"Eternal truths will be neither true nor
eternal unless they have fresh meaning for every new social situation."
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Meaning and meaningfulness.
There is meaning
inherent in ideas, concepts and
words, but when we learn them, they have to have meaning for us, which
is not the same thing. If they do not, we will not comprehend or
understand them. Despite the fact that they have meaning, they will
have no meaning for us. All knowledge has inherent meaning, but it may
not be meaningful to us. On this page, when this site uses the
word 'meaningfulness' in regards to some knowledge it is talking about
whether it has meaning for the learner.
If something has meaning for the learner, it is
either instantly meaningful when the learner is exposed to it, or it
becomes meaningful as the learner restructures his personal map of
reality to accommodate it. In one, the jigsaw piece fits exactly into a
hole that is waiting to be filled, and in the other, some of the jigsaw
pieces must be rearranged so that a hole in the puzzle can be formed to
fit the new piece. Piaget calls these two ways of making sense of
incoming information assimilation and accommodation.
Two methods of absorbing
information, deep learning and cramming.
In his book "Educational Psychology a
Cognitive View" David P. Ausubel suggests that there are two types of
learning done in schools, meaningful learning, and non meaningful
learning as exemplified by rote and drill. Ausubel has collected
considerable evidence that meaningful learning (by which he means that
the item to be learned has meaning for the learner, or that the learner
creates meaning for it) is better in every way. While this site
endorses this view of Ausubel's, this site regards drill and rote to
not be forms of learning at all. Ausubel shows that meaningful learning
is superior in every way and that drill and rote are positively
harmful. This is not a new idea in learning or education, but rather a
scientific corroboration of views long held by a few. This view was
perhaps most ably presented by the philosopher and economist John
Stuart Mill as follows:
"Most boys and youths who have had much
knowledge drilled into them, have their capacities not strengthened,
but overlaid by it. They are crammed with mere facts, and with the
opinions and phrases of other people, and these are accepted as a
substitute for the power to form opinions of their own: and thus the
sons of eminent fathers, who have spared no pains in their education,
so often grow up as mere parroters of what they have learnt, incapable
of using their minds except in the furrows traced for them. Mine,
however, was not an education of cram. My father never permitted
anything which I learnt to degenerate into a mere exercise of memory.
He strove to make the understanding not only go along with every step
of teaching, but, if possible, precede it. Anything which could be
found out by thinking I never was told, until I had exhausted my
efforts to find it out for myself."
Brain rules from the world
In his book *"Brain Rules" John Medina explains
that in terms of memory in brain biology, meaning is all important. In
this book Medina tells of an easy to perform experiment. Write down a
group of 14-15 unconnected words and show them to two separate groups
of people. He then has this to say:
"Tell Group #1 to determine the number
of letters that have diagonal lines in them and the number that do not.
Tell Group #2 to think about the meaning of each word and rate, on a
scale of 1 to 10, how much they like or dislike the word. Take the list
away, let a few minutes pass , and ask each group to write down as many
words as possible. The dramatic results you get have been replicated in
laboratories around the world. The group that processes the meaning of
the words always remembers two to three times as many words as as the
group that looked only at the architecture of the individual letters.
this point, you may be saying to yourself, 'Well duh!' Isn't
it obvious that the more meaning something has, the more memorable it
becomes? Most researchers would answer, 'Well yeah!' The very
naturalness of the tendency proves the point.
more a learner focuses on the meaning of the presented information, the
more elaborately the encoding is processed. This principle is so
obvious that it is easy to miss. What it means is this: When you are
trying to drive a piece of information into your brain's memory
systems, make sure you understand exactly what the that information
means. If you are trying to to drive information into someone else's
brain, make sure they know what it means.
directive has a negative corollary. If you don't know what the learning
means, don't try to memorize the information by rote and pray the
meaning will somehow reveal itself. And don't expect your students will
do this either, especially if you have done an inadequate job of
explaining things. This is like looking at the number of diagonal lines
in a word and attempting to use this strategy to remember the words."
Meaningful learning is understood, it is easily
recalled, it is consistent with other information and it is interlinked
with many other ideas, concepts or words. If we consider how personal
models of reality work, the reason why rote and drill do not work as
educators would hope, becomes evident. When some idea or concept has
meaning for the learner it is like placing a piece in a jigsaw, when
the other four pieces around it are already in place. It is clear it is
in the right place because it matches, continues and links into the
four other pieces around it, and often part of the picture you are
putting together becomes clear, because of it.
Meaningful learning in the
What follows is
speculation on the understanding
of what a concept is and how it is formed and memorized. These ideas
are compatible with current information from Neuroscience, explaining
what is known about memory and concepts. All meaning is built the way
concepts are built. This is how they become meaningful and become
understood. However, it is just a way of thinking about how learning,
meaning and understanding take place and remain conjectural for the
When an item of meaningful learning is placed in
the mind it matches,
extends and links to numerous ideas and concepts, not in four simple
directions, but often in thousands of directions. How this might work
may be made clearer by a simple example. Let us consider the word or
concept dog. Both the word dog (a symbol for the concept) and the
concept dog are linked to all the different types of dogs that we know
about. We may not be able to visualize them all, but if we see a
dachshund, an Irish setter or a collie we will instantly recognize them
as dogs, though they are a plethora of different shapes, sizes, and
colors. Then there are all the different names for dogs, most of which
we will recognize as a name for a breed of dog. The links to different
things go on and on, such as Shep down the road or Lassie and Rin Tin
Tin from the movies. The concept dog, and the word dog, are also linked
to all the different types of noises and names for noises that dogs
make, such as growling, howling, barking, whimpering, yapping and
whining, all of which themselves, have many variations. I could go on,
but you get the idea, dog has thousands of links to it and it is these
links that define what the concept dog means to us.
