– Vanessa Simmering, Senior Research Scientist, ACTNext

As we strive to continue to improve education and prepare students for success, we must think about all of the different ways in which learning occurs. We tend to think primarily of students in classrooms, but one of my favorite examples when I teach about learning is the incredible achievement babies make when they learn to walk.

In about a year, infants go from barely being able to lift their own heads to supporting the entire weight of their body, coordinating their arms and legs, maintaining balance, and navigating through the environment. With very few exceptions, babies learn how to walk without anything resembling instruction. How do they learn such a complicated skill on their own?

It seems like the answer must be that we are “hard wired” to walk: something like a program within our brains kicks in after some amount of time or experience. But in the 1970s, Esther Thelen began a line of research showing that motor development – not just walking, but other actions like reaching and grasping objects – follows no such master plan. Rather, learning to move is a problem every baby learns to solve for themselves, or as Karen Adolph describes it, learning to move is learning to learn.

I see three lessons we can take from learning to walk, which are already emerging in conversations about education.

  1. Skills are not unitary, but bring together sub-skills, in potentially different ways for different people.

    Walking results from the coordination of multiple sub-skills. Successful learning requires not only mastering those sub-skills, but also figuring out how to bring them together. Walking depends on strength in the legs and core, balance, and synchronized movement of legs and arms. If any piece is lacking, infants will (and do) fall down, but simply having mastered each piece will not produce walking. Babies develop these sub-skills over many months before walking, often practicing them in other contexts. Some are represented in developmental milestones that most babies pass as they learn to walk, but milestones do not necessarily progress in order. Some babies crawl (in any number of different ways) before walking, but many do not. Some babies find other ways to get around, like bottom-scooting or knee-walking. Although these behaviors may be precursors to walking, they are not pre-requites: there are many different paths to success. These different paths are the reflection of individual solutions to that problem of bringing together those underlying sub-skills.

  2. Extensive practice, in many different ways with chances to fail and try again, is necessary for both learning and generalization.

    Infants find those individual solutions through extensive, varied practice with plenty of failures along the way. They walk in bare feet, socks, booties, or shoes. They walk on carpet, hard floors, grass, or sand. They walk up and down stairs or over hilly ground. They walk while holding a parent’s fingers, a sibling’s hand, or the back of a pet. They hold their arms over their heads, in front of them, on furniture of a wall, or on an object they can push around. Each different experience requires them to adjust their actions in slightly different way, which helps them learn what they can and cannot do. Every time a baby falls down – as often as 30 times per hour for new walkers – they learn something about what works and what does not. This immediate, concrete feedback is hugely important for learning. Through this process, infants are learning to learn: they learn how to make adjustments on the fly, how to test their own limits, and how to recover when they fail.

  3. Learning one skill can be a gateway to other experiences and opportunities for learning, which can build intrinsic motivation to learn.

    We can see from infants’ persistence in this difficult, failure-prone task that learning to walk requires intrinsic motivation. Of course caregivers and siblings encourage babies to walk, but the majority of walking experience is initiated by the babies themselves and often without any external goal. Part of learning to walk results from babies experimenting with their bodies just to see what they can do. But through this exploration, the potential benefits of walking can be revealed. This transforms learning to walk from a goal in its own right into a means for further learning and higher goals, such as social interactions and language development.

I’ve used walking as a general example of learning when teaching about child development because it is so easy to see these processes at work (and I love showing cute baby videos!). From my perspective, though, these same processes are present across domains at every developmental level. By extending these three lessons from learning to walk to how we think about education, we can make new strides in our support of education and workplace success.