Understanding Learning


science fiction author Robert Heinlein

"Learning is not compulsory but neither is survival." so said W. Edwards Deming. It now appears that this bit of folk wisdom is truer than we might like to think. New evidence from the field of neuroscience reveals that the reason that brains tend to atrophy, as humans get older, is because they stop learning new things. I don't suppose we should be too surprised about this. After all, every other part of our bodies that we fail to use, we lose. Why not our brains? It turns out that not learning causes brain damage.

"Study after study has shown that intelligence, good education, literacy and high status jobs all seem to protect people from mental ravages of old age and provide some some resistance to the symptoms, if not the brain shrinkage, of dementia. New Scientist, 03/06/06

Learning and neuroscience.

Michael Merzenich is a the inventor of numerous techniques for staving off dementia, enabling brain injured people to relearn functions such as language, and helping people stave off old age. In his book "The Brain that Changes Itself" Norman Doidge has the following to say about Merzenich:

"Merzenich thinks our neglect of intensive learning as we age leads the systems in the brain that modulate, regulate and control plasticity to waste away."

When trying to ward of aging, the best kind of learning seems to be the learning of physical skills, especially the learning of something that stretches both the body and the mind. Learning a skill that exercises the body has a double effect. It keeps the the system that regulates and controls brain plasticity in fine order and also keeps the brain well supplied with oxygen. Learning new dances could be a good way of saying mentally young. In his book "Brain Rules" John Medina supplies the following as his first brain rule:

"Our brains were built for walking - 12 miles a day! Exercise gets blood to your brain bringing it glucose for energy and oxygen to soak up toxic electrons that are left over. It also stimulates the protein that keeps neurons connecting."

What is learning?

Learning is the most important thing that living creatures do. As far as any living creature is concerned, any action that does not involve learning is pretty much a waste of time. This is especially so for a human one. An organism cannot properly animate itself without first learning how to. Humans, before they can satisfy their own needs, first have to learn how to do it. Although the difference between a baby at birth and a fully grow adult human, is thought of as growth, most of that growth would be entirely useless without accompanying learning. In his book "Brain Rules" John Medina points out that how the brain grows is entirely dependent on what is learned. It seems fairly safe to say, "No learning, no brain growth". Yet despite the seeming essentiality of learning to life, the fact is that most adult humans tend to learn less and less as they get older.

So learning is essential to life, but what really is learning? It is suggested herein, that learning is that which enables living things to grow, survive and realize their potential. It is further suggested, that learning is accommodating our view of the world to be consonant with contradictions of that view as they occur. Or to put it another way, it is the revision of our theories about the world to conform to an objective reality as presented by events that refute those theories. It is as Piaget might say, the assimilation of non contradictory data into our model of reality, adding to it, and the accommodation of contradictory data into our model of reality, thus changing it. From an evolutionary perspective learning is change in us, for the betterment of ourselves and our species. Ultimately learning is how we can better both ourselves and humanity generally.

"Change is the end result of all true learning. Change involves three things: First, a dissatisfaction with self -- a felt void or need; second, a decision to change to fill the void or need; and third, a conscious dedication to the process of growth and change -- the willful act of making the change, doing something." Leo Buscagilia

Interest and access.

Boiled down to its most minimal constraints, learning is ultimately concerned about two limiting or expanding conditions. These two conditions are interest in learning and access to learning. If this site manages to do its job well, it will explain how to create interest in learning and how to improve access to resources for learning.

Learning theories.

Man has sort, over time, to reach an understanding of learning so that it can be accomplished in an increasingly efficient manner. There are many theories of learning, and experts do not entirely agree with one another, but they do all agree that it is a vital objective. By reading further you will gain an understanding of what great and diverse minds like Maslow, Kelly, Popper, Skinner, Piaget, Deci, Ryan and Dweck came up with, and in addition, how such ideas can be woven together into a whole which applies to everyday life situations.

What is not Learning?

