes by hammering hard rock against basal, flint and other certain types of glassy and volcanic rocks. By experimenting with five different ways of teaching Oldowan stone knapping skills to over 180 volunteers, Morgan and colleagues found that using spoken communication rather than imitation, gestures or non-verbal presentation, obtains the highest volume and best quality of flakes with least wastage and in the least amount of time.”

I still believe that project-based learning is one of the best ways to teach skills to people. That’s why I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness — to help get a project-based, problem-solving approach into schools. I’m also a strong advocate of teaching communication skills, both oral and written, to our children. I made that point in an earlier article entitled “Are We Too Obsessed with STEM Education?” In that article, I examined arguments made by Emily Eckart, a fiction writer, who believes we are over-stressing STEM and under-stressing the arts and humanities. [“We’re way too obsessed with pushing science and math on our kids,” The Washington Post, 29 December 2015] I wrote, “Almost every employer rues the fact that employee communication skills (both oral and written) appear to be on the decline.” Eckart goes on to explain why good language skills are as important as STEM skills. She writes:

“Defenders of the humanities have long recognized that the study of history, literature, art and language develop other skills that are critical for students’ success. With their focus on careful reading and analysis of texts, humanities foster clear communication, both in speaking and in writing. In an increasingly global world, there are many questions that don’t have certain answers, such as what is ethical and what it means to live a good life. In Educational Leadership, David Ferrero summarizes humanities perfectly: They are subjects dedicated to the development of ‘reflective citizens, wise leaders, and good persons.'”

I have no disagreement with that line of reasoning; especially Eckart’s point about the criticality of learning how to read carefully, analyze thoughtfully, and communicate clearly. I believe both Eckart and I would agree with the conclusion of the University of California-Berkeley study that there is a symbiotic relationship between language and learning. That conclusion is also supported by research being conducted at Stanford University which I wrote about in an article entitled “Educating our Children: The Earlier the Better.” Writing about that Stanford study, Motoko Rich () reports, “Nearly two decades ago, a landmark study found that by age 3, the children of wealthier professionals have heard words millions more times than those of less educated parents, giving them a distinct advantage in school and suggesting the need for increased investment in prekindergarten programs.” [“Language-Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K,” New York Times, 21 October 2013] The Stanford study is a follow-up to the earlier study. Rich continues:

“The new research by Anne Fernald, a psychologist at Stanford University, which was published in Developmental Science this year, showed that at 18 months children from wealthier homes could identify pictures of simple words they knew — ‘dog’ or ‘ball’ — much faster than children from low-income families. By age 2, the study found, affluent children had learned 30 percent more words in the intervening months than the children from low-income homes.”

Education is all about understanding and one of the purposes of language is to help us understand the world better. Rich explains that “oral language” is also the key to “reading comprehension.” Because the vocabulary of poorer children is less rich than the vocabulary of children from wealthier homes, “the most disadvantaged children face increased challenges once they enter school and start learning to read.” The obvious conclusion to draw from all of these studies is that improved language skills inevitably results in better learning. Lee notes, “The demand for Oldowan tools … drove the hominins to improve their communication, planting the seeds of language, teaching and learning.” We can help our children improve their language skills and in doing so we also can plant the seeds of teaching and learning. Education’s primary goal is to equip our children with the skills they will need to meet the challenges they will face in life regardless of the career path they choose. Language skills are among the most important skills they will ever learn.

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