abilities and textures of an animal are also important in knowing what
the animal is. Hairiness liveliness, playfulness, running and jumping
ability, its teeth, its tail wagging.
thought about the evolution of language as proposed by Greenspan and
Shanker in their book "The First Idea" is that concepts may be
constructed fundamentally out of emotions. That is to say that the
emotional connections for a concept may provide the largest part of its
meaning. In the case of the concept dog such emotions as
fear, love friendship, loyalty etc. may underlie our understanding of
what a dog is.
there are thousands of links to the word and concept dog. But when we
see a dog and the idea
of it is recalled or we simply recall what a dog is we do not activate
these thousands of links. This is time consuming, wasteful of energy and
inefficient way to think. John Medina talks about the gist as being what
is actually recalled. There are several ideas about what
this might entail but the most popular idea is a kind of averaging of
component elements and this seem to make a lot of sense as we tend to
imagine a ball or a dog mostly as a kind of average of attributes. But
this can not be the whole story as there are often wild outliers in a
large inclusive concept like dog. So we also probably recall to some
extent some outliers at the extreme of what being a dog is as well as
our average template. This all happens in the conscious part of memory
called working memory and is produced by a process called
is where the brain compresses a large segment of memory into a much
segment that can represent it so it can be manipulated without having
to be fully recalled. This happens on many levels so that very large
sections of memory can be thought about and manipulated. Thus we get
chunks within chunks within chunks. At some point we start to get no
memory elements at all in the chunks but instead we get symbols that
stand for the chunk. Symbols as a rule take up much less brain space
and thus work well within the tiny working memory space. A single
symbol can stand for a whole concept or a whole segment of memory.
Meaning, links and
The meaning of an idea and therefore the
understanding of that idea comes about because of the links and
associations with the concept. In fact meaning is these connections.
Without these connections there is no meaning and therefore no
understanding. Just as concepts become
more understandable with each link to it so does all
more connections to previous knowledge the more it makes sense. These
links not only give meaning and determine a unique
position in the personal map of reality but they also provide pathways
through which knowledge, ideas, concepts, conjectures, and theories
may be reached, and thus recalled.
So not only are connections important for understanding and meaning but
they are also important for recall. Firstly, the amount of connections
determines the likelihood of recall in that the more connections the
more likely it is that the memory will be recalled. Secondly, the more
connections the easier it is to find the memory if we are looking for
it. If there are many paths to a memory it does not matter which path
you start on it is more likely you will find your way to the memory.
There may be another reason why the number of and the different types
of connections are important for learning. This quality and
proliferation of connections may not only make concepts, ideas and
theories more understandable and more easily recalled but they may also
make the memory more permanent. In other words whether a memory stops
being degraded, deleted or lost may depend on the number of
connections to it from other ideas, concepts and theories. It may
determine whether that memory is chosen to become a long term memory.
Even if this is not so, it is obvious that the more connections to
other knowledge the less likely a memory is to be lost, degraded or
as play and record.
is not what we tend to think it is. We have been conditioned to think
of learning as a kind of play and record process. The teacher plays the
information as a message which students then record in their brains so
they can play it back to themselves by means of recall. There are many
problems with this idea. Firstly, the moment we recorded a message in
this way it begins to degrade. Secondly, the rate at which it degrades
depends on its emotional content and how often it is recalled. Thirdly,
repetition of the message strengthens some connections like the ones
within the message and one or two to cues that activate recall but the
connection to the other material in each student brain will be very
tenuous indeed. Not only is such information not understood but it is
also much more likely to be degraded, deleted or lost.
maps of reality.
of has within our brain a model of external reality. Kelly called this
a cognitive structure this site refers to it mostly as a personal map
of reality and it has also been called an atlas of reality. This is a
structure, an edifice encompassing our understanding of external
reality and how it works. It enables us predict that certain things
will happen and thus makes planning, anticipation and expectation
possible. This model includes everything we know and enables all
meaning and understanding. Each element of this model must link back to
other parts the model to provide both the meaning and understanding.
The number of these links or connections embody what understanding and
meaning is possible, as do the variety and different types of these
connections. Experiencing the world in different ways through different
senses etc. enable greater understanding, and provide more meaning.
Without these links or connections information has little meaning and
is poorly understood. It is little more than some trivia we can
is mostly not like this at all. For any new information to become
understandable it must connect with past knowledge that is already in
storage. You can think of this in terms of hooks and eyes. The new
information has to have many many hooks and these have to be able to be
able to hook into into eyes in the store of previously collected
knowledge residing in each student brain. When looked at this way we
can see that learning has many ways it can fail. The new information
presented may have insufficient hooks to connect with each student
mind. It may have plenty of hooks but not ones capable of connecting
with student minds. The eyes may be clogged with garbage or even
completely wrong information. Given any of these problems deep learning
(understanding) does not take place.
house of knowledge.
is this important? Let us look at another metaphor. Lets look at
building a house. When you build a house you have to start with the
foundations. Knowledge is similar in that new information has no
meaning or understanding until it connects with and stands upon
knowledge we have previously acquired. Next in building a house we put
in place pillars and beams the skeletal support for our walls. Then
come the walls, the windows and the doors and finally the roof then the
interior fittings etc. Like the elements of a house each added element
of knowledge depends on previously learned knowledge to allows it to
make sense and have meaning by expanding that previous knowledge.
