Annie Murphy Paul: Exploring the Ultimate Learning Space

Those of us fascinated by learning and how we are affected by the places where learning occurs find ourselves exploring a wonderfully unexpected learning space in Annie Murphy Paul’s Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives: the womb.

It is Paul’s contention, throughout this well-researched and thought-provoking book and the “What We Learn Before We’re Born” TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk she gave on the subject in 2011, that we haven’t given nearly enough attention to all we learn and acquire in those critical nine months before we enter the world. Origins is a great first step in filling that gap.

Organized into nine chapters representing the nine months of the writer’s second pregnancy, the book takes us through tantalizing views of the latest research into what we learn and how we are shaped in utero—a somewhat different classroom than the ones in which we usually find ourselves. And one fascinating aspect of this particular journey is the number of parallels we find between that pre-birth learning space and the more familiar ones we inhabit. There is, for example, the Month Two exploration of how what our mothers eat while they are carrying us affects the lifelong tastes we develop and acquire; those of us involved in training-teaching-learning can quickly make the literal connection between proper nourishment and a learner’s ability to absorb what is offered in a learning opportunity, and we can also see the figurative elements of how what we are offered in the womblike setting of a physical or virtual learning space helps us develop a favorable or unfavorable response to the learning morsels we consume.

Paul’s Month Three explorations of how tremendously stressful situations—the 9/11 bombings, the Northridge, California earthquake in 1994, World War II-era siegesaffect mothers and the children they are carrying remind us that significantly less stressful situations can have significant and long-lasting effects on a learner’s ability to absorb and retain information. Her Month Six explorations of how a mother’s emotional state might have significant lifelong physiological impacts on her developing child parallel the positive and negative effects an instructor-trainer-facilitator’s moods and approaches can inspire or discourage in a learner’s intellectual development. And the concluding chapters leading us to the moment of her second child’s birth remind us of a variety of physical and emotional elements that teach the unborn child what to expect upon entering the world just as we, as facilitators of learning, convey important messages to learners about what they can expect and might accomplish once they leave our learning spaces and re-enter the world in which they live and work and play.

One of the more poignant moments comes at the end of chapter eight, when Paul recounts her experience of being jostled on a crowded subway train, losing her balance, and seeing the fruit and vegetables she has just purchased in a farmers market go careening up and down the aisles: “I look around helplessly, feeling like a child lost in a thicket of pant legs and skirt hems. Then one set of hands after another drops an apple into my bag. From the far end of the car, a piece of my fruit is handed from one rider to another until it reaches me. Another set of hands pulls me up and gently guides me to a seat. In that moment I don’t feel gawked or gaped it, embarrassed or self-conscious: just cared for, and grateful” (p. 223)

If we, as trainer-teacher-learners can provide the same sense of support, encouragement, and safety that Paul and her not-yet-born child found in that crowded subway, just imagine the sort of learner we will send back into the world from the womblike learning spaces we are capable of creating and sustaining.

As the writer herself observes, “…if we take care in how we think about prenatal influences, they may add another layer to our understanding of who we are and how we got to be this way” (p. 195). And if we continue exploring the parallels between what learners learn in utero and what they learn in classroom, we should be well on the way to helping build the sort of world our efforts can nurture.

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