Inquiring Ape?

We have labelled ourselves as Homo sapiens, but what makes us ‘sapiens’ (Latin for ‘wise’)? Humans have, it seems, an inbuilt drive to inquire into our natural and social worlds. This drive is not the will to believe, but the will to find out (Bertrand Russell) and the will to find out is the will to research.

In the Higher Education Research and Development journal ‘Points for debate’ article just published, ‘Inquiring Ape?’ (  I suggested that we would do well to determine whether our capacity to research is only true of a small proportion of the population or is quite a typical way that the human mind wires, or can wire, neurologically i.e. are we well characterised as the inquiring ape?  Likewise, a major need for the medium to long-term is discipline-based and interdisciplinary studies that help us understand the elaborate interplay between genetic and environmental factors that influences the wiring of the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and other key areas of cognition and memory that seem to be major brain components involved in research processes.

The practical implications of such research are that ‘If it is a more typical capacity of the human brain to engage in the processes associated with research, then higher education, in concert with our entire formal education systems, needs to nurture and embrace this capacity in the design of learning environments for the inquiring apes that we call students.’ (p.864).

If humans are well characterised as the inquiring ape, then curricula from early childhood to PhD could have a uniting conceptual thread of  explicit, incremental and scaffolded research skill development  to enable student engagement in ability-appropriate research, whether into the commonly known, the commonly not known or the totally unknown.

What is your perspective on the ‘Inquiring Ape?’, on research needed to determine this, and on potential implications for formal education curricula?

Author: johnwillison

Senior Leturer, Discipline of Higher Education, School of Education, University of Adelaide.

8 thoughts on “Inquiring Ape?”

    1. Hi Glen
      The issue is to determine to what extent do human minds typically develop the neuro-architecture that enables research capacity. Is it small extent for most and large extent for a few, or is it commonly a deep and rich capacity? If we can get a better handle on that, then we can see who is exceptional. Also, we need to know what factors affect the wiring of the neurons and synapses that gives this research capacity, including genes, epigentics, urban vs hunter gatherer pbringings, socio-cultural, lanaguage, overall envronment and formal learning environments?

  1. There is undeniably a gap of research within this area.

    I definitely believe that researchers should draw their attention to examine the biological and nurtured aspects of ‘questioning’ within human development.

    The ‘questioning’ of phenomena from birth only intensifies with age through the expansion of our verbal capacities, therefore…… …….. ……. ……

    At what point does our ‘questioning’ shift towards a complex structured investigation we call research?

    Furthermore…… …….. ……. ……

    Who are researchers?

    Kindest regards,
    Christina Surmei

  2. Hi Christina

    ‘At what point does our ‘questioning’ shift towards a complex structured investigation we call research?’

    I suppose this shift doesn’t ever have to happen. Maybe thats a problem with formal education, especially if we have the capacity, even the propensity to research. When our 4 year olds are curious, probing, digging and delving into the elements of the physical world and social life that fascinate them, and our 6 year olds seem to be less so disposed, I wonder what is happening. Some people learn to engage in research mode, maybe more people stay in search mode and never see that shift that you mention.

    ‘Who are the researchers?’ The ones who dont just use the skills associated with research, but add degrees of rigour and discernment to the process. This definition implies that a 4 year old, adding rigour by focusing her search, being more discerning in what gathered data to use, being discriminating in how to organise the data and so more able to identify patterns is a researcher; a professor leading a research team and playing it safe for grant applications, if not adding degrees or rigour and discernment to the research processes is then no longer a researcher. This is where the ‘re’ in ‘research’ doesn’t mean merely more, but requires improvement in processes, ie increases in rigour.

    1. I think your comments about 4 yr old to 6 yr old is highly reflective of Sir Ken Robinson’s issues with our current “Industrial Age education” that stultifies and stifles creativity and research rather than develops it ( I think the work being considered here is a possible pathway to addressing Robinsons’ challenges. I also couldn’t help thinking, while I was reading the “Inquiring Ape?” article in HERDSA that this relates very strongly the work being done in neuro-plasticity. Lots of exciting possibilities but with huge potential to be stifled and disbelieved by those who have the fixed-in-concrete understanding that we are born with and eternally limited to a hard-wired brain capacity that pre-determines our boundaries and parameters. On the other hand, perhaps it is THIS research into re-search capacity and development that will help synthesise and develop the understanding needed to embrace neuro-plasticity and the incredible opportunities it offers. Exciting stuff! And I definitely appreciate the emphasis on discipline, rigour and discernment, as well as the belief int he capacity to grow and develop.

      1. Hi Cate

        I was thinking that brain plasticity is a given now. Especially since there is work like the ‘tongue display unit (TDU), a sensory substitution device which converts visual information into electrotactile pulses delivered to the tongue, to resolve a tactile motion discrimination task’ (Brain Research Bulletin
        Volume 82, Issues 5–6, 30 July 2010, Pages 264–270) ie blind and non-blind people learning to perceive visually through their tongues. This ‘leads to functional rearrangements of these supramodal cortical areas’ in the blind. Extreme brain plasticity.

        If three year olds are typically, or can due to brain plasticity, be wired to inquire, I wonder what difference this would make to formal education? Is ‘inquiry mode’ a standard learning mode?

      2. I think neuroplasticity a given, too, until I run into people who disagree! (Or have just never heard of it and are quite excited – which is refreshing. I think it gives hope not just for severely disabled, but even more simply and rapidly for language and learning disorders. It’s still quite a fledgling science, though, and needs lots of committed researchers to take it further.)

        But I think that inherently we are wired from birth for inquiry, curiosity, and learning. And – as Robinson points out – we “educate” those qualities OUT of our children. By the time our students arrive, they have been “educated” for 12-13 years into non-inquiring, uncurious, non-learners. And that is despite wonderful teachers working within a seriously broken system.

        And yes – that means WE need to re-devise our learning and teaching design and delivery (I’ll avoid the word ‘education’) to rewire those qualities back. Or (as Gardner puts it) work on UN-learning first, before we try to develop a sense of learning. We essentially have a lot of un-educating to do, if we want to rebuild what was originally an intrinsic wiring for inquiry. I’m afraid that sounds cynical, but I mean it sincerely. I think it’s one of our biggest challenges – at all levels of tertiary ed, but particularly so for FYE. It’s one of the reasons I think the RSD is so powerful – it doesn’t make assumptions but builds up from the basics, with embedded checkpoints to see if foundations are there or if unlearning needs to happen first.

  3. I think the challenge- maybe a major educational paradox- is around the acquisition of content/details/others’ ideas as the medium for the research thinking, where content and skills are mutually dependent and mutually supporting. One part of the paradox is that ‘aquisition of content’ leading to effective, even automatic, recall is feqently boring, and human brains do tend to ‘habituate’ or shut down with non-novel inputs in the environment. The other part of the paradox is that discovery learning can be more motivating, and hold our attention- but prone to develop inappropriate content and or inefficient in developing a factual base. (Also can be very demotivating if you dont know what you are doing.)

    I am hoping that level 1 of the RSD- Prescribed Research, requiring a high degree of structure and modelling on the part of educators- is an area that suggests to educators that students need to acquire or generate specific context or learn specific skills. Here, the demotivating side of memorising content may be balanced with the sense of purpose, with students knowing that they are performing more mundane work as part of a process of working towards more open-ended research tasks.

    I think that education needs a sense of purpose that is more than ‘learning stuff’. Students researching their physical and social environments is an active purpose for them and for teachers, but not only as open inquiry, but with guided inquiry. I like the way that a Physiologist in the USA, Susan Chaplin, said that third year students tend to perform open-inquiry projects at ‘the same level of sophistication as in their introductory core course’ unles there was explicit development of associated sklls.

    If we are wired to inquire as seven year olds, that wiring may well persist (neuroscientists seem to be in agreement that actual ‘extinction’ of neural circuits rarely happens) , but could be superceded and bypassed by other neural networks. We may, as educators, just need to help our students to ‘discover the wiring within’.

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