Learn From the Birds

The New York Times profiled a fascinating study on animal intelligence that reveals lessons for human learning. This is how we learn.

Scientists have discovered that crows can learn abstract concepts — and apply them to solve new problems that young children can’t. Their experiments also highlight one factor that determined whether or not the animals could learn: immediate visible feedback. Human brains might not be bird brains, but it’s a great reminder to consider how important real-time feedback is to learning, interaction design, and play.

In the experiments, the scientists put floating food into thin tubes of water, at a level too low for the crows to reach. But then the birds learned to drop sinking stones into the tubes of water until they could raise the water level to get the food. In other words, the crows learned the concept of fluid displacement — and then applied it in a new way to get tasty treats. It’s an understanding of cause-and-effect that rivals that of 5-7 year old humans.

But when the scientists covered up part of the tubes so the birds couldn’t see them, they didn’t learn. They needed to see the intermediate impact of their actions before they could learn the new, abstract concept.

Watch a kid grin as they push a Matchbox car down a ramp, topple over a line of dominos, or solve a wooden puzzle for the first time. Seeing the instantaneous results of their actions, they learn the rules of complex systems effortlessly. And it explains the immediate understanding the most well-designed apps offer us: effective interactive transitions, like a nuanced page flip, give real-time feedback on the results of our actions.

Video games are maybe unmatched in teaching us new interactions quickly: compare the immediate feedback in any successful game’s walkthrough to a passive lecture. As the creator of the hit game Plants vs. Zombies advised designers, “Once they see the results of their action, that’s often all it takes for them to understand that action.” It’s a familiar idea to the bird researchers. Do something. See what changed. Learn. Driven by fast feedback loops, games win.

So if you’re a designer, product builder, or educator, you have one more reason to insist on delivering fast feedback to your users or students: intermediate feedback that people can see drives learning. It’s a lesson that’s not just for the birds.