Some people, even scientists, confuse memorizing with learning. They say that a person, who has memorized a list of nonsense words, has learned something. Surely this is not so. If we learn something we will certainly remember it, but if we memorize something we may not have learned anything. Learning is about fitting things in with what we already know or changing what we know to fit in with things. If we learn a language we do not just memorize words, we fit those words together like pieces in a fantastic jigsaw puzzle with almost infinite relationships between each one and all the others. Even memorizing lines for a play is not just memorizing words in sequence, but rather, an exquisite interplay of words and emotions, that result in the unique creation and presentation of the play.

However, in western society, another bigger problem with what we understand 'learning' to be, is that we tend to think of it as education. Although we confuse these ideas one with the other, their meanings are in fact quite different. Webster's Dictionary informs us that learning is:

  1. a : to gain knowledge or understanding of or skill in by study, instruction, or experience (learn a trade) b : Memorize (learn the lines of a play) c : to come to be able (learn to dance) d : to come to realize (learned that honesty paid)
  2. To be informed of something
  3. To come to know to acquire knowledge or skill or a behavioral tendency

Webster's Dictionary informs us that educating is:

  1. a : to provide schooling for b : to train by formal instruction and supervised practice especially in a skill, trade, or profession
  2. a : to develop mentally, morally, or aesthetically especially by instruction b : to provide with information : (inform)
  3. a : to persuade or condition to feel, believe, or act in a desired way (educate the public to support our position) intransitive senses b : to educate a person or thing

Educating is something that you do to somebody else but learning is something you do to yourself. If we are to understand what learning actually is and how it is actualized, it requires a contextual shift in our public and private perception. We have mistakenly come to see it as something that is done to people (education?) but we must come to see it as something that each person does for him or herself (learning!). To continue to further discussion of meanings click here.

Who is this Site for?

The methodology of learning should apply to all things we attempt; so this site should be helpful to everyone. But more particularly, this site is for those wishing to learn, and those wishing to design learning environments, that is teachers. It is not claimed that very much of what is set out herein is original, rather this is an attempt to synthesize and coalesce the ideas of others into a cohesive useful whole.

The Four Aspects of Learning

  1. Rational Learning Method. This aspect is concerned with the way in which living things and man in particular can learn what is consistent with reality.

  2. Instinctoid Needs. This aspect is concerned with natural needs in living things and man in particular, that provide the problems to be solved by learning.

  3. Environmental Anticipation. This aspect is concerned with the wants created by the environment of living things and man in particular, that also provide problems to be solved by learning.

  4. Personal Maps of Reality This aspect is concerned with the way in which living things and man in particular, can extrapolate from what they learn by forming mental patterns so that every single thing does not have to be learned from external input. Also, this aspect is concerned with the extension or growth of these patterns, where by, a lot of external input can be accepted into the mind without trial and error review.

Rational Learning Method [Karl Popper]

Karl Popper, a philosopher, has constructed a method which conceivably shows how all organisms learn by forming conjecture and then testing it. (The testing is not usually an effort to prove the conjecture wrong but rather the inevitable outcome of its use in the trial solution to problems.) Popper had difficulty with induction (the inferring of general law from particular instances). He eventually discarded induction in favor of his own system which is similar to and most appropriate for scientific method. Popper reasons that there is no induction. He shows our perceptions are only experienced through the theories that we hold and that we cannot begin to perceive anything without first forming a theory. So where do the conjectures come from? Popper reasons that they come from us, that we invent them. How? They are a hope, a guess or an intuitive leap.

Under Popper's interpretation, actions which we see men and animals perform are part of the process of forming conjectures. These actions are not repetitions of the same action but rather trials in an effort to solve a problem by application of a conjecture, guess or intuition or to find the limits in which a conjecture works. Such a conjecture may be simply that we want something to be true or it may be the result of a correlation of old knowledge, or a correlation may be sparked by new information possibly disconfirming an older theory. The active part of trying to discover what is consistent with reality for each organism, is that of trials performed as tentative solutions to problems and the elimination errors in those solutions by restructuring them.

