> The Definition of Learning
Does the rise of high technology render obsolete our present way of thinking about learning? Are we being compelled by the tidal wave of modern communications technology to re-think what we're doing within the confines of brick and concrete in isolated classrooms?
Are we being asked to re-think who can learn what? How? At what age? Where? Under what conditions?
Learning seems to be a part of the very condition of human life. No one can be alive, in any acceptable sense of the idea of life, and not learn. Learning and living seem almost to be unthinkable apart from one another. To define learning can be as mind-boggling a task as to define life itself.
For one thing, we've all done lots of learning. That's a fact of life. If we hadn't, we wouldn't be able to walk, or talk, or read, or write. Then why can't we define it? Because the concept represents such a vast and complex range of phenomena, that's why. In this regard, the idea of learning is somewhat like the idea of time. If someone asks you for the time, you can tell them what time it is. But if someone asks you what is time, you would be hard put to answer them. Don't worry. So would any scientist.
Here are some dictionary definitions of learning, just to give you a picture of what I'm trying to tell you.
- knowledge acquired by systematic study in any field or fields of scholarly application (Random House College Dictionary, 1983)
- the act or process of acquiring knowledge or skill (Random House College Dictionary, 1983)
- The modification of behavior through practice (Random House College Dictionary, 1983)
- training (Random House College Dictionary, 1983)
- experience (Random House College Dictionary, 1983)
Synonyms that have been suggested for learning are: education, scholarship (Websters New World Thesaurus); acquisition of knowledge, study, inquiry, search, research, analysis (Rodale: The Synonym Finder).
> Trial and Error Learning
For some, learning is a matter of trial and error. I suppose some learning is a consequence of experimenting and making mistakes. On the other hand, to say that all human learning is simply trial and error seems too foreign to our personal experience to take seriously as a model of all types of learning.
> Learning by Imitating
Another way children seem to learn is by imitating what they see and hear. Grownups sometimes do this too. Remember how you learned to speak, or learned a new language. Again, we might be forcing our model to say that all learning takes place this way.
Perhaps much learning does depend upon our ability to imitate what we see and hear. In many ways, we seem to copy the mannerisms and behaviors of our parents, our peers, and other persons who might have been or might be significant figures in our upbringing. After all, much advertising seems to be based on the idea that we like to imitate those who are famous and important and attractive to us.
> Learning as Conditioning
Others suggest that learning is a complicated process of animal-like conditioning. Learning is reduced to a biological process of stimulus and response. It's a matter of establishing favorable neural connections through mechanisms of pleasure and pain. Much that occurs formally in school settings seems to give strong credence to this way of thinking about learning.
> Other Concepts of Learning
For some, the idea of learning is associated with reading, or reciting, or listening to lectures, or long hours of practising. What is your concept of learning? How would you describe to someone what learning is? Rather difficult, isn't it?
Again, it's somewhat like the question of time. If you ask me what the time is, I can tell you. If you ask me what time is, I am lost for words.
If you ask me what I've learned, I can tell you, or show you. If you ask me what learning is, I am lost for words.
> Models versus Definitions
I want to refer to an article I wrote, "Psychological Modeling and the Dimensions of Human Consciousness," published in the JOURNAL OF THE SOCIETY FOR ACCELERATIVE LEARNING AND TEACHING (1981, 6(2):74-79). Here I suggest that people operate according to certain models in their heads. This includes psychologists, teachers, intellectuals, and scientists as well.
Models are peculiar in several ways. They immediately and concretely REPRESENT something directly observable, something which literally can be manipulated. A model once communicated to another human being can be imitated or replicated.
Models are neither explanations of reality, nor are they right or wrong, logical or illogical. A model is either easily communicated or difficult to communicate to others, helpful or not helpful to us, adequate or inadequate, useful or no use to us.
Any model of human experience, insofar as it is a model, must be specific and empirical. It must be based on what someone can see, hear, feel, taste, smell. It must be content-free, that is, specific without being individual. It must include definite criteria for doing whatever is to be done. Models, in conclusion, tell you what to do, when to do it and what you can expect as a result.
"Most students, if I may generalize from many years of teaching psychology to adults, approach the study of psychology without much practice in describing how they behave in given situations or how others behave in the same situations. Mostly they judge or question the rightness or wrongness of what they are doing or feeling, or what others are doing or feeling. Or they analyze motives and intentions. Seldom if ever do they describe what they or others are doing or feeling, or do they question with a view to clarifying what they or others are experiencing. In many instances, I have discovered that such students just have not developed a vocabulary for adequately describing their personal experiences" (Brodeur, op.cit.,p.75).
If you are interested in reading more about psychological models I recommend the following texts:
R. Bandler and J. Grinder: The Structure of Magic, a Book about Language and Therapy. Volume I (Science and Behavior Books, 1975).
R. Bandler and J. Grinder: Frogs Into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming (Real People Press, 1979).
D. Gordon: Therapeutic Metaphors (Meta Publications, 1978)
S.R. Lankton: Practical Magic: A Translation of Basic NeuroLinguistic Programming into Clinical Psychotherapy (Meta Publications, 1980).
> Developing a Model Of Learning: Changing the Question
I would like to approach the the question of learning from another perspective. I'd like to change the question. For me, another kind of question, more important and more useful, is a right-brained type of question. It goes something like this. WHAT MUST I BE ABLE TO DO TO BE ABLE TO LEARN?
There's another question related to this last one and equally important, which I shall address later. The question is this. WHAT MAKES IT POSSIBLE FOR ANYONE AT ALL TO LEARN?
Notice, I'm not asking you to define something called learning. I'm asking you to list those activities, among all anyone can possibly do, which are necessary for anyone at all to learn.
> The Activities of Teachers in the School
Before listing the activities of learning, try listing the activities of teachers, who, hopefully, are good models of learning.
List some ways you have noticed teachers acting in school. List whatever comes to mind no matter how trivial, how good or bad, how seemingly inconsequential. List whatever you can remember.
One teacher listed what he called teaching activities. Teachers, he observed, are not always teaching, whatever that is. They are often busy doing whatever teachers have to do as part of their job as teachers.
If you want to know more about what he says, you can read his book (Thomas F. Green: "The Activities of Teaching," published by McGraw-Hill, 1971).
He lists activities like:
talking, collecting money, counseling
and guiding, disciplining, evaluating and criticizing, filling out reports, talking with parents, planning, talking with other teachers, attending meetings, explaining, defining, concluding or demonstrating, patroling the hall, taking attendance, asking questions, directing traffic, supervising the cafeteria, conveying information, giving instruction, writing textbooks, running projectors, making transparencies, correcting homework, designing tests, and so on.
I've added a few to his list. Notice the choice of words! Do you notice anything peculiar about them? Are some rather vague, and others quite specific? Describing human actions in specific, concrete, easily identifiable terms seems to be rather difficult for most people? Including psychologists!
Green later goes on to divide teaching activities into different categories. He gets more controversial here. Categories can be more troublesome than helpful. His categories are:
- logical activites (or perhaps, intellectual activities?)
- strategic activities (or perhaps, methods and techniques?)
- institutional activities (or perhaps, housekeeping tasks?)
He later makes even more value-laden distinctions, like conditioning, instructing, training and indoctrinating.
In 1983, an article appearing in the "Phi Delta Kappan," reported observations of teacher-student activity in the classroom. The population studied lived in the United States. I doubt the results would differ significantly if the study were done in Canada.
Here are some findings from this report:
- students are exposed to about two hours of "teacher talk" during a five-period day
- about 7 out of 150 minutes, on the average, involve teachers' responses to individual students
- teachers appear to teach in a few set ways which rely mostly on teacher talk and monitoring seatwork
- traditional methods of teaching put the teacher very much in control of the learning
- students rarely plan or initiate anything, read or write anything of some length, or create their own products
- students scarcely ever speculated on meanings, and mostly they listened or worked alone
> A Learning Model For Teachers
I propose a model with six basic categories of activities which I feel are necessary if anyone is going to learn. The art and science of teaching would demand paying strict attention to these activities. They are:
> Noticing or Paying Attention
Somehow we must be able to NOTICE, to PAY ATTENTION, if we are going to learn. Every teacher acknowledges this fact when asking students to PAY ATTENTION, knowing that if students don't pay attention, they won't learn whatever the teacher wants them to learn.
How do we get students to pay attention, to notice that there's something for them to learn? How can I get you to pay attention, not to tune out, not to ignore what I'm saying, what you're doing, what I'm doing, what others are doing?
The psychology of noticing is better known as the PSYCHOLOGY OF PERCEPTION, one of the largest specialized areas in the science of psychology. Without the ability to use our senses, there would be no learning.
If you want to know more about this aspect of the learning process, then you would want to study the psychology of human perception. Many textbooks are devoted solely to perception. It's a vast field of research, which has taught us much about how we experience the world around us. Yet, relatively speaking, much is unknown. Some phenomena of human perception still mystify scientists.
The ability to notice relies extensively upon the ability to notice what we see, hear, taste, touch, feel. Intelligence seems to depend largely upon sensory input. Intelligence tests call upon this ability, the ability to discriminate differences and recognize similarities.
Those who write about spiritual matters seem to place great store upon the development of powers of discernment, to develop in the student special sensitivity to subtle differences at levels of consciousness more complex than simple sensory awareness. In more concrete terms, discernment might be said to be the power to tell the difference between the true and the false, the real and the illusory, the good and the evil.
To the extent we move about in trance-like condition, not seeing, not hearing, not feeling, to that extent we probably deprive ourselves of the capacity to learn from experience. More directly, it would seem that to increase our potential to learn, we must develop our powers of observation.
We must be able to REMEMBER to notice, to remember to pay attention to what we have already noticed, if we want the new to become a permanent part of us. Learning seems to include that idea, that what we have learned is somehow deeply impressed upon us and permanently retained.
In school, teachers were constantly reminding us to correct our mistakes or omissions. Often, children don't notice mistakes or omissions. Teachers notice for them. They remember to notice mistakes, and to notice omissions. They also remember how to correct them.
Now we're adults. It's more difficult. We have no one willing to remember for us. We have to find ways to remind ourselves what to do, and when.
I've devised a simply card system. I put cards at strategic points. On the dresser, on my desk, at home and at the office. I put the NOTICE anywhere I'm likely to PAY ATTENTION to it. On the card I put what I'm supposed to remember, whether it's to remember to do something, or to practise something, or to remember to notice something, like getting myself to "relax" from time to time, or to notice that I'm getting tense, so I can call upon my ability to relax when I most need it.
> Practice or Repetition
Another important part of learning is PRACTISING. PRACTISE! PRACTISE! PRACTISE! To increase our powers of observation, to get better at noticing, to be in the habit of paying attention, we must practise.
Aristotle thought learning was simply habit-forming. For many centuries, scholars used this idea to explain human behavior. It became the key to understanding human behavior. Education was simply for the purpose of cultivating good habits.
Without the discipline of practising, it's difficult to conceive how we could learn. If, as students, we are unwilling, on a regular basis, to put time and energy into practising what we want to learn, then little or no learning is likely to take place.
The branch of contemporary psychology concerned with problems of practising, such as how to encourage practising, and the conditions under which practising could be effective, is called the psychology of behavior modification. It's also been called conditioning theory.
The detractors of conditioning theory like to call it brain washing. Whatever you choose to call it, the fact remains that learning involves practising, constant repetition, until the appropriate neural patterns have been securely encoded. Another name sometimes given to the kind of psychology concerned with techniques for effective practising is stimulus-response psychology.
> Time or Timing
Learning takes TIME, a fact that grownups seldom like to notice. Here I want you simply to recognize the fact that it takes time to practise.
Students sometimes tell me they don't have much time to put into studying what I want them to learn. This tells me something about their priorities. It doesn't mean necessarily that they don't like what I'm teaching them. Vis-a-vis what I'm teaching them and what they want to learn, they simply don't consider what I'm teaching them as important as something else they could be doing.
As you may have noticed, devoting some of your time to an activity is a matter of priorities. This, in turn, is a matter of values, of what's important to you. And this, in turn, is the result of making up your mind (choosing or deciding).
What factors go into making the kinds of personal decisions we do make is, of course, a fascinating as well as a complex subject of study. How much our inclinations influence our important decisions, and how much thought we give to our decisions are questions of interest to management psychologists. Time management is frequently a subject of seminars and a topic for best-sellers today.
Whatever your motives may be, if you want to learn some psychology, it's going to take time. And it's going to take even more time if you want to put to use practically what you know intellectually. Your learning will be commensurate with the time you put in, on a regular basis, to learn, along with the amount of concentration and effort.
Notice, time alone isn't enough. Concentrating is equally important. The greater your powers of concentration, the more effective the time you put in and the more effective your efforts.
How much time are you willing to devote to learning? In general? Specifically? The clearer you are about this, and the more honest with yourself about it, the better the results.
The psychology devoted to our use of time is, of course, the psychology of decision-making. Sub-headings would be the psychology of valuing and the psychology of self-management.
How do we get our values? Where do they come from? How do we decide our priorities? Or do we? Do others decide them for us? Are we simply victims of circumstances? How much control do we have over our conditions and circumstances? Perhaps a lot more than we've ever NOTICED.
Next, if we are to learn, in a formal and disciplined manner, we must do some planning, planning of our time and our other resources.
The problem of organization becomes quite important, especially as we get older. To be able to continue learning, as we get older, takes considerably more self-discipline and organizing of time and resources, than it did in our younger days. Then, others did our planning and organizing for us. A pity we are never taught in school how to plan and organize ourselves effectively.
Read what I've said under "Time" about organizational development. Obviously, planning and time are closely related in some important ways.
Topics included under organizational development are setting objectives, time management, critical path planning, record keeping, reviewing, problem solving, effective writing and communicating.
Reviewing entails testing and evaluating where we've come from and where we are and where we want to go. This provides us with feedback needed to assess our progress and to know what steps to take next to improve or to move forward.
Statistics, test construction, and the interpretation of test results becomes crucial here. An important part of every teacher's training program should be training in test construction and evaluation procedures. Otherwise how are we to assess learning and apply remedies when needed? In my opinion, no persons should consider themselves truly educated who lack an understanding of numerical reasoning applied to their own experience.
Another important technique for reviewing and planning our lives is the practice of meditation. Much has been said on this subject; nevertheless it continues largely to be ignored by educators in the western part of the world.
Another valuable technique for evaluating our progress and for getting insights enabling us to give better direction to our futures is the journal technique. Keeping a journal is a wonderful technique for assessing where we've come from, where we've been heading and for gaining insight to where we're likely to end up if we keep on as we are.