Education isn't just about memorization, but practicing into mastery. Looking to other species, we see that long‑term success is all about incorporating new knowledge into your very being.
We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe and connected to each other to form one unity. Dr. Maria Montessori

The Generosity of Genovesa

Sailing northeast from the main archipelago of the Galapagos, one can see the circular rim of a collapsed volcano rise above the East Pacific waters.

Scarce rainfall and volcanic boulders make this place inhospitable to human habitation. But unlike her active and volatile sister islands, Fernandina and Isabela, Genovesa has made peace with her fiery past. She allows her creatures to survive, even flourish. Genovesa is an island of indigenous and endemic sea birds––storm petrels, frigates, red-footed, blue-footed, and Nazca boobies. They fish, nest, mate, procreate, and perish within large, noisy communities: a demonstration of the productivity of social and biological diversity in Nature.

1798 chart of the Galapagos
Image: London : A. Arrowsmith, 1798 / Library of Congress / Public Domain ‑ No restrictions

Tiny Genovesa didn't even make it onto this 1798 chart of the Galapagos by James Colnett, officer of the British Royal Navy. If it had, it would have been just a tiny circle somewhere under the word "Capt." 

Cradled within Genovesa’s deep crescent rim and surrounded by salt-sprayed cliffs is an ancient bay now known by the name of these islands’ most famous visitor. One can walk up the inner edge of the cliffs surrounding Darwin Bay via a steep rugged trail that climbs through colonies of nesting birds. In cooler months, white, fuzzy-feathered baby birds await their parents’ return from the sea.

For the young Nazca boobies, that wait can be quite long. Nazcas are the most of all boobies. Parents often make long-distance foraging trips of more that 200 miles (322 km) from the coast to hunt for sardines, leaving fledglings unattended for up to 28 hours. Since 1997, the gradual warming of ocean waters has resulted in a scarcity of those sardines, forcing the birds to supplement their diet with less nutritious and more challenging-to-catch prey. Flying fish are powerful swimmers that self-propel out of the water at speeds exceeding 35 miles per hour (56 km/h).  So for the juvenile booby, the preparation for adult life requires a stringent training that must build aerial stamina and hunting accuracy.

High-Stakes Games

Under a dark grey stone shelf streaked with guano stands a fledgling Nazca booby with a jointed stick in his long, pointy beak. Webbed feet planted firmly on the sand-covered ground, he angles his body and neck to maneuver the unwieldy piece of wood into various positions without dropping it to the ground. He flings his head back, trying to toss the twig into the air. After ten tries, he misses and drops the stick. Unperturbed, he gently picks it back up and repeats the catch-and-throw drill. Eyes wide, focused on the task at hand, he repeats every successful move, but the twig folds at the joint––making it impossible for him to slide it across his beak and position it exactly right.

While his parents have been fishing, this baby bird has been practicing juggling. He has spent days selecting sticks of various lengths and widths. According to the local naturalists and guides, each stick represents a squirming fish he might catch in the future. He uses each one as a tool to perfect his fishing craft by incrementally refining the smallest of movements.

Although the fledgling’s very survival depends on developing his dexterity, he has a limited window of time in which to do it. By the time his parents stop feeding him, he must be able to plunge-dive deep into the ocean from a hundred feet (30 meters) above into a school of sardines or hunt down flying fish and swallow them in mid-flight. Therefore, despite the cacophony and flurry of avian activity around him, he persists in honing his stick-juggling skills to prepare for independence from his parents.

Practicing Into Mastery

Not much has been written on the transfer of knowledge of tool use among the boobies, but below you’ll explore in-depth models from other birds, apes, and dolphins. The fledgling booby simply appears to understand from the earliest stages that effective orientation and utilization of a tool requires purposeful repetition of a particular sequence of actions. Repetition into mastery is the key to long-term survival for him and for young of all species.

When we set out to teach or to learn, it is pivotal to keep in mind that the best education isn’t just transfer of knowledge; it is training in mastery. In nature, mastery leads to independence, which expands the opportunities for survival.

It is exactly in the repetition of the exercises that the education of the senses exists; not that the child shall know colors, forms, or qualities, but that he refines his senses through an exercise of attention, comparison, and judgement. Dr. Maria Montessori

Human infants, too, are thrust into a world that caters to adult needs and desires. The first six years of life are a period of rapid for the young human who wants much but can express and control little.

Speech is one of the most important tools she’ll encounter. Through cries and incoherent babbles, she physically prepares to utter more complex sounds––to speak words and articulate sentences capable of expressing complete thoughts. She undergoes rapid sensory and cognitive development as she is bombarded with diverse forms of information she must synthesize.

As with any organism, her body, too, is a kind of tool she must learn to use effectively. Without any adult instruction, she learns to roll over, crawl, sit, and walk, consistently adjusting her movements and balance to accommodate her large head and growing limbs. With practice the child gains hand-eye coordination, increases control over fine and gross motor skills, and advances on to using external tools: a spoon, a pencil, a computer.

She gains this knowledge from her peers and the adults around her who help her relate to the tools and practices of the culture and era into which she is born. Her thirst for knowledge is fueled by imagination, curiosity, and self-awareness. Her capacity for mental expansion is complex, immense, and unstoppable.

Newborn baby cradled in man's hands
Image: Vitalinka / Copyright © ‑ All rights reserved

The first six years of life are a period of rapid adaptation for the young human who wants much but can express and control little.

Owning Our Learning

Unlike the learning a Nazca booby does, human learning is rarely tied so directly to sheer survival. However, every time we are faced with an unfamiliar situation, a threat, or a challenge, we are still pushed back into survival mode––a situation where we must acquire new knowledge or risk failure. Even something as seemingly simple as using a new smartphone app requires a basic form of training. We observe, imitate, or learn through direct instruction from those around us.

Nevertheless, this transmission or acquisition of knowledge alone does not ensure mastery. Mastery connotes knowledge attainment at a deeper level, actualized via self-discipline, repetitive and purposeful actions, singular focus, internalization, and recall of information on demand.

In humans, mastery particularly fosters the independence to explore broad possibilities of action, and to nurture one’s distinct creativity. But there are many ways that nature uses intentional learning and total immersion to overcomes challenges, either by adaptation to the environment or adoption of different skills. Whether it is tool use among chimpanzees or song practice among zebra finches, the process of perfecting the craft lies in diligent practice. As a result, nature inspires us to master the fundamental concepts that lead to a complex understanding and appreciation of any study or discipline we undertake.

Only when we devote ourselves to mastering the essentials do we experience, firsthand, the intrinsic joy of owning our learning.

Karuna Skariah, NBCT, has been an educator for twenty years. She is a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, a mentor for National Board candidates, and an Instructional Program Coordinator and TAG (Talented and Gifted) teacher. She is continually shaped and perennially inspired by her formative experiences as a Montessori teacher (AMI).