The Starting Point is Where You are.

The 8th key to learning.

What is key in learning? This is the eighth of a number of keys that are meant to bring understanding about what learning is and how leaning can be improved by understanding the message of those keys. This key is about the importance of what is already known in both stating to learn and how to teach. This key sets out how how to take into account what has all ready been learned before starting to either teach or learn.

"Things turn out best for the people who make the best out of the way things turn out." Art Linkletter

Attaching knew knowledge.

Each individual person is different not only because of what potential he was born with, but also because of what he has learned so far. We must try to get some idea of where each person is, if we are to facilitate his continuing learning. Many children get completely lost at school because nobody ever bothered to find out where they were in their learning.

Abraham Maslow had the following to say about building knowledge on known knowledge:

"In the first place, unlike the current model of teacher as lecturer, conditioner, reinforcer the Taoist helper or teacher is receptive rather than intrusive. I was told once that in the world of boxers, a youngster who feels himself to be good and who wants to be a boxer will go to a gym, look up one of the managers, and say, 'I'd like to be a pro, and I'd like to be in your stable. I'd like you to manage me.' In this world what is then done characteristically is to try him out. The good manager will select one of his professionals and say 'Take him on in the ring. Stretch him. Strain him. Lets see what he can do. Just let him show his very best. Draw him out.' If it turns out that boxer has promise, if he's is a 'natural', then what the good manager does is to take that boy and train him to be, if this is Joe Dokes, a better Joe Dokes. That is, he takes his style as given and builds upon that. He does not start all over again and say, 'Forget all you have learned and do it this new way,' which is like saying 'Forget what kind of body you have,' or 'Forget what you are good for.' He takes him and builds upon his own talents and builds him up into the very best Joe Dokes-type boxer that he possibly can."

Clearly, if anyone wants to to find out what children have learned, or perhaps more to the point what their individual interests are and what knowledge bases they have developed in these interests so far, what is required of facilitators (teachers) is to spend a lot of time with each individual student discussing their interests. An important part of this is getting to know each student, finding out what is motivating each student, what interests each student, what could interest each student, and the extent of each knowledge base.

The cost for teachers.

Teachers, (facilitators) always complain (and rightly so) that they are already hugely overworked and that the things the reformers are asking them to do, and pay attention to, are just adding to their burden, and that asking them to do a one on one with all their students is just asking them to take a journey into madness and total exhaustion. Even if they believe, that the things the reformers would like them to do might indeed be wonderful in promoting learning, they see it as an impossible task, a straw to break the camel's back. They are over worked I admit, but this is because they are being asked to present a large amount of information in a way that makes it memorable, and then assess the work of students in minute and intricate detail. In short they are being asked to do the impossible already. How can we ask them to do more?

If real ideas about learning are to become part, or more hopefully, all of the teacher's function, we can not ask them to present so much material to be absorbed. Nor can we expect them to test students to see how much they have absorbed. Many scholars and most of the people who's ideas are being presented here believe, and can produce evidence to the effect that, testing and structured measured out doses of knowledge have little to do with real learning. Indeed they believe that teacher presentation of knowledge and most testing can, and should, be done away with. If these arduous tasks are removed from what teachers are required to do, teachers will surely have the time, and can learn the skills, necessary to facilitate real learning.  

What might be done to help.

Before getting deeper into the the motivation of interest let us look at a simple example of helping a child in understanding math. John Holt in his book "How Children Fail" provides many examples of this and what follows is just one example.

"Dorothy was working with me the other day. I have been trying to get to the bottom of her misunderstanding of numbers, so that I might find some ground to start building on. I think we may have touched bottom, but it was a long way down.

On the table I made 2 rows of white rods, 5 in each row. As I made them I said, 'Here are two rows, same number of rods in each row. She agreed. I asked how many rods I had used to make these 2 rows. She said 10. I wrote 10 on a piece of paper beside us and put a check beside it. Then I made 2 rows of 7. She agreed that the rows were equal, and told me when I asked, that I had used 14 rods to make them. She had to count them of course. I wrote 14 and put a check beside it.