Rote and drill.
Information not learned in this way of being
elaborated, remains peripheral, with often no more than one or two
connections. What rote or drill do, in effect, is attempt to retain
these bits of information by widening the pathways, the links, or
connections between them and some important key activator. They do it
by going down these pathways many many times. What seems to happen is
that much of the information the mind is exposed to in this way never
seems to retain any permanence in what is called long term memory. It
seems to be deleted quickly unless conscious effort is made to keep it
alive in short term memory by continually revisiting it.
instance in science and maths at schools we tend to learn a lot of
formulas for obtaining correct answers and usually we are either simply
taught them by rote or left to our own devices to somehow learn them.
These formulas, however, are actual scientific or mathematical
principles. If we simply memorize them and plug them into problems we
have hardly learned anything even though we we may be able to get right
answers. We simply do not understand what we are doing. Sometimes
students do get some understanding of why these formulas work but
usually this happens after the formula has already been memorized.
These formulas manipulate scientific and mathematical ideas.
truly understand scientific and mathematical principles we need to know
how the various people who came up with them did so. What were they
thinking? What problem were they trying to solve? What else did they
try? Where does this fit in with things I already know? How can I use
this to solve what problems? If we were were taught these things
instead of the formulas we would be much more likely to understand
what the formulas were doing and why they worked. Formulas should
never need to be memorized. They should be obvious from our
understanding of the scientific and mathematical principles
Memory Experts can perform amazing feats of memory
by remembering long lists of disconnected words or even nonsense words.
Some memory experts have found that they can trick the mind into
accepting nonsense or disconnected information if they consciously
associate each of these items with some ideas or words that are already
saturated with meaning. They
do this by finding
ways of connecting the words or nonsense to other words or symbols that
do make sense and then ordering those words or symbols by some ordering
principle. This is like sort of tricking the mind by providing extra
meaning. At school we learned the word BOMDAS. BOMDAS is a way of
remembering the order in which operators have to be used in Maths. The
letters stand for "Brackets, Of, Multiply, Divide, Add, Subtract", and
this is the order in which those operators should be performed.
Actually its back to front. You 'subtract' first and do 'brackets'
last. But as the teacher pointed out the other way would produce
SADMOB, which has too many other distracting associations. The mind in
a normal person will begin to delete information that has little
meaning or little in the way of associations with other information.
These associations or pathways begin to shrink the moment we stop using
them. This is of course made more likely by the fact that having so few
links and the fact that the memory can only be accessed by using those
few paths, the possibility of recall is greatly reduced.
is less in memory.
at first sight, anti intuitive. It seems we can improve recall by
adding more information rather than streamlining the information. More
information is easier to remember that less information. In his book
"Brain Rules" John Medina tells the following story.
take an order is like watching Ken Jennings play Jeopardy! J.C. never
writes anything down, yet he never gets the order wrong. As the menu
offers more than 500 possible combinations of food (entries, side
dishes, salad dressing etc.) per customer, this is an extraordinary
achievement. J.C. has been recorded taking the orders of 20 people
consecutively with zero percent error rate. J.C. worked in a restaurant
frequented by University of Colorado brain scientist K Anders Ericsson.
Noticing how unusual J.C.'s skills were, he asked J.C. if he would
submit to being studied. The secret of J.C.'s success lay in the
deployment of a powerful organizing strategy. He always divided the
customer's order into discrete categories, such as entree, temperature,
side dish and so on. He then coded the details of a particular order
using a lettering system. For salad dressing, Blue Cheese was always
'B,' Thousand Island always 'T' and so on. Using this code with the
other parts of the menu, he assigned the letters to an individual face
and remembered the assignment. By creating a hierarchy of gist, he
could easily apprehend the details.
strategy employs a principle well-known in the brain-science community:
Memory is enhanced by creating associations between concepts. This
experiment has been done hundreds of times, always with the same
result: Words presented in a logically ordered, hierarchical structure
are much better remembered than words placed randomly - typically 40
percent better. This result baffles scientists to this day. Embedding
associations between data points necessarily increases the number of
items to be memorized. More pieces of intellectual baggage to inventory
should make learning more difficult. But that is exactly not what was
found. If we can derive the meaning of the words to one another, we can
much more easily recall the details. Meaning before
Meaning and associations as
This site holds that meaning is provided by
associations and that meaning makes memory possible. This site holds
that meaning makes memory possible in two ways. Firstly it enables
discrete memories to be found during retrieval by providing an
organizing principle that makes locating the information possible.
Secondly meaning provides pathways through which thoughts can travel
while trying to locate some discrete memory.
this is true it could be further suggested that associations perform
four different functions in the brain. These four functions, in turn,
could account for how memory is best recorded and retrieved.
There are associations that give a particular memory it's meaning.
Understanding then comes from a complex linking of associations.
- Concept. There are associations
that link specific memories to a central concept which in turn provides
the meaning for that central concept.
