Children can absorb information in a number of different ways. That means the way we teach them must be equally diverse.

One way we can communicate data and behaviors to children is through latent learning, a type of educational method that doesn't rely on reinforcement or conditioning.

How does latent learning work?

Latent learning is the idea that children and adults can gain and execute skills without reinforcement or punishment for the behavior associated with the task. In latent learning, the information they've processed doesn't become obvious until it's needed to be used, or until there’s enough incentive.

The concept is considered a cognitive approach to education. It has been widely accepted in modern psychology.

Unlike in behaviorism, which claims that people are passive learners, latent learning argues that people actively process information between "stimulus" (which prompts the action) and "response" (the resulting act from the prompt).

Latent learning suggests that people go through multiple steps to obtain, store, and interpret data without conditioning.

This mental course is represented by the cognitive map, a term coined by American psychologist Edward Tolman in 1948.

How did latent learning develop?

Tolman developed the concept of latent learning after observing the behavior of three groups of rats placed in a maze with food at the end.

Tolman found that the group of rats who received a food reward from the start of the experiment traveled to the end of the maze without diverting down dead ends. The second group of rats who didn’t get the food reward at the end took much longer to complete the maze.

But Tolman discovered that the third group of rats who initially didn’t get the food reward and did the maze slowly eventually completed the maze faster than the first group when given a food reward later in the experiment.

The rats just didn't have a desire to complete the maze quickly until the food came into the picture. The rats' performance led to the concept of latent learning because of the used knowledge they gained without a reinforcement to later complete a task quickly when a reward was involved.

Does latent learning work for children?

In the classroom, teachers educate and train students by reinforced positive behaviors. Students will raise their hand in class or sit in their assigned seats when they’re actively rewarded for doing so.

But research has shown that children can learn new skills by watching parents and other adults complete different tasks. The new knowledge the children absorbed will present itself only when they need to use it.

When does latent learning begin in children?

Latent learning could begin as early as young infancy, one study suggests. The experiment found that 3-month-old babies were able to form a latent association between two objects. After receiving periodic reminders, the little ones could recall and imitate them three months later at 6 months.

The results of this study mimic an experiment from more than 50 years earlier. Researchers behind a 1954 Journal of Experimental Psychology study tasked children with finding a key to open a box and get a reward. The researchers then asked the children to find objects not related to the key experiment.

The children were able to identify the unrelated objects faster when they were exposed to them during the key test. The 1954 study also found that the frequency of latent learning increases as the child gets older.

Latent learning examples

Here are two examples that demonstrate how latent learning works.

1. Finding your way home

Your high school senior son is new to town and takes public transit to school. He watches as the bus driver moves through traffic, making this left turn here, and this right turn there, to get to your home. A few weeks later, you let him borrow your car. He may not have realized it, but he memorized the route to and from school by watching the bus driver every day for the last month, so that's the route he’ll travel.

2. Solving a math problem

Your daughter is a sophomore in high school. She is taking Algebra II. Her teacher is working the students through complex linear equations. At the end of the week, he asks the students to solve a linear equation he hasn't shown them before. She solves the problem with ease. Your daughter was able to get to the answer quickly because her teacher demonstrated the steps to take, even though they were not specific to the task at hand.

Each year at Carl Sandburg High School in Illinois, students recreate Tolman's maze in one of the school's largest experiments for the annual psychology fair. The maze, like Tolman's experiment, focuses on latent learning and cognitive mapping.

Next steps

You probably use latent learning in more than your realize, whether it's finding your way home or solving a math equation. Latent learning is proof that rewards aren't always necessary to promote learning.

In fact, latent learning shows that people, especially children, constantly absorb information around them without any obvious reward. Think of it this way: Latent learning is just another way to "teach by example."