A Brief History of Human Learning & How it All Started

“History is for human self-knowledge. The only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.” ~R. G, Collingwood

Throughout centuries, humans have always wanted to learn about the world, and how we think and behave. The efforts of all the early philosophers, psychologists, and scientists have resulted in significant progress in how we learn. Let’s see what we learn from the history of human learning.

The rise of epistemologies

Since man started to wonder how human beings think, perceive and recall information, we have seen ongoing advancements in the field of science and psychology. In The Story of Psychology by Hunt, you learn how these advancements started by several Greek forerunners from the early 5th century [1]. These philosophers were interested to learn about human cognition and proposed some ideas of human mental processes that eventually led to Western psychology. For example, Alcmaeon’s theory of perception, despite being thoroughly incorrect, led to the beginning of epistemology. Alcmaeon believed humans derive ideas through the perceptions in their brains sent via air channels from their organs. Or Democritus believed knowledge is constructed in human brain via interaction of images of atoms transmitted to it.

Later, Socrates developed an alternative perception-based theory, i.e., we learn not from experience but from reasoning, which helps us discover knowledge within us. His teachings influenced the development of psychology. His theory of innate knowledge later became part of the psychological theories of Plato and Kant, as well as current psychologists, linguists, and parapsychologists. While Plato had the notion of innate knowledge in common with Socrates, he opposed that perception is the source of knowledge, and argued that we learn through deductive reasoning and reflection.

Plato’s student, Aristotle, had a different view. He believed that we arrive at knowledge from inductive reasoning driven from observation and empirical data. This is what we now consider a fundamental aspect of scientific method that has characterized science ever since. Aristotle’s other theory (knowledge is retained through experience, especially with salient emotional impact) is still regarded an enduring epistemology among educational psychologists.

Some of the theories of these early philosophers could have laid out the base for current learning theories and science. As an example, Aristotle eventually built on his predecessor’s theories to reach the conclusion that to arrive at general truths, our mind and body are involved to use the perceptions either deductively or inductively. Aristotle’s conclusion and that of his successors such as Locke (he believed that complex ideas are constructed in mind) hinted at what would later was called cognition.


Aristotle’s theory of the processes of inference makes him in advance of many modern psychologists [2]. These processes, which were later referred to as mental models, are built in our minds through inferences and propositional representations of what we see in the world. Therefore, to find meaning in the events around us we need mental models, which are our conceptual models of the way things work, how events take place, or the way people behave [3]. Psychologists such as Johnson-Laird and Baddeley saw the role that language can play in acquisition of concepts and human’s cognition. They found that memory traces can be registered and restored by verbal rehearsal [4].

Later, findings of other psychologists such as Atkinson and Shiffrin asserted that human memory has three components, i.e., sensory, short-term, and long-term [5]. According to their model of memory, information is processed using these three components: our senses detect environmental stimulus and store it briefly in the sensory memory (or sensory buffers). It is then transferred to short-term memory where information can be processed. Finally, by giving attention to it, information can be stored in the long-term memory and later retrieved.

Subsequently, Baddeley expanded on the Atkinson-Shiffrin model and developed a four-component working memory model: central executive, phonological loop, visual-spatial sketchpad, and episodic buffer. The central executive controls information flow and attention. The phonological loop stores verbal content. Visual-spatial sketchpad caters to visual-spatial data. Lastly, episodic buffer creates integrated units of information from all three domains in the working memory and links it to long-term memory. While the works of these cognitive scientists highlight the importance of human mind and cognition as the central points in knowledge acquisition, other psychologists saw the environment or human behavior the central elements of how we shape our knowledge.

Ecological approach & behaviorism

In the 1960s, ecological psychologists, Eleanor and James Gibson took a different approach to perception and argued that information is in the environment [6]. In other words, perception is a function of the environment and information is not stimulus. James Gibson argued that knowledge is constructed via the interaction between humans and the environment in that the environment affords various actions to the humans. We will then use this information to build our schemata, use for our daily activities, or navigate in the world [7]. We process the perceived information (or as Gibson refers to as affordances), and then our thinking processes happen. According to Gibson, one learns by being an active observer and constantly move his body or eyes relative to the environment [7].