- Whole mind. There are
associations that that link the mind or brain together into a whole
entity. This makes it possible for the mind or brain to understand the
reality of the external world, by constructing or being a model or map
There are associations that are peripheral or situational. These are
associations or links that connect specific memories with the situation
in which they occur. They can be part of the meaning, but are often not
part of the meaning of specific memories. Thus they simply provide door
handles or hooks for accessing specific memories and through them the
concepts those memories create.
Meaning and context.
are all aware that if we lift a sentence out of a speech, or an
article, or even a scientific paper, its meaning will probably change.
If we quote a sentence like this, it is said to be quoted out of
context. Meaning of course is not limited to a single context. If we
take the words in a sentence and rearrange them we may also get a new
meaning, but in this case it is more likely to produce no meaning or
meaninglessness. The order of sentences within a speech or paper or
article provide yet another context, which is also responsible for the
meaning of the item. The order of the phonetic sounds within a word
provide yet another context which gives meaning. If you were to
rearrange these phonetic elements you might get a new meaning, but
again would probably produce nonsense. When we start talking about
communication, suddenly we find even more layers of context. Suddenly
we have to deal with inflection, tone of voice, facial expression and
body language all of which provide context which produces the meaning.
This is by no means the limit of the layers of context that may produce
a single meaning. There is also the contexts of time, place, prejudice,
and cultural factors. The same words spoken the same way may have very
different meanings for people of different cultures or even different
ethnic groups. Consider how Muslims, Jews or Americans might view the
same spoken words. It turns out that meaning is just multiple layers of
context many of which are set one within the other.
Meaningfulness and context.
If external meaning has all these levels of
context it becomes apparent that internal meaning or meaningfulness
must also have all these levels of context to produce meaning. It must
have all these levels of context so we can interpret incoming messages.
Some of this is provided by the links connections or pathways but some
of it is provided by the order or the arrangement of the links or
connections. This is the structure of the personal map of reality, or
the cognitive structure, or the personal construction system.
A person can hear and read much more in his
native language than he can in a secondary language because the density
of links is so much greater for a native language. For instance it is
quite easy for a native English speaker (writer) to understand the
following passage despite the fact that most of the words are spelled
incorrectly. We understand words by the context in which they occur. If
the context is correct we can fill in about every seventh word. Also,
if the context is correct, how a word is spelled matters very little.
spelling can be very wrong and we will still understand it. Also it is
now known that when reading words we tend to pick up mostly the first
and last letters, and the rest is guesswork based on context with some
occasional reference to a few of the other letters in the word. If you
don't believe this, check how easy it is to read the next passage.
cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulacity uesdnatnrd waht I was radgnieg.
The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at
Cmabrigde Uinevtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a
wrod are, the olny iprmkoatnt tihng is the frist and lsat ltteer be in
the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it
wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey
lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?"
What is a word?
A word is a symbol or a sign and we use it to
stand for or represent a concept. Not all concepts can be represented
by a single word but many can and some words stand for several
completely different concepts. Many words are names for objects (an
object is a special kind of concept). The main thing to know about
words is that though they represent objects or concepts they are not
those objects or concepts. The word is not the thing it stands for it
is merely a convenient way of conveying the meaning of that thing to
others or to ourself.
Learning words and context.
We learn words from the context in which they
occur. In a sense the context is always learned first. In a different
sense words are always learned first. What happens is that we learn
words and are able to speak words without understanding their meaning
or knowing their meaning. This happens at every level of learning. Part
of the context of words is the sentences in which they are used.
Consequently we are able to place words correctly in sentences long
before we fully understand what those words mean. To put that another
way we can place words correctly in sentences long before we have
completed forming the concept that the word stands for or symbolizes.
Babies first learn words
Babies imitate speech. Initially they imitate the
overall sound of speech rhythm. Listen to a baby in another room and it
sounds like somebody talking. But as you get closer to the baby you
realize there are no recognizable words. The baby imitates the cadence
but does not even realize the there are recognizable or distinguishable
sounds. By watching the faces of parents and other care givers up close
and after many repetitions of particular sounds babies will begin to
realize that there are individual unique sounds and will try to imitate
them. The first words a baby learns are probably mama or papa but when
he speaks them for the first time he has no idea what they mean. It
will mean much paying attention to the context in which those words are
used and trying to use them in such contexts before the baby gets a
glimmer of an idea what they may mean. These are word context
The first bit of context and thus meaning comes
when he/she first realizes that certain objects (parents and other care
givers) become different, and pleasurably so, when he the baby speaks
those words. It has now been determined by many independent research
teams that this response by parents and other care givers to babies
efforts to communicate are all important in their development of
language skills. Even so there is always a long time between initial
responses to babies efforts, and when the baby finally realizes what is
meant by papa or mama. First the words must be placed in context over
and over and this cannot be done with sentences because the baby does
not understand sentences. The clues for the baby are not easy to
follow. Is mother always present when others use the word? Is mother
indicated in some way when the word is used? The first meaning the
child learns is probably something practical like drink but even then
it will not be an exact meaning such as adults understand. It may mean
to the child anything liquid of may include food and eating. (The word
"gin" in Thai for instance has this kind less specific meaning. It can
mean either to drink or to eat).
The evolution of infant meanings.
Heaps, complexes and
The Russian Scientist Lev S. Vygotsky did
considerable studies with young children in and effort to discover how
language, speech and thought develop. His Book "Thought and
Language" like the work of Piaget is considered a classic in the field.
