Learning is a remarkable process. From the moment we are born–and even sooner–we begin to learn in various ways. We learn to move, to identify faces, to make out sounds and to process language; we learn to crawl, to grasp things, to sit up, to balance on two feet, to walk. We learn to speak, to write and draw, to make things, to do arithmetic, to read and understand.
Educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists are learning more and more about the vast and complex world of learning. Every time we learn something, neural pathways are being established in the brain, different parts of the brain are inter-communicating and expanding, establishing new pathways and increasing in complexity. In a newborn baby, synaptic connections in the brain are forming at an explosive rate, like a small universe being formed. And this process takes place, not just in childhood, but throughout our lives.
But learning is not just an affair of the brain but of the entire organism. Motor skills are obviously not just cognitive but involve the entire musculoskeletal system. Drawing is clearly not just not cognitive, involving the use of the entire neuromuscular system and learned through a process of doing things–what Dewey called “doing and undergoing.” And even purely cognitive processes, such as learning math or learning to write, are done by means of a neuromuscular process involving the entire organism. All learning, in fact, is done by means of a biological organism that operates as a unified mental and physical whole; in this sense, you could say that the primary instrument of learning is not the brain but the entire human body, since we learn many of our initial skills through a complex process of trying, experimenting, and reacting to things–all of which involve the human organism as a mental and physical – or psychophysical – mechanism.
But what exactly is this system, and how does it work? Although educators have learned a great deal about the cognitive or mental side of learning, we know relatively little about this psychophysical system. How, for instance, is this system coordinated, and does it work differently in some children than in others? Are there some children who are more grounded in this system and are therefore better able to learn? Does the working of this system affect health and functioning? What does it tell us about how children should ideally be functioning?
To understand this aspect of development, a new model of educational development is needed – one that is based on a working knowledge of mind and body as the biological foundation on which all learning and accomplishment take place. Psychology during the 20th century produced two models of development that became central to educational theory – one describing emotional stages of development, the other intellectual and cognitive. Each of these theories provides a useful framework for studying as assessing children, but neither one constitutes a basic understanding of the psychophysical working of the child’s organism as the primary and perhaps most fundamental aspect of learning.
This new subject represents a third – and very recently discovered – branch of educational knowledge – the study of the child as a sensing, thinking, responding organism. As opposed to a purely cognitive model, which touches on motor control but focuses mainly on intellectual development, this new model addresses the total neurophysiology of the child as a thinking, reacting, sensing machine – that is, the working of the psychophysical machinery as a total system.
One of the reasons why this subject has been so little understood is that it is not based on an amalgamation of existing theories or knowledge but represents a new frontier of knowledge. We have a great deal of knowledge about how the child functions physically; we also have a psychodynamic model of development. Psychophysical functioning, while not entirely separate from these two subjects, is not a combination of them but constitutes a new field of study which requires the observation of the body in action, an understanding of how this cooperates with thought to produce behavior, and therefore requires the articulation of new subject matter and a new point of view about human functioning.
Understanding how this marvelous instrument works is the basis for a truly holistic concept of learning, for the intelligent working out of means and ends, and for increased awareness and control. It also provides a standard of psychophysical health and functioning that constitutes a much-needed foundation for an educational, as opposed to clinical, model of child development. The field of education as a whole has made laudable progress in recent decades, particularly in our understanding of infant development, cognition, and neuroscience; but our conception of education is limited when we view learning and development primarily in terms of cognition and learning and leave out an understanding of the psychophysical instrument that is the basis of all doing and learning. The Dimon Institute advances a new approach to learning that insists first and foremost on mastery of the self as the foundation on which all learning must take place, based on an understanding of mind and body as a functioning whole.
This new approach includes two main objectives; the first is to establish for educators and health professionals a standard of health and normal functioning at all stages of development. In the broad sense, schools today monitor a child’s physical, mental, and neurological health. What we lack is an understanding of how the child functions psychophysically when engaged in the learning process – i.e., the child’s muscle tone and physical coordination, mental attitude, degree of alertness, and ability to remain poised when confronted with problems or challenges. While these elements are often attended to and clinically diagnosed when they reach abnormal levels, education theory lacks a standard of optimal development that applies to the vast majority of children who are clinically normal but often fail to function up to their ability. Such a standard of psychophysical functioning constitutes an essential foundation for an educational, as opposed to clinical, model of child development. The Institute’s ongoing study of the unified working of mind and body will offer parents and teachers a standard of evaluation of growth and development based not on specific standards of performance, but on a comprehensive understanding of psychophysical functioning in activity.
The second objective is to provide a new model for learning, The process of acquiring skill begins at birth and continues throughout life, yet even in the most sophisticated learning environments, the teaching of skill is largely based on crude methods of drilling and repetition that overlook the control of the self as the central instrumentality upon which all learning depends. A key objective of the Institute is to develop more effective teaching methods, and to provide educators with a means of re-evaluating existing methods and modeling the application of these ideas in various settings.
The Institute’s approach to skill and education is laid out more completely in Dr Theodore Dimon’s book ‘The Elements of Skill’ (see BOOKS page on this site).
Copyright ©2012 Theodore Dimon.
All rights reserved.