Popper says that all learning is theory formation, that is the formation of expectations. This he goes on to show has a dogmatic phase and then usually a critical phase where the dogma can collapse under pressure of disappointed expectations through refutations. If the dogmas do not collapse, it is not because we have proved them to be correct, but rather, that we have been unable to prove them wrong.

Instinctoid Needs [Abraham Maslow]

Abraham Maslow's major contribution to psychology was his development of a theory of instinct-like needs that every human possesses. He put these needs in an ascending hierarchy of importance and laid out how they relate to our learning and growing. This is called Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Although these needs are instinctual, satisfaction of them is not automatic, it must be learned. These needs therefore, are one of the forces within us, guiding what it is we will learn and want to learn.

What Abraham Maslow provided us with was a clear alternative to the idea of drives. We must decide whether we are in charge of our actions or whether we are victims of forces beyond our control. The idea of drives pushing us or even tormenting us into action has been a fundamental error in psychological theory which Maslow takes to task. In his model we do not need to be goaded into action, we are all ready in action. We are born with certain expectations (primitive instincts) which are theories about how our needs may be satisfied. By testing these theories we find the needs are either satisfied or not. Revision of these expectations is both learning and the fundamental motivation.

Maslow has been a huge force in the development of psychology. His Hierarchy of Needs and other key concepts he developed turned the focus of understanding away from mental sickness and toward healthy realization of man's potential through learning. His efforts also helped unify the humanistic psychologies and made a start on unifying all branches of psychology. To continue to learn about Maslow and his ideas click here.

Environmental Anticipation [B. F. Skinner]

Behavioral psychologists, perhaps exemplified by B. F. Skinner, place great emphasis on the idea that we learn and are guided in our learning by the simple mechanism of pleasure and pain being associated with all other incoming sensory input. Popper would explain that this can be viewed in terms of the subject's expectations or anticipations. An animal as is usually the case in such studies, can be shown to be expecting pleasure (food) or pain (an electric shock) and that these conjectures are being subjected to error elimination. These associations behaviorists say, cause us to like and be attracted to some sensory input and dislike or be repulsed by other sensory input. This could be interpreted more simply by saying that animals and humans anticipate pleasure in the replication of some actions and anticipate pain in the replication of other actions.

The behaviorist model of learning (operant conditioning) uses these ideas of association to predict and control behavior. They would say that an organism performs an action (behavior) that is reinforced (rewarded), and that the reinforcement (reward) increases the likelihood of the behavior occurring again. Thus they say, the action or behavior has been reinforced. These behaviorist psychologists go to great lengths to show that the behavior of organisms can be modified (manipulated) by being reinforced in this way. This, they believe, forms what they call a conditioned reflex, which is automatic and inaccessible to intelligence. They speak as if the subject's choice of action due to expectation is unimportant and thinking is somehow bypassed.

Although subject matter learning is not a behavior (in the sense that it is repeated in exactly the same way) it still can, the behaviorists say, be generalized to form associations. Part of the behaviorist theory implies that one activity of learning is similar to another activity of learning. Thus we can classify learning into a number of different categories. To the extent that we consider learning in one category (such as say horticulture) similar to another category (such as say biology) we can generalize the associations formed with one to the other. In terms of Popper's ideas on anticipation and expectations this generalizing can be seen as the development of infectious interest. This is a reciprocal arrangement, we can change the environment, and the environment can change what we anticipate. Thus, it can be seen, that the forces of interest and disinterest motivate us through our anticipation and this along with hierarchical type needs provides all motivation.

The interpretation the behaviorist school of psychology places on these reinforcement ideas, and their particular emphasis on these ideas to the exclusion of other ideas, need not deter us from combing their works for information. It may be that behavioral psychology has much to say that is valuable in understanding learning, but this site holds that it should be construed in terms of our expectations if it is to be of use. To continue to learn about Skinner and his ideas click here.