Vygotsky held that the meaning of words undergo evolution in childhood
and set out to discover the basic steps in that evolution. He suggests
this evolution goes through the following stages:
At first the words are associated with any experience the the child may
have in conjunction with his experience of the word. Vygotsky calls
these groups of associations heaps.
These heaps gradually evolve into more ordered structures that Vygotsky
calls complexes. Unlike heaps complexes always have something in
common. Some common element is seen to be similar or the same by the
child and the associations built are then based on that. At first there
are chain complexes which are very variable because the common element
chosen may change each time the child makes a choice.
Concepts. Gradually all the objects included in a complex
will start to have a single central attribute that all the objects in
the group have in common. These Vygotsky calls potential concepts.
The final type of complex is what Vygotsky calls a pseudo-concept here
the complex has many central attributes that all the objects in the
group have in common.
Ultimately pseudo-concepts resolve into concepts at which point most
people agree about their meaning.
duck is not a duck.
Vygotsky gives a nice clear illustration from the
Russian language of what he means by a chain complex as follows.
is a well known, frequently cited example of these shifts: a
child's use of quah to designate first a duck swimming in a pond, then
any liquid including the milk in his bottle; when he happens to see a
coin with an eagle on it, the coin also is called quah, and then any
round coin like object. This is a typical chain complex: Each new
object included has some attribute in common with another element, but
the attributes undergo endless changes."
As the evolution of words proceeds sometimes the
associations formed in complexes seem to be opposite in meaning in the
adult world. A child my use the word before to mean both before and
after but of course they mean neither to the child. To the child the
meaning is something more like close in time. Evolution of words
continues further and we begin to see objects grouped under a word on
the basis of participation in some activity. Thus the word spoon may
come to mean for the child any object that participates in the eating
of food. This seems at first more fixed, but is still variable in that
the child may give an object more than one name if it participates in
more than one activity. A spoon might be used to stir paint for
instance in which case the child would have a different name for it.
"Dare to err and to dream. Deep meaning
often lies in childish plays." Johann Friedrich Von
concepts start out having a single central attribute that all the
objects in the group have in common. Gradually they will over time,
with many subtractions and additions, expand to having many attributes
have many central attributes that all the members in the group have in
common. It may seem like a true concept to observers but it is still
not, for only some of the necessary attributes may may be chosen by the
child. He may be right 9 out of 10 times, but one time he will still be
Tentative Conjecture, Error Elimination.
Vygotsky saw clearly that concepts were not
built/based on abstracting or synthesizing similarities but were rather
forced into similar groups by a process guess and error elimination. A
child does not create an understanding of the meaning of a word
grouping together attributes that seem similar and certainly not from
an Aristotelian definition. This abstracting of similarities,
a seemingly logical process, is in fact drawn from the same roots as
induction and is incorrect for the same reason.
child has a problem. He wishes to communicate. He grasps the idea that
words have meanings. He takes a word and forms a tentative conjecture
as to what it means. He guesses usually incorporating many more
elements/attributes than are correct. He then indulges in error
elimination where he tries to discover where he is wrong. He does this
by trying to communicate with care givers. He tests his theory in terms
of how the care givers respond to what he is doing.
the child ends up with many elements/attributes being eliminated
as he/she struggles toward the correct meaning and with some
elements or attributes being included. This is done by subtracting
members and adding members and not elements or attributes. As Vygotsky
points out, the child is wrong again and again and again, but he/she
struggles on because each time he/she gets a little bit closer to being
Vygotsky did not have Popper's learning model to
make this clear. He explains it like this.
experiments leave no doubt that on this point, at any rate the
description of concept formation given by traditional psychology, which
simply reproduced the schema of formal logic is totally unrelated to
"According to the classical school, concept formation is achieved by
the same process as the 'Family Portrait' in Galton's composite
photographs. These are made by taking pictures of different members of
a family on the same plate, so that the family traits common to several
people stand out with extraordinary vividness, while differing personal
traits of individuals are blurred by the superimposition. A similar
intensification of traits shared by a number of objects is supposed to
occur in concept formation; according to traditional theory the sum of
these traits is the concept."
"When the process of concept formation is seen in all its complexity,
it appears as a movement of thought within the pyramid of concepts,
constantly alternating between two directions, from the particular to
the general, and from the general to the particular."
Categories, concepts and
One of the ways in which we come to understand
information is differentiating the things we see, hear, feel, taste and
smell into categories. In his book "Blunder" Zachary Shore tells us the
the time of Aristotle, the accepted view of
categorization assumed that we group things into categories when a
group's members share common properties. These categories then form
logical sets. In the Greek philosophical worldview, particular
experiences that come through the senses were considered unreliable.
Because a straight stick looks bent when half is under water, for
example, they believed that we cannot trust our senses to guide our
categorization. Instead only stable, abstract, logical universal
categories could function as objects of knowledge. To fulfill these
functions categories had to exact, not vague. They had to possess
clearly defined boundaries, and their members had to have attributes in
common that were the necessary and sufficient conditions for membership
in the category. All members of the category had to be equally good
with regard to membership; either they had the necessary common
features or they didn't. A thing was either inside the category or
outside it; there was no in between."
