Nature Notes: Learning by Doing

We understood by doing, not by understanding the theory of how things worked, a kind of osmosis approach to solving problems

I was sitting with one of the world’s most noted algologists and marine phycologists in the world having lunch in a restaurant in Amagansett with him and three women. We had just listened to the address by the National Audubon Society’s president at the Nature Conservancy’s headquarters in East Hampton. The East Hampton Garden Club sponsored the event and it included a presentation by three recent East Hampton High School graduates who were interns this past year working under the naturalists at Third House Nature Center, which was started by the late Carol Morrison in Montauk almost 20 years ago. The Garden Club has been sponsoring interns, scholarships attached, for East Hampton High School seniors working with local environmentalists and naturalists for two decades, without interruption.

Because two at the table had studied at the University of Chicago, the conversation touched on the Fields Museum, the longstanding science institution in that city comparable in scope and coverage to New York’s equally well-known American Museum of Natural History and not so different in age.

The phycologist interjected that he used to go there often while a student in the 1950s, one of the purposes of which was to try to figure out how televisions worked. The museum devoted much of its time and space to showing how modern American appliances, motor vehicles, electronic gadgets, and the like worked. Notwithstanding his probing, he left Chicago with the television conundrum unresolved. His experience was similar to my own. I’ve always wondered how things worked, ever since I learned in fifth-grade science about simple tools — the lever, screw, ramp, wheel, and so on that derived from the age of the Golden Greeks and probably earlier, well before the dawn of Christianity.

I thought how lucky we were to grow up in rural America, in my case, Mattituck, in the 20th century when simple tools were still much in use and how we learned about them and how to use them even before we learned the theory behind how they worked in public school. In farm and fishing country, as the North Fork was at that time, we couldn’t have gotten by without them. In order to move a very large object such as big rock out of the way all you needed was a strong iron crowbar. It was easier pedaling your bike up a road with a very gradual slope than up a steep one. We launched our rowboats over the beach using a stuffed textile roller (wheel), and when far out to fish or clam, we rowed. We had no book knowledge of Newton’s Third Law, but when we “levered” two oars in one direction, the boat went in the other direction. We understood by doing, not by understanding the theory of how things worked, a kind of osmosis approach to solving problems.

Yea verily, the Golden Greeks and the Egyptians may have perfected the simple tools, but in actuality they derived from primitive humans and even from other so-called lower vertebrates, not just simians but other mammals as well as birds and even, maybe, fish. The archer fish, for example, shoots a stream of water two to three feet high to knock insects off overhanging branches, not just for itself but for other archer fishes hanging around. It is deadly accurate.

We’ve known about rats solving mazes as fast as humans for a long time now, but we are just learning about how octopi use their tentacles and locomotive agility in any number of ingenious ways to solve complex chains of actions that even some of us humans would scratch our heads at. No, apes, crows, rats, octopi and all of the other clever animals don’t understand how TVs, computers, and smartphones work, but neither do most of us. We use them without understanding the theory behind them.

Growing up in the boondocks taught us a lot. As in one of the late Pete Seeger’s monologues. He cited a city slicker in a pricey car riding through Maine who stopped in front of a man on his stoop to get directions. The man wasn’t able to help him, to which the city slicker replied, “You’re not very smart are you?” Came the reply, “No, but I’m not lost.”

Our rural public schools weren’t all that bad. We learned to read with Dick and Jane, we learned the theory behind adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, we learned about simple tools and the science of how things worked, but except for the reading we were already fairly accomplished in such matters before attending school, taught by our fathers and mothers, older brothers and sisters, relatives, and neighbors. Mostly, we learned by observing and doing. Shop was my favorite course ever.

I don’t think I would be cut out for the “Common Core” approach to public education so highly touted today. I would prefer the apprenticeship approach to learning. And I don’t know what would have become of me if I grew up in the city. I would have fared much better at Cornell University at English courses, reading, writing, speaking, and the like. All the city kids were miles ahead of me in that regard.

One of two sisters sitting next to the algologist and across from me is a whiz with computers, professionally, and a world-class birder when not working. In response to the algologist’s admission about failing to understand how TVs worked, she confessed that she didn’t know how computers worked, she just worked them. If Beethoven had stopped to ponder the chain of actions that each touch of the ivories engendered, would he have written the “Eroica” and “Ode to Joy” symphonies?

Which brings us back to the University of Chicago where Robert Maynard Hutchins assembled “The Great Books” collection. Some theorists say that 1,000 monkeys with 1,000 word processors working night and day for a long time could have done the same!

Larry Penny can be reached via email at