A Theory of Personal Constructs [George Kelly]

There is a process by which organisms can accept an expectation without subjecting it to trials which would eliminate error. If we had to subject every expectation to trial and error before we could accept it, the whole process of learning would take far too long and we would learn far too little. George Kelly invented a theory that suggested that as information is absorbed, it in turn provides an extension to a template through which the world is construed by that person. Kelly's theory is called the Theory of Personal Constructs. Kelly's theory calls for numerous bipolar dimensions, called constructs, that build into each person's personal construction system. This personal construction system can be seen as a kind of map of reality that not only allows anticipation but provides a template for understanding or construing the world. It also provides a way of anticipating and thus accessing the acceptability of new information, making trial and error conformation of much new information unnecessary. To continue to learn about Kelly and his ideas click here.

Personal maps of reality. Although this site is not entirely happy with Kelly's idea of a personal construction system, no other theory of a personal model of reality seemed to exist. Ultimately Kelly prefers the idea of a more 'whole mind construction' that acts as a sort of holistic lens through which the world is perceived and construed. To this end we have conceived the idea of what will henceforth be referred to as each person's 'personal map of reality'. Each of these maps I suggest has holes in it, in much the same way a jigsaw puzzle has holes in it before its completion. When we put a piece into a jigsaw, sometimes we are not sure if we have put in the right piece and sometimes we are very sure we have put in the right piece because it completes a part of the picture. This surely is what happens with the mind. We are able to make accurate conjecture and thus have accurate expectations without ever seeing the same problem before because it completes part of a picture and is thus consistent with the other theories in our mind. Popper would call these bits that make up our map of reality; dogma, conjectures or theories. Kelly calls them constructs. Like Popper, Kelly holds that there is an objective reality and like Popper he holds that we cannot know it because we construe events through our constructs.

Our interest in such a structure as an inner map of reality, is in how it might enable us to make guesses and have intuitions which are much better than random. In children this map of reality is less complete, the younger they are, and so as we might expect, they are less able to make accurate guesses or predictions. It is suggested that there is a direct connection between our ability to make guesses or form theories and the development of this inner map. As the internal map becomes more consistent with reality, it enables the person to make better and faster predictions that are more likely to be validated by subsequent events. The learning carried out by young children is therefore more characterized by error elimination, and in adults, more characterized by uncritical acceptance of what seems to fit. Of course if the adult finds the new information does not fit with their current map of reality, a return to critical trials to eliminate error becomes necessary though painful experience. Long before our map of reality is fully formed, we are able to take in scientific theories (subject to real scientific method) without trial and error, and accept them as part of our map of reality.

Losing Our Way.

The supporters of traditional education such as David P. Ausubel point out that adults should have a clear advantage over children with regard to learning because they no longer have to refer to concrete operations and can manipulate logic at the highest abstract levels. The way this site sees it, is that adults have a fully functioning map of reality and this should give them an enormous advantage over children as to learning. The fact is of course, that despite this, children often seem to outshine adults in learning, doing it both faster and with better understanding and less memory loss. Ausubel himself is well aware that children have some advantages which he presents quite fairly in his book "Educational Psychology a Cognitive View" as follows.

Many reasons exist for believing that under certain conditions young children can learn more efficiently than older and intellectually more mature persons. In the first place, older individuals, particularly if miseducated, must often unlearn what they have been previously taught before they are ready for new learning. This is frequently the case when a student's knowledge is unclear, unstable, or disorganized because of a prior history of rote or nonmeaningful learning. Second, older individuals are more likely to have "emotional blocks" with respect to particular subject-matter areas. Third, their intellectual abilities tend to be more highly differentiated. Finally, there is a marked falling off of intellectual enthusiasm, venturesomeness, and flexibility as children move up the academic ladder.

Ausubel accepts this as a fact of life but just glosses over it, as though nothing can be done about it, when it may well be central to the learning process. Clearly in adults something is missing and by laying it out in this manner Ausubel has identified what it is that is lost along the way. This site maintains that if human learning deteriorates, as it obviously does, then something is seriously amiss with the method of learning.

Firstly, as Ausubel points out, quite often adults have to unlearn previous teaching. Unlearning is usually necessary because, what has been taught, has been taught as if it is 'The Truth', instead of being presented as a theory. Ausubel also correctly identified other important reasons that necessitate unlearning, namely, rote learning and other forms of non meaningful learning. It is suggested herein that unlearning should not be necessary and we have set out to determine why certain types of material are ever allowed to enter the human mind (then requiring removal) and how to prevent such instances from ever having happened.