Although many cognitive scientists had over time
questioned the rigidity of these Aristotelian definitions as a means of
learning categories, it was Eleanor Rosch who first provided an
alternative way of understanding categories and their meanings. She
noticed that some categories such as colors had rather fuzzy boundaries
and yet were very distinct in their best examples. Red, yellow and blue
are very distinct. What she discovered was, that the best examples of
categories were best remembered, most easily distinguished and had in
fact symbolic properties that enabled recognition of things as being
members of a category. Some breeds of dogs, for instance, were better
representatives of the category 'dog' than others. A German shepherd or
a Labrador retriever are better examples of 'dog' than say a poodle or
a dachshund. They are in Rosch's words prototypical. When we think
'dog' they are part of a composite image that comes to mind and
symbolizes 'dog'. Some types of dog such as the German shepherd
therefore are more easily recognizable as dogs because they look more
like the prototype.
only does this mean that categories are always fuzzy at the edges but
it also means it is often slightly different from person to person
because of the different examples of category members know to be
included. Also a category is never really finished being defined
because we are often still in the process of adding members and
deleting members. Where this is still happening not only is the meaning
of the category still in flux, but the actual prototype that symbolizes
it may also be still morphing slightly. In his book "Everything is
Miscellaneous" David Weinberger commented on Rosch's research as
findings stand in stark contrast with the prevalent definitional view
that thinks we start with criteria and then find some good examples.
The prototype view thinks we start by having prototypes pointed out to
us - 'Oh, look a birdie!' - and then cluster other things around them."
this seems a more probable way of building categories, than by
definition, this site holds that that this idea of how categories are
built cannot be correct either. When a person points out a birdie to a
child, the child has no idea of which attributes are important and
which are unimportant. The bird we point out is not automatically
accepted by the child as a prototype for birds. Indeed, the bird we
point out, may not in fact, be a prototypical bird. Maybe it is as
swan, an eagle, an emu, a chicken or an ostrich. Now you may say, that
it is more likely that we will in fact point out a prototypical bird
when we say birdie, and use the words eagle or ostrich etc. when
pointing them out. There is some sense to this, but it is not sure.
if the bird we identify is a robin, and most people understand
a robin is a prototypical bird, the child has no way of knowing this is
any different to when we point out a kiwi. The only thing the child has
to go on is what seems to have some elements in common, or perhaps more
importantly, what seems dissimilar. To do this children tend to form
overly inclusive visual categories just as
Vygotsky suggested and is explained above. Children then test these
prototype theories and eliminate members that are incorrectly placed.
the important thing to notice here is that categories in children tend
to be widely inclusive and tend to be pruned or trimmed back as the
child subjects them to trial and error correction. Later in life when
language has become fluent, categories can more easily have new
examples added. This process of subtracting
and adding members is what Vygotsky means about alternating between two directions,
from the particular to the general, (becoming more inclusive) and from
the general to the particular (becoming less inclusive).
members of categories can be added because we are told that a
particular example should be a member of a particular category this is
not typical of how we learn about category membership. Usually members
of categories are discovered by a trial and error method. When a child
incorrectly identifies say, a dog as a cat, parents and teachers tend
to identify the correct category. In this way the child eliminates the
example from one category and simultaneously may add it to the correct
category. Typically learning the membership of categories takes place
by others misunderstanding children's misidentification of category
members, or others correcting children's misidentification of category
members. Not much takes place because of direct identification of
category members by others.
fact that we all tend to end up with the same prototypical examples has
little to do with indication of category members by others and
everything to do with the fact that prototypical examples have more
features or attributes in common with the other members of their
category than do non prototypical examples. For instance a robin has a
small beak, and so do most birds, but some birds have big beaks. Robins
can fly, and so can most birds, but some birds can't fly. Just as we
arrive at, 'what is a bird' by process of trial and error elimination,
so too do we arrive at our prototypes through trial and error
elimination conducted mostly while we were children. Both the category
and its prototype are built by paring away provisional members, of an
overly wide ranging inclusive category, that are ultimately identified
as being incorrectly placed in the category and the addition of a few
members that were not initially included.
actual attributes are not part of the process of building or creating
the category, and can really only be identified once the category
becomes fairly stable. Remember categories were constructed by humans
for their convenience, and are not universally and instinctively
recognizable. It is possible to construct radically different
Developing concepts, the
evolution of meaning.
With concepts the symbols
we call words gain meaning. With words comes inner speech and conscious
thought as we know it. Thus we have reached a point where it is
possible to lay out stages in the evolutionary development of concepts
in an orderly progression as follows.
In the beginning the infant arrives at solutions
by accident and then proceeds to try those solutions out on various
other problems. (No thinking required).
The infant begins to notice the sounds of speech
without perceiving that is it composed of unique repeatable sounds
(words). At this point babies need to hear care givers speaking
The infant begins to imitate speech sounds without
reference to meaning and indeed without understanding that there is
meaning there. At this point care givers should try to pick out word
like sounds from the babies gabble and respond to them.
At some point the infant begins to suspect that
his actions can affect the world. In this the baby needs lots of
response from care givers to his attempts to imitate sounds. In this
way a conjecture concerning intention is formed.
The infant begins to want to organize his actions
to initiate outcomes of his anticipations. (The desire to think and
solve problems consciously). At
this point a strong reciprocal involvement should be set up between
baby and care giver. The parent should be making every effort to
understand the baby and what it wants. At the same time the baby should
have become highly sensitive to the care giver/parent's responses.
The infant begins to notice the sounds made by
others are composed of unique and repeatable sounds (words). At this
point babies need to see the faces of care givers up close so they can
separate language into individual sounds, which will normally be words,
that they then may be motivated to imitate.