Then I said, 'Now you make some.' She pushed my rows back into the pile, and then brought out some rods to make 2 rows of 6. I asked how may she had used, and she counted up to 12. I wrote this down and put a check beside it. Then I asked her to see if she could make 2 rows with the same number in each row and no rods left over, using 11 rods. She pushed her 10 rods back into the pile, then counted out 11 rods from the pile and tried to make them into 2 equal rows. After a while she said, 'It won't work.' I agreed that it wouldn't, wrote down 11, and put a big X beside it."

There follows a long passage where John Holt continues to work with Dorothy while she gradually begins to have insights about numbers. By the end of the session she was able to see the patterns involved and the session ended as follows.

"In the 4-row problem we began with 8 rods. She used the rods to tell me that 9, 10 and 11 would not work, and that 12 would. Without the rods she told me that 13, 14, and 15 would not work, and that 16 would; from there she began counting by fours - 20, 24, 28, 32, etc. In the 5-row problem we began with 10 rods, and after using the rods to get 15 she went on from there counting by fives."

John Holt ended the story with the following observation about Dorothy.

"The reason this poor child has learned hardly anything in six years of school is that no one ever began where she was; just as the reason she was able to make such extraordinary gains in efficiency and understanding during this session is that, beginning where she was, she was learning genuinely on her own."

Let us examine what John Holt has done in his interaction with Dorothy. First, it is not clear if Dorothy is interested in mathematics or not, although it could be suspected that she is not. What John Holt is dealing with here is mostly a matter of Dorothy's understanding. To activate Dorothy's  interest John Holt needs to find out what Dorothy can understand about numbers. John presents her with progressively simpler examples, till he reached an example that the girl could understand. Once he had reached this place of understanding, he feels he can begin to present examples in such a way, that the girl is able to see relationships between the numbers without them being forced upon her. Because she is able to make these discoveries herself, it is possible that Dorothy may begin to develop an interest in numbers for the first time. Numbers are after all useful, and intrinsically interesting, and Dorothy has probably been feeling a bit stupid, because the other kids would seem to understand what she could not. John Holt's finding of this beginning place, is essential for triggering both understanding and interest on Dorothy's part.

What we have learned here, is that no matter how small an amount a child's interest and knowledge are, it is possible, if you can find out what they know, to use that as a stating point to begin to facilitate the development of interest and the consequent building of a knowledge base in that subject.

Social science research on interest and development.

K. Ann Renninger has made a study of what she calls individual interest, which is defined as the interest that grows and consolidates into a knowledge base for each interest. Her ideas, and the quotes presented here are from the book "Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation" edited by Harackicwicz and Sansone in the section on individual interest. Individual interest is that which requires a deepening of interest over time. Renninger points out that people who have low levels of individual interest need others to help facilitate this deepening of interest. She gives the example of people (young prodigies) who are interested in chess. She recommends that "...they need people with whom to play, who will enable them to continue to develop their knowledge (people whose questions, challenges, or modeling enable them to further organize what they do know. In turn further enhancing its value and readying them for the next sets of questions). They are not in a position to do this for themselves. Individual interest, even in the most extreme example of the ability of a prodigy, requires opportunities to identify and work on interest specific questions."


Children, and all people for that matter, need others to be aware of where they are in their learning, so that they can facilitate linking to it, and adding to it, in a way that enables it to grow as an interconnected whole. While it seems like exams should provide information for this task they usually do not, because they ask the wrong questions. They must ask the wrong questions because the same questions are for all students.

While people with high individual interest are self motivated, people with low individual interest require a sort of catalyst to get them going. Renninger goes on to say: "...developing the the kind of knowledge and value that leads to well-developed individual interest needs to be facilitated by more than available texts. This requires planful effort on the part of the teacher or an expert other. Students need enough of a knowledge base that they can become curious and begin generating their own questions about a given content and begin to develop the depth of value for it that will lead to reengagement."