Secondly, as Ausubel points out, adults frequently have to deal with emotional blocks with respect to particular subject matters. This sounds like psychological mumbo jumbo, but what it means is, that unpleasantness has been associated with some subject matter as to render it uninteresting and even distasteful to learn. Such situations should never come into existence and we have set out to discover why they occur and how to avoid such.

Finally as Ausubel points out there is a marked falling off in intellectual enthusiasm, venturesomeness and flexibility as children move up the academic ladder. Our aim herein then becomes one of ensuring that enthusiasm, venturesomeness and flexibility should not be lost, and this website tries to determine why these reductions occur, and offers suggestions how this vitality can be maintained. To continue to where the answers to these questions are fully reviewed click here.

Exit. Finding Our Way.

So there it is. This site will attempt to answer the above questions and more, it will try to survey what is currently known about learning and synthesize all that information into a whole understandable structure. This is a very big task. It is our contention however, that this is possible because the information is there, and that most of it has been there for a long time.

Why? The question is why learn? Learning is changing ourselves and others into something better. That in itself should be enough. But learning is also enjoyable. In fact learning is the most enjoyable thing that non creative people can do, and it may be the most enjoyable part of creation.

Knowledge snobs.

There are always some people in the world who wish to hoard knowledge for one reason or another and they are the knowledge snobs. They believe that knowledge should only go to those who are willing to fight for it, for those who are able to stand up and snatch knowledge from those who are hiding it. They believe that knowledge is only for those who will want it despite society's and nature's efforts to make it exclusive. Such people do not have the welfare of humanity at heart, and instead want to maintain a kind of exclusive club, that acts as the ruling and controlling force in the world. The sharing of knowledge is what enables a truly democratic world where any person may rise to the top.

This site holds that it is possible to enable all people to desire knowledge, to desire to learn and change throughout their lives, and that this can be done by providing an environment where learning is always enjoyable or at least as enjoyable as is possible. It is just a matter of providing this environment as early as possible, as soon as the child is born or earlier.

Life long learning.

This site holds that all people should have the opportunity and desire to learn all their lives. We hold that learning is always a good thing, not only for the individual, but also for the community (society) in which they dwell. There is a tendency to lose interest in learning new things as we get older and to weaken in our ability to learn. However, it is the overcoming of this natural tenancy, that makes humans the truly remarkable creatures that they are. Also, this site holds that it is the right of all humans, not only to have access to knowledge, but also the right to desire to have that knowledge. A society that deprives people of access to knowledge, is certainly wrong, and a society that tries to convince some people that they do not deserve, or should not have knowledge, is worse. Finally, this site holds that a society that discourages learning after people are a certain age, or after they leave school, or that turns learning from a enjoyable experience into one of drudgery is also a society to be deeply deplored. Why? Because it is only through the sharing of knowledge and and a life long love of learning that the world has a chance of surviving the many crises that beset us.

This whole process of lifelong learning, it turns out, has the amazing bonus of making people mentally healthier. What has become clear is that people who continue to learn throughout their lives are better protected against mental decline. Science is as yet not certain, why this is the case, but it seems likely that the effort of learning new actions and material may trigger neurogenesis, or assist the brain in compensating (through neural migration) for its own breakdown. So we should continue to learn throughout our lives. We should all become lifelong learners. Perhaps Carol Dweck said it best in her Book "Mindset":

"Every day presents you with ways to grow and help the people you care about grow." [Here's what you ask.]

"What are the opportunities for learning and growth today? For myself? For the people around me?"

"Change can be tough, but I've never heard anyone say it wasn't worth it. Maybe they're just rationalizing, the way people who've gone through a painful situation say it was worth it. But people who've changed can tell how their lives have been enhanced. They can tell you about things they have now that they wouldn't have had, and ways they feel now that they wouldn't have felt."

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