The infant then begins to imitate these words
reference to their meaning and indeed without understanding that they
have meaning. At this point babies are again greatly helped by seeing
faces up close
when trying to imitate these separate sounds.
The infant begins to associate with any experience
that infant may have in conjunction with his experience of a word.
Thus words begin to become for him part of heaps of images, sounds and
actions that can be separated from other images, sounds and actions and
the focus of amorphous heaps of experience. At this point care givers
should be trying to pick up on what it is babies are trying to
communicate and make it known to the baby that they understand or do
The infant begins to notice that words used by
others often have similar contextual elements. Thus words begin to
retain elements which are distinguishable as being representative of
something. Initially elements are subject to change from moment to
moment forming variable chain complexes. When this happens care givers
can by trying to concentrate on what babies mean by words help
stabilize their meaning for the child. Prolific response
by parents and other care givers at this stage will enable the
beginnings of a vocabulary which while still unstable and still in the
process of error correction is nevertheless a vocabulary.
Gradually the infant begins to realize that words
as used by
adults have permanent elements that the adults mean when using the word
and they begin their hunt for these elements. Thus they begin to create
complexes that have some (possibly one) permanent element of meaning.
At this stage care givers should concentrate on trying to make clear
when infants seem to get the meaning right and ignore it when it seems
to be wrong.
The infant begins to realize that words can have
more than one element in common and sometimes the associations they
form in complexes seem to include both one element and its opposite in
meaning in the adult world. At this point care givers should not worry
about this apparent mix up, but continue to recognize when words are
The infant begins to realize that most of the
meaning elements he is giving to words are not understood by adults and
thus incorrect and must be eliminated if they are to be the same as
adults and thus useful in communication. Thus they eliminate those
elements and look for other elements of common meaning to include. At
this point children do not need much from parents as the infants are
continually running experiments on word to see if they are
understanding and using them correctly. Parents should at this stage
only correct if
children ask them to help.
this series of steps, maybe here
or maybe later, the infant comes to realize that some words
denote categories that have members. A word like dog, for instance,
will seem to include a whole host of creatures that can also be denoted
by a whole host of words that each represent an individual member of
that group. These are of course the breeds of dogs and individual dog
names. From then on new complexes are shaped by this idea of a
hierarchy of categories and members though the infant would still not
familiar with the words 'category' or 'member'.
The infant begins to
eliminate members from each complex that do not have all the elements
included that seem to be necessary for inclusion as a member
that complex. This may start by determining a single central
attribute or element that each member has in common and gradually
adding more and more attributes or elements that the member has in
Thus (complexes) words at last begin to develop meanings that have
permanence. This new complex is still not
concept however, it is still a complex, but one that could be referred
to as a potential concept. At this point the child has become very
active in testing words in different contexts but this time to see
which members need to be deleted from each complex to be more closely
matching adult concepts. Again infants need little in
the way of input from care givers other than understanding and
responding to the child's communication.
The infant continues refining the meanings of
these potential concept words by adding new members to these potential
concepts as well as deleting members from these potential
concepts. They do this by
gradually determining which elements and attributes each member of
a potential concept must have in common.
Gradually a very
rough approximation of meaning emerges for each potential
that is fairly consistent and stable. As meanings start to become clear
to the child and true easy
communication is possible the child begins to notice that the words
he/she has been using in groups of words have different meanings
depending on their order and thus very complex
communication is possible.
The infant then begins to notice how words go
together in sentences and how this gives further meaning to the word.
The child begins to use more
and more correct and complete ordering of words to construct clearer
meaning. Thus infants begin constructing sentences of their
own and the
beginnings of true communication emerges. At this point the process
begins to repeat itself all over again with children trying out
sentences and testing them for communication value. Again care givers
should do little other than respond appropriately to the sentences and
not try to correct them.
The infant gradually refines the elements of
meaning associated with words and the membership of each category to
the point that most of the elements
and members are correct by adult standards. But they may still include
elements and members that are
incorrect. These are still complexes but now very accurate ones,
allowing children to have a high percentage of accuracy. These may be
called pseudo-concepts. At this point everybody can respond to the
children and will. Incorrect uses will be ironed out as the child makes
occasional gaffs and quickly recognizes that he has done so.
Finally with the
completion of adding and deleting of members, and a final determining
of attributes or elements that need to be in common for each member the
child is able to form clear correct concepts that are
understandable to others when presented as their word symbols, and thus
clear un-muddled communication with
adults can take place.
The infant/child stages not
fixed to age.
should be noted that the the above is not
a practical guide to the child's development of language. As both
Piaget and Vygotsky have pointed out the child is never doing just one
of these things at a time. It is possible that a child may, in his
efforts to understand the world, have heaps, complexes, potential
concepts, pseudo-concepts and fully
formed concepts, all at the one time. Also these steps do not appear at
a specific time in children's lives. They are simply a learning
gradient caused by the fact that some things, as Piaget might say,
simply cannot be learned unless some other things have been learned
The learning of new words as
Adults are conversant with the idea that words
that have no personal meaning may have their meaning derived from
elements of human and environmental cues and the
structure of sentences in which they are placed. They can use their
fully functioning maps of reality to make fairly accurate guesses as to
the meanings of words, from those contexts in which they are used. Thus
they can usually begin the formation of meaning somewhere between
potential concepts and pseudo-concepts.
Words created for meanings
and concepts without words.
