Can you teach a fish to walk?  And no, this is not a rhetorical question, nor a silly one.  Some researchers in Canada (Standen et al, 2014) have been trying to do just that – with surprising results.  Some fish do have lungs and can breathe air, the lungfish is a well-known example.  But the scientists used a smaller fish, the African bichir from the Nile basin, which looks a bit like a short eel with stubby fins.  They raised juvenile bichir on land (admittedly very moist land) for eight months to see what happened.

They found distinct changes.  The land-reared fish learned to ‘walk’ better by placing their ‘feet’ closer to the body, wriggling about less and raising their heads.  You can see the effects in a video which has been posted on YouTube.  Significantly, though, they also found changes in the skeletons of the land-fish.  The neck bones were beginning to lengthen, almost as if a neck was beginning to develop (enabling the head to be held up.)  The shoulder blades were longer and the fishes’ musculature was quite different too.

The researchers point out in their report that this demonstrates an unexpected plasticity in bodily development.  We have become used to the ides of brain plasticity (the way that the brain can adapt and change to meet changing circumstances, like a stroke) but bodily plasticity is something new.  This could help to explain why evolution can happen comparatively quickly under some circumstances.  The next stage in the research will be to see if these changes are passed on to the next generation (through epigenetics), although bichir are not easy to breed in captivity.

However, there is a deeper significance, which the researchers do not comment on.  Science is entirely based on the concept of cause-and-effect.  Something happens.  That has results.  Those results cause something else.  That becomes a new cause with further effects, and so on.  The usual explanation of evolution follows this pattern.  In any population of animals (or plants, of course) there is some natural variation.  As a result of these variations (maybe something as simple as size) some creatures will produce more viable offspring than others.  Those offspring will tend to resemble their parents and, over thousands of generations, the whole population will change.

The assumption of cause and effect is fundamental to scientific explanation.  Science is based on the observation of predictable rules governing this sequence of events in different circumstances.  In other words, development is driven from the past.  This experiment with the bichir is perhaps the first, very tentative, evidence that development is related to intention.  It was because the fish wanted to get around better that the changes in their bodies happened.

Near the end of her life, Montessori produced a graph showing the course of human development, where the shape of the graph rather resembled a plant.  At the base was a swelling, like a bulb, which was the rapid development in early childhood.  Then there was a longer section (like a stem) which is the phase of early schooling.  Then came an explosion of development, like the flowering.  But the crucial point she was making that this process was driven by intentionality and not causation.  A child’s development is not just determined by their past (important though that is) but is drawn on by the future man (or woman, of course!) implicit in the secret ‘plan’ in each one of us.  In other words it is intentionality which drives development and learning.

Recently the newspapers all featured some remarkable experiments in Canada where some scientists (Standen, 2014) tried to ‘teach’ fish to walk, with remarkable results.  This pioneering experiment with the fish is an aspect of learning theory, but there is a great deal of well-established research on this topic.  Some of these results are very mundane to our work.  The time of day is significant when trying to learn.  A recent study has shown that older people were less distractible than younger ones, but their brains went into idling mode in the afternoons.  Dr. Lynn Hasher, professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto and senior scientist at the Baycrest Rotman Research Institute where the work (Anderson, 2014) was done, commented that “ignoring time of day when testing… may create an inaccurate picture.”  This work was done on adults, but it probably applies to children too, we need to observe the children to see if there is a pattern to their working.

Self-testing is also very important to learning.  In a landmark study, Jeffrey Karpicke of Purdue University (2008) showed that, with repeated self-testing, students could recall material almost three times as effectively.  In an interesting development of this work, Nate Kornell and his colleagues showed that successful recall was not critical if a means of self-correction was available.  It was the process of attempting retrieval that counted.  This is also consistent with the Montessori approach, which welcomes errors (and self-correction) as a part of the developmental process.

Another aspect of enhanced learning is the expectation of having to teach the material.  In research also overseen by Nate Kornell (Nestojko, 2014) they even showed that pretending to be going to teach was effective.  One of the great benefits of the Montessori three-year groups is that the older children can help the younger ones, who will have the benefit of knowing that later they will be the helpers, and thus their learning will be enhanced.

Michael Wohl (2010) of Carleton University, Ottawa, showed that self-forgiveness can also promote learning.  Students (who, he notes, have a reputation for procrastination and are prone to last minute revision) did much better if they forgave themselves for past mistakes, rather than those who worried about it.  This promotes a positive self-concept and thus facilitates effective study.  We can apply this to children.  Accept their lapses and they will also accept them and then we should find that their behaviour improves.  However, Wohl does point out that this is not effective as a long-term strategy – everyone does need to learn to concentrate.

At Kent University John Dunlovsky, and his colleagues (2013) at three other universities, reviewed the evidence for different effective learning strategies.  They identified ten strategies.  The first was what they called ‘elaborative interrogation’ or, in other words, encouraging young children to ask “Why?”  This is not dissimilar to the practice of sustained shared learning.   The team acknowledge that the evidence for this outside academic studies is limited, but those studies typically show a 10% improvement.  Their second strategy was ‘self-explanation’ which is also an aspect of sustained shared thinking.  Here there is very little evidence, but what there is is promising.  Other practices which they found to be highly effective were, practice testing, distributing practice across time and (possibly) ‘interleaved practice.’  This last practice means that, instead of trying to learn everything from one block at a time, you revise various aspects at a time.

Some popular strategies were found to have little or no evidence supporting them.  These included the practices of summarising material, highlighting passages in written texts, using keyword mnemonics, using visual images to express ideas and re-reading notes or books.  They also found no evidence for the currently fashionable idea that learning has different styles (aural, visual or kinaesthetic, etc.) and different children should be taught by different methods.  This last idea is not to be found in Montessori’s works and suggests that her instincts about children were closer to the mark.

This work on learning certainly has implications for adult learners but it can also apply to young children.   One implication is clearly that learning is much more effective if it is active.  Dunlovsky (2013) found that verbal/intellectual activity is positive in its effect but, of course, the Montessori approach makes manipulative activity crucial.  Perhaps this is another case where Montessori’s thinking is still ahead of the field (although the fashion for kinaesthetic learning is gathering pace.)  Another implication is the importance of practice (or repetition) but not done as a drudgery, it is better done in as interesting a way as possible.  But, contrariwise, a lot of quite popular ‘trendy’ ideas are actually of relatively little use.


Anderson, J. (2014). Older adults have morning brains.

Dunlovsky, J. et al. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14(1): 4-58.

Karpicke, J. & Roedigger, H. L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science 319 (5865) 966-968.

Kornell, N. et al. (2014). Retrieval attempts enhance learning, but retrieval success (versus failure) does not matter.  Journal of Experimental Psychology 41(1) 283-294.

Nestojko, J.F. et al. (2014). Expecting to teach enhances learning and organization of knowledge in free recall of text passages. Memory Cognition DOI 10.3758/s13421-014-0416-z

New Scientist (2014). Walking fish replays evolution from land to sea.

Standen, E.M. et al. (2014). Developmental plasticity and the origin of tetrapods. Nature 513: 54-58.

Wohl, M. et al. (2010). I forgive myself, now I can study: how self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce further procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences. 48: 803-808.

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