Renninger shows that individual interest depends on the value people give to the various interests or knowledge that they hold. Developing interest then is also a matter of developing a sense of value about that interest or subject content. Renninger puts it like this: "The valuing of knowledge can be said to drive interest development: Value emerges in relation to the quality of understanding and the challenge that a subject content affords. Value serves to maintain a person's attention to interest related content, in turn leading to a deepened understanding, to more content-specific questions, and so on. Thus the attention of a person is schooled both by individual interest and by the possibilities of particular contexts for extending and/or constraining its development. These include support to grow a particular individual interest, interaction with expert others, and tasks that permit use of individual interest as a context."

Teachers as catalysts.

Renninger continues: "Facilitating such knowledge development is not a discrete task, however. It involves working to support students, their habits, and their potential, their self perceptions, attributions and task value. More particularly, it means working to shift school, peer, and even family culture to provide them with opportunities to change and enable them to self regulate. Supporting the development of knowledge, then, catalyzes questioning about content of less well-developed individual interest and shifts both in value - including concomitant feelings about self-worth and possibility - and in habits such as questioning and reflection that are requisite for effective learning.

What do interests consist of? In her writing Renninger refers to individual interests by the names we typically use for subject matter categories in English such as for example mathematics and skiing. It should be pointed out however, that how we classify things into groups or lumps is a completely arbitrary thing, made up by humans, so we can sort things to places where we can find them easily. Because humans are familiar with most of these categories or concepts we tend to build our interests also along these lines somewhat. But that is the end of it, 'somewhat'. The fact is, for each person each individual interest is unique.

Take skiing for example? What does a person mean by it? Does it mean a person coming down a mountain with two pieces of long material attached to their feet with the front ends turned up? What a bout a person that uses only one ski? What about a person that does not come down a mountain at all but rather uses skis to walk or slide across country? What about a toboggan? What about water skiing? You see skiing, as an interest, can include all of these things or only maybe one. It can expand and contract, because it is what we say it is. It is what we are interested in at the time. If it is truly an individual interest it will expand to gradually include other related categories over time.

Not convinced? What is mathematics? Is it adding up lists of numbers? Is it multiplying dividing and taking away? Does it include calculus? Mathematics is used by all the other sciences. Is that still mathematics? Can mathematics refer to objects in the real world at all? What about algebra and geometry? Are they part of mathematics? The thing is, we do not have to use a conventional label to describe our interest, until we talk to others. Then the label will undoubtedly be inaccurate, because the other person will understand it to mean something slightly different, or maybe even a lot different.

Finding out somebody's interest then, is not just arriving at a convenient label, but rather, taking a look at the entire subject content absorbed so far.

How to facilitate a person's continued involvement with undeveloped individual interest.

A facilitator should first identify the following in each of their students. Renninger continues:
  1. "The nature of the students' present activity."

  2. "What draws their attention."

  3. "How to help them learn to use the resources they have to develop the knowledge and ultimately the value necessary for working with these tasks. This means figuring out what students understand about a given subject and what they need to understand. On the basis of this information, the teacher (parent, expert other) can adjust instruction (information and expectations) to meet student's strengths and needs as learners."

In this way teachers, parents and other facilitators can prepare challenges for each individual student that are appropriate for each student and also attractive to each individual student. This is because each challenge addresses an individual interest of each student.

Common mistakes made by parents, teachers and other facilitators. By far the most common errors made by facilitators concern their own misperception of their charge's knowledge content and abilities. In other words they misunderstand where their charge's are at in terms of knowledge. There are a number of ways to do this as follows:

  1. They can base their perception on old and out of date knowledge. Parents especially tend to base their knowledge on an initial perception of inabilities and lack of knowledge. This mistake is also often made by teachers who conveniently drop students into boxes based on first impressions. These boxes normally preclude the further examination of what is really known about specific knowledge and what individual interests and knowledge bases might consist of. These boxes beget expectations and