Of course not all
concepts have a single word that
is able to stand as a symbol for that concept. All fields of study have
their own jargon and that jargon is simply words that stand for
concepts in that field of study. Usually those words are not used in
normal conversation and thus not part of our common language. They are
used instead only when conversing with colleagues in that particular
field of knowledge. This is because like all symbols these words are a
kind of shorthand for quickly conveying information. Also as new ideas
and thus concepts are formed in science and other fields of knowledge
there is a need to create new words to stand for those concepts or the
co-option of an old word that is no longer used. Old words like 'icon'
or 'avatar' or 'iteration' can thus gain new life with a new meaning or
even an old meaning that becomes suddenly relevant. Some concepts,
new ones, have no word to stand for them. Such concepts are difficult
to use in our language, and are cumbersome in conveying meaning. It is
natural to want to attach a word to any concept to have a way of
science we have words like wave and particle. But sometimes we call
some things both waves and particles. We clearly need a new word here.
A light wave
does not change into a light particle it is the same thing. It is not a
wave or a particle it is something that has the properties of both a
wave and a particle.
The response of care givers
in the formation of language skills.
used to be thought that the way parents etc. could ensure the
development of good language skills for those in their care was to
expose those children to to vast amounts of language.
However, more recent research has shown that the amount of language and
even the amount of diverse vocabulary are nowhere near as important in
efforts to improve children's language skills as is the way parents and
other care givers respond to the efforts of children in attempting to
implement those skills.
recall, understanding and meaningfulness are four sides of the same
and meaningfulness are
two sides of the same
coin. If we understand something, it is because it is linked to other
bits of information and its meaning is derived from those links. The
more links there are the more meaning there is. Likewise our ability to
recall something is also dependent on the number of other bits of
information that are linked to it. Those links are entry points of
for remembering that something. The more links there are, the more ways
there are of returning to the information and thus remembering
his book *"Brain Rules" John Medina provides us with many ways the
brain can be facilitated in enabling recall. These methods also, in the
estimation of this site, have the added benefit of amplifying
understanding and thus embellishing meaning. They do all this because
each of these methods increases the number and variety of links or
connections to the item to be recalled.
This brings us back to
learning. If we use repetition to make certain cues activate particular
memories we may indeed be able to recall those memories but it is
highly questionable as to whether we have learned anything. We are
simply able to regurgitate information on demand. On the other hand if
we have truly come to understand something we can recall it far more
easily because we have
learned it. Something that is understood is useful because our
understanding enables us to see its application in a wide variety of
links or connections means better learning,
understanding, meaningfulness and recall.
of creating more links.
Understanding. If you are
trying to to drive information into someone else's brain, make sure
they know what it means. Don't expect your students to memorize
anything they do not understand in the hope meaning will somehow
magically become clear. It won't.
The more mediums a learner learns in the more links there are created
in the brain and connecting to greatly varying parts of the brain. Some
mediums use many sensory modes. Movies and video use both visual and
sound modes. Similarly animation uses the same modes with the visual
mode more abstracted. Reading uses the visual mode but is a completely
different kind of abstraction. If you can find mediums that use more of
the senses so much the better. Also older mediums like drawing,
painting and radio are still useful as they can provide new and
different links. In fact if you draw or paint yourself you can use that
ability build Tony Buzan's mind maps a way of making the links
Create an environmental context for the information to be learned,
similar to the context in which it will be required to be recalled.
Even using the same room for a particular class would be helpful in
cuing the recall of the information. This is because the environment
provides more associations that link back to the the memory to be
retrieved. Other cues such as the mental state you were in when first
acquiring information can help the information's recall if that state
sensory. Encourage students to use as many different sensory
modes as possible in learning. You can do this by using many different
media as is possible. Obviously information acquired in different
senses provides further associations to further elaborate the meaning
Information presented in the form of sound as in a lecture is the most
common method used in teaching. This however, uses only one of our
sensory modes and does not do it even by taking advantage of the full
range of auditory presentation. It is now known that an auditory
presentation can be improved by use of a greater range of sound or the
addition of pictures in the form of slides or as narration for some
Pictorial information will always be better remembered than verbal
information as conveyed in a lecture but the combination of the two is
even easier to remember. Animation with a narrator or a movie will be
even more effective if it is about the subject and not just a movie of
someone giving a lecture.
Being physically involved in active learning through exploration even
if it is guided by a teacher will also help because the sensory modes
of touch and the feeling of muscles in action are added to the mix
further elaborating the memory.
Obviously taste should also be
incorporated if it is appropriate. I am sure cooking classes are
memorable if you get to eat what you cook.
Chemistry class was always more memorable
probably because the reactions we were testing often involved smells.
Create an environment that is free from
stress. Stress actively prevents the absorption of the extra
for elaborated meaning. Although stress offsets this by providing an
emotional association such as fear, it is toxic if repeated often. Fear
provide a way of allowing one memory to stand out against other
memories that do not have this association, but if all memories
have this association, the effect is lost and stress is unbearable.
long learning and meaningfulness.
things are meaningful they are both understandable and interesting.
Things that are meaningful to us are are things that we like and enjoy.
Meaningful learning is enjoyable learning, internally consistent and
compatible with our understanding of reality. It is only when learning
becomes fragmented that it loses some of its meaning for us and becomes
joyless and unpleasant. If all our learning could remain meaningful to
us, we could be empowered with the desire to continue learning
throughout our entire lives.