Clark and Chalmers took a step further and proposed that the environment plays an active role in driving cognitive processes. They suggested that our mind or cognitive processes extend into the world via language. They viewed language as a complement to our inner minds to spread them into the world. Without language, as they noted, we will remain as “discreet Cartesian inner minds, in which high-level cognition relies on internal resources” [8].

Contrary to ecological psychologists who stressed the importance of the environment, behaviorists believed that stimuli in the environment influence our behaviors, i.e., behaviors are learned through interaction with the environment. One of the prominent psychologists in this field, Skinner expanded on the notion of stimulus-response in which human responds to variables and stimuli in the environment. He argued that we tend to manipulate the variables around us in order to “generate new ideas” where there is no specific problem [9]. The same applies to problem-solving and progress in discovery or inventions. He viewed a solution as a response which changes the situation to make the problem disappear. Unlike the ecological psychologists who viewed information as a function of the environment, Skinner believed that behavior is a function of the environment.


We have seen philosophers progress from metaphysical conjectures about the mind to a quasi-scientific understanding of its processes, and finally, establish psychology as an independent science [1]. While Socratic reasoning can help us discover contradictions in our belief systems and draw new conclusions, it’s not sufficient to discover new facts. So, scientific method has been employed since the medieval period, eventually leading to scientific revolution in the 16th and 17th century.

People in the medieval time believed authorities could give them all the answers and doubting them was irreligious; but Francis Bacon claimed that people should examine the nature themselves and find out whether the discovered laws were true [9]. Around a century later during the Enlightenment movement (in the 17th century), the Enlightenment thinkers believed that we learn by reasoning and science only [1,10].

Since then, we have seen a progressive narrative of the history of science. Kuhn highlighted that a significant breakthrough in science is first a break with old ways of thinking and old paradigms [11]. Paradigm shifts, as he called, happen after one recognizes the anomalies and questions the existing norms. Kuhn made a distinction between normal science—incremental changes built on existing theories—and revolutionary science or paradigm shift, which is a transformation from one paradigm to a different one. However, both normal science (or what he refers to as puzzle-solving) and revolutionary science are essential in understanding the world.

In short, from the early fifth century where philosophers devised their prominent theories based on speculations to scientists who only relied on facts and evidence, we have seen significant changes in how humans construct, retain, and spread knowledge. By a closer look at these evolutions, we can admit that modern science goes back to the Greek philosophers who introduced new paradigms built on their predecessors.

Key Takeaway
As you see, the Greek philosophers kept building on each other’s theories, even the absurd ones. The inaccurate conjectures gave them an idea. So, don’t quickly dismiss ideas that you find wrong or don’t agree with. Those might help you generate new ideas!


[1] Hunt, M. (1993). The story of psychology. 1st Ed. Doubleday Inc. New York, NY 10036.
[2] Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1980). Mental Models in Cognitive Science. Cognitive Science, 4, 71-115.
[3] Norman, D. (2013). The design of everyday things. Basic Books. New York, NY 10107.
[4] Baddeley, A. (2009). Working memory. Current Biology, 20(4).
[5] Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In Spence, K.W.; Spence, J.T. The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Vol 2. New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.
[6] Mace, W. M. (1977). James J. Gibson’s strategy for perceiving: Ask not what’s inside your head, but what your head’s inside of. In R. Shaw and J. Bransford (Eds.) Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing. LEA, Hillsdale, New Jersey. Pp. 43-55.
[7] Goldstein, E. B. (1981). The ecology of J. J. Gibson’s perception. Leonardo, 14(3), 191-195.
[8] Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The extended mind. Analysis, 58 (1), 7-19.
[9] Skinner, B. F. (2014). Science and Human Behavior. B.F. Skinner Foundation.
[10] Willingham, D. T. (2012). When can you trust the experts? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
[11] Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The structure of scientific revolutions. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637. 4th Ed.

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