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August 20, 2018 Monday 04:05:46 PM IST

Learning strategies of songbirds inspires Swiss education system

Teacher Insights

Children learn quite a lot of things in early stages of their life. However, will their ability to apply what they have learned to new situations of life can depend on how they learned it? If we have to believe that what is observed in songbirds could be similarly applied to children, it will be the case!

Researchers from ETH and the University of Zurich have analyzed the way zebra finches (a kind of songbirds) learn singing skills and found that can learn either by observing fellow members of their species or by trial and error.

"These results indicate that in zebra finches, learning by trial and error is the more robust method," summarizes Hahnloser, a member of the research team. "Birds that learned a perceptual skill through trial and error were better able to generalize and adapt that skill to new situations than those that learned it through observation."

Still, "both methods have their advantages," Hahnloser says, "but learning through observation is faster." According to him, this justifies why in the Swiss education system both these learning methods: lectures and observation on the one hand, and experiments, exercises and homework on the other, are properly incorporated.


Although the act of observation involves many synapses between neurons in a finch brain, these are relatively weak. In contrast, trial-and-error learning involves a smaller number of synapses, but they are much stronger, leading to an enhanced ability to generalize. "When observing, the birds may focus on a large number of song details, many of which are irrelevant for solving the problem at hand. In the trial-and-error case, they remember fewer details but focus on the most prominent aspects of the song, such as its duration," explains Hahnloser.

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