What can making a fire teach us about the nature of learning?
I have had an ongoing dialogue with Dr. Adrian Bejan of Duke University, one of the preeminent scholars on the science of connectivity and flow through human, organic, and inorganic systems. He recently sent me his latest article, Why Humans Build Fires Shaped the Same Way, in which he describes how pretty much everyone, from primitive to advanced societies, build fires that have the same shapes. What does this tell us about learning?
I don’t follow a bit of Dr. Bejan’s math, but this simple example of fire building, practiced in every culture over untold millennia, is a fascinating example of knowledge transfer, which is a core element of learning. Simple physics dictate that efficient fires require the familiar shape of a campfire “tent” structure. Fires with this structure burn hotter with less fuel. This example raises in my mind the question of trial and error vs learning-by-teaching. How much of successful fire creation came about by an individual or isolated small group just trying stuff and then repeating what works best? How much was instilled by a teacher?
I remember learning to make fires; a scout leader and my father taught us the basics, which they had learned when they were young…and then we built lots of fires. Positive results were clear and rapid, as were less positive results (sometimes outright failures). Given the physics behind positive and negative results as outlined in Bejan’s article, other variables of learning, like the effectiveness of the teacher or resources available, seem vanishingly small. The effective flow of knowledge about fire making would seem to have two basic components: simple instruction and experiential practice. Both are critical:
- Without the instruction, the almost infinite number of ways to build a fire would potentially lead to a long learning curve, which, in the early years of human society, would lead to deadly competitive disadvantages.
- Without the experiential element, the novice fire-maker would only be able to create a fire under ideal conditions, not learning to adapt in real time, which, on a cold, wet night would lead to those same deadly disadvantages.
Given these two elements of good pedagogy (provide basic content to the student and then get out of the way and allow experiential learning to take over), the practice of building effective fires spread quickly and in parallel from many sources. Bejan argues that the flow of fire technology in early human groups allowed for mobility and “spreading of the human mass around the globe”.
This is an argument boiled down to the fewest possible variables, and therefore ignores things like the quality of the teacher, which is NOT something to ignore. But it does demonstrate that knowledge transfer follows many of the immutable laws that govern flow through a system. In this case, the system is the connected network of humans and human groupings, and if we want our learning to be most effective, we should leverage those two simple first steps of effective pedagogy.