Discussion: Critical Periods in Learning
There are inherent limits to how much can be learned. Limits on learning can include the individual’s biological preparedness for learning, certain physical characteristics of the learner, and the genetic limits on the learner’s ability. For instance, chimpanzees can learn to use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with humans but they are not able to vocalize human language due to their biology. As such, the chimpanzees’ physical characteristics set limits in that they cannot learn how to speak.
The role of heredity has been observed in learning. Genes contribute to differences between species (e.g., humans and other primates), as well as in differences within species (e.g., differences in intelligence among humans). At the beginning of the course, you examined innate species-specific behaviors such as modal action patterns, genetic behavioral traits, and reflexes. However, it is important to be mindful that learned behavior is not passed on to future generations, which means that each individual must learn many of the same skills and abilities (e.g., language) acquired by its parents, thus limiting what any one individual can learn in its lifetime.
The role of early experiences can be vital to learning. For example, prenatal exposure to drugs can interfere with neurological development, resulting in limited learning ability. Also, young children are especially vulnerable to neurological damage from exposure to lead, and other toxins in the environment. Malnutrition during prenatal development and early childhood, as well as head injuries, can likewise prevent normal neurological development resulting in reduced learning ability.
According to ethologists, certain behaviors of newborns, such as crying, may form the basis for attachment, which is the mutual system of physical, social, and emotional support (i.e., bonding) between caregiver and infant. There is evidence to suggest that there may be critical periods for attachments to form. Harry and Margaret Harlow were interested in finding out why this bonding phenomenon occurred and conducted numerous studies with infant rhesus monkeys in order to understand the vital components to bonding (See Chapter 13, and Harlow’s Studies on Dependency in Monkeys located in optional learning resources this week, for additional information about these studies).
Harlow’s Experiments: There were several variations on the original experiment and the following is a condensed version and summary of the overall findings:
1. Condition one of the study consisted of a “surrogate mother.” This surrogate mother was a tube-shaped wire frame covered in soft terry cloth with an attached “head,” complete with eyes and mouth. A bottle for nursing the infant monkeys was attached to the wireframe.
2. The second condition of the study of the study consisted of the same surrogate, terry cloth mother with the attached head, but with no bottle. The infant monkeys were fed using a food bowl.
3. The third condition of the study consisted of the same surrogate mother with the attached head, but with no soft covering. A bottle for nursing the infant monkeys was attached to the wireframe.
4. In the fourth condition, the monkeys were raised in isolation, by themselves or in small groups, with access to a food bowl, but without a mother model.
Developmental psychologists have proposed that the first 12 years of human life may be a critical period to learn a language. Some research in this area involves studies of feral children (e.g., human children who have lived away from human contact from a young age—see Wild Child: The Story of Feral Children located in the Optional Learning Resources for more information). Keep in mind that learning language is not the same as being able to speak or vocalize the language (as in the previous example—some chimpanzees are able to learn ASL, which is a formal language system, but are not able to vocalize human language).
For the Discussion this week, you will apply these concepts to the examination of possible critical periods in learning for humans, and examine the linkage between biological preparedness and environmental factors (i.e., nature and nurture) that could facilitate learning, (e.g., parenting, education), and inhibit learning (e.g., deprivation, illness), during critical periods.
Here are some potential critical period topics to further investigate:
- First language acquisition
- Second language acquisition
- Auditory processing
- Musical ability
- Vestibular system
To prepare for this Discussion:
- Review again if needed Chapter 1 of your course text about “nature and nurture.”
- Reflecting on the research studies on critical periods and learning with animals presented in Chapter 13, and based on the list above, consider a possible critical period that might occur during human development.
- For an enhanced understanding of these concepts, you are encouraged to also explore the Optional Learning Resources for this week, as well search for additional examples online.
- Think about how nature (e.g., biological preparedness) and nurture (environmental factors) could facilitate learning, and could inhibit learning, during critical periods.
With these thoughts in mind answer these three questions:
- Chose a critical period topic (e.g., Critical Period in Learning a Second Language). When do you think it would occur (i.e., what’s the timeframe of this critical period) and why?
- Discuss how nature could facilitate learning your critical period topic and then discuss how nature could interfere with learning your critical period topic.
- Discuss how nurture could facilitate learning your critical period topic and then discuss how nurture could interfere with learning your critical period topic.
Reflection: Applications of Learning on Positive Social Change
Throughout this course you have considered how learning applies not only to individual problems, but to social problems and issues facing humanity today. Social problems are behavioral, and solving them requires changing behavior.
For more than 45 years, Walden University has provided its students the opportunity to transform themselves as scholar-practitioners so that they can apply what they have learned through their degree programs to affect positivesocialchange. To learn more about Walden’s mission of positive social change visit https://www.waldenu.edu/about/social-change.
For this Assignment, you will identify a social issue or problem that is important to you and reflect on how it might be remediated through the application of learning principles that you have learned during the course. Finally, you reflect on what you conclude are the most useful concepts that you are taking away from this course, and how they apply to your own life.
To prepare for this Assignment:
- Read the assigned article “Expanding Our Understanding of Social Change.”
- Identify a social issue or problem and consider how it might be managed through the application of learning principles you have learned throughout this course. When identifying your social issue or problem you should focus on the behavior and its consequences (rather than on the need for attitude changes).
Examples for ideas: Racial prejudice, crime, pollution, education, exhaustion of natural resources, overpopulation, poverty, AIDS and other diseases, etc.
- Reflect on what you conclude are the most useful concepts that you are taking away from this course and how the concepts apply, or could potentially apply, to your own life.
The Assignment (1–2 pages):
- Briefly explain in a short paragraph (100 words or less) a social issue or problem, and explain why this problem is important to you.
- Explain how the social issue or problem might be managed through the application of learning principles you have learned throughout this course. Be sure to focus on the behavior and its consequences (rather than on the need for attitude changes).
- Summarize in a short paragraph (100 words or less) the most useful concepts you have learned in this course and how they apply (or could potentially apply) to your own life.
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