The Nature of Learning

Professor Lawrence Lowery
September 02, 1997 | Philosophy

A new consensus about the nature of learning has emerged. Its formation is stimulated by research in the field that has come to be known as cognitive science. The new conception of learning has a direct bearing on how science, and all other subjects, can be taught most effectively.

The new view supports and provides a clearer understanding of the good things that foster learning and gives ideas for improving or changing those aspects that are ineffective or detrimental to learning. The view supports the intuition of our most thoughtful teachers, and it describes how learners best move from being novices to becoming experts. The view can be expressed quite simply:

  • Learners construct understanding for themselves;
  • Understanding is to know relationships;
  • Knowing relationships depends upon prior knowledge.

Learners do not simply mirror what they are told or what they read. The brain does not store a picture of an event. It does not directly record anything that is shown. What the brain does is store a record of the neural activity that takes place in the sensory and motor systems of an individual as he or she interacts with the environment. Each record is a pattern of connections (dendrites/synapses) among brain cells (neurons) that can be reactivated to recreate the component parts of the experience. The reactivating defines the materials involved in the experience and other characteristics of the event. Thus when you place an image in your mind, you store components of it in many different places and construct pathways among the places so that the entire system of storage and pathways can be fired up as an image when you recall the experience. All conscious and subconscious knowledge and behaviors are constructed as complex systems within your brain.

Constructing Knowledge

In order for the brain to construct knowledge and behaviors, it must take in something that it can construct. The only way the brain takes in data for construction is through the sensory perceptions that enter through the windows of its five senses. Anything that a person does, perceives, thinks, or feels while acting in the world gets processed through the systems. If a student picks up a magnet, brings it toward another object and feels the effect as that object is repelled or attracted by the magnet, that action is processed through the systems in the student's brain.

Show-and-tell teaching methods (lectures, demonstrations) diminish the number of possible avenues to the brain that can be activated. Enriched environments in which a learner makes inquiries increases the likelihood that something will be constructed.

The brain categorizes non-language sensory perceptions of the world in different places. Shapes are stored in one place, color in another. Movement, sequence, and emotional states are each stored separately. Textures and aromas are stored elsewhere. Aspects of language are also stored in various parts of the brain. Nouns are separated from verbs, and phonemes are separated from words.

As the brain constructs connections among brain cells, the organization of words, objects, events, and relationships are connected in successively interwoven layers of categories. The result is that human knowledge is stored in clusters and organized within the brain into systems that people use to interpret familiar situations and reason about new ones. When language (words and sentence structures) become part of the interweaving, the totality forms the basis for abstract thinking and problem solving.

Perceiving Relationships

Knowledge is constructed by the individual through experience, but the quality of the construction depends upon how well the brain organizes and stores the relationships between and among objects in the event—how the arm and hand are positioned to hold the magnet (relationship of the learner to the object), how the magnet can be moved and manipulated (cause-and-effect relationships between the learner's actions and the observed results), how other objects behave in the presence of the magnet (cause-and-effect relationships in an interaction between objects in the environment).

As further explorations are made with the magnet, the learner tries to link new perceptions to what has already been constructed in the brain's storage systems. The prior knowledge is used to interpret the new material in terms of established knowledge. Whenever bits of information are isolated from these systems, they are forgotten and become inaccessible to memory.

Constructions in a brain are dependent upon the interest and prior knowledge of the student and the richness of the environment. Enriched environments and quality hands-on experiences contribute significantly to piquing of interests and the linking of perceptions stored within the brain because students can explore, manipulate, test, and make transformations in the objects at hand.

Written formats, such as textbooks, give minimal help because symbols are not reality. They can neither be acted upon nor manipulated. Understanding symbols is dependent upon prior experiential knowledge related to a symbol. The power of printed words rests in the author's ability to enrich and extend ideas already within a reader. New knowledge gained from reading is actually rearrangements of prior knowledge into new relationships that had not been previously connected. If the reader has little in storage related to the content of what is read, little is gained from reading.

Relationships and Prior Knowledge at Work

The FOSS Balance and Motion Module provides a good example of how a curriculum can enable learners to construct their own ideas through exploration of relationships among materials (objects) and through the use of reinforcement of prior knowledge.

The module begins when students attempt to balance a cardboard crayfish on the end of a finger. With only a simple challenge and without direct instruction, all children in a short time discover several ways to balance the figure. Imagine the many microperceptions that entered through their sensory windows. Imagine the microactions that the brain processed as it inquired, through hand and arm movements and trial-and-error tests, to locate a place on the figure where it would balance! As the task is carried out, new constructions of relationships among systems in the brain are created and interwoven into the student's prior knowledge concerning balance.

When clothespins are introduced as variables that can be moved about on the cardboard figure so as to shift its center of gravity, children are challenged to balance the figure in a variety of ways. The sequence of this instruction is important to move students from being novices to becoming experts. Each new challenge does two things. Each provides a rehearsal of prior knowledge constructions, thus making them more permanent. Each provides something new that the brain can assimilate into its prior constructions, thus enriching and extending those constructions.

At first the figure is balanced on its nose so that it stands straight up, then on its nose so that it balances horizontally. Children are challenged to balance it at some of the positions in-between. As the figure is balanced and rebalanced, prior knowledge learned about balancing is reinforced while each new challenge adds a slightly different dimension that the brain incorporates into its prior systems.



In FOSS, we call such subsequent experiences rehearsals. Rehearsals are different from practice. Practice is when someone does the same thing over and over again to improve a performance. Practice has little transferability. Rehearsal is when someone does something again in a similar but not identical way so that what was learned is reinforced while something new is added. New additions increase the likelihood that the knowledge being learned is not learned as something that is task specific. Non-task specific experiences increase the likelihood that the knowledge will be transferable and useful to the individual in a variety of ways. Rehearsals strengthen the connections among the storage areas within brain systems. If connections are not strengthened, they will disengage and fade away. Thus the adage: Use it or lose it!

As the balance activity continues, each subsequent challenge is progressive—new figures (triangles, arcs) help to transfer prior learnings to new situations until students can balance their own pencils and create complex mobiles. It is important to note that each challenge is consistent with a fundamental set of powerful scientific ideas that are reexperienced through activity variations that reinforce prior experiences and add aspects that improve transferability and deepen understandings. And each experience enables students to construct knowledge on their own, in their own way.

With so much explicit knowledge available about how the brain works and with data so clearly supportive of the fact that students construct knowledge for themselves, it is surprising that textbooks, even though they use the language of change, have not changed the way they present content and activities. And it is even more surprising that some educators see no need to change from over-using passive-learner instructional methods, such as show-and-tell teaching, to more thoughtful methods that enable students to construct meaning for themselves through the exploration of relationships and the webbing of those explorations to their prior knowledge.