The development of human learning

Learning is as old as human kind. Indeed curiosity and the capacity to learn are among the defining characteristics of what it means to be human. For many hundreds of generations, people learned only through their own experience, and to a lesser extent, through the observation of others. Gradually, however as language became more complex and sophisticated, it was possible to codify what had been learned by previous generations, and in distant locations and to pass on information about unseen phenomena. In most early cultures which relied on oral transmission of knowledge, people had highly evolved capacities for listening and for remembering; however, compared with most people living today in advanced modern societies, the amount and complexity of information to be dealt with by an average human being was clearly bounded and relatively slowly changing.
With the invention of writing, it became possible to pass on insights and experiences over greater distances and a larger number of generations. However, at the same time as the amount of information that an individual could acquire expanded significantly, life expectancy also increased and many people found that they had more leisure time in which to think and to learn. When people lived longer, it became possible for the older people and those not directly engaged in the immediate social tasks and duties to spend more time thinking and learning through observation and meditation. Literacy, of course, itself became a tool that separated people, so that those who lacked the ability to decipher hieroglyphs, and later other forms of writing, were forced to fall back on traditional forms of learning about their environments and passing on such information to their family, tribe or community group.
To some extent, it is true that modern human beings have exactly the same mental capacities and endowments as did our ancestors, but with better health, longer life spans, more leisure time, and various kinds of adaptive and supportive technologies, the capability and propensity toward learning throughout life have expanded significantly over recent generations.
Today, learning is perhaps not as much a matter of life and death as it was for our distant ancestors, nevertheless most people have some inclination to learn and, with the time and means at their disposal, learning is an important (if often unrecognized) aspect of our lives. Much of this learning occurs incidentally and is unplanned, in the course of doing something else; indeed, when asked, many people fail to recognize this as learning at all. Other learning, however, is more intentional and deliberate. Some of it is formalized in the sense that there is some explicit instruction and very commonly some assessment of learning outcomes. Of this, some depends on participating in or observing particular activities, some depends on interactions with other people- either individually or in groups- and some on reading and writing. In all these cases, the learner requires certain skills and attributes if his or her learning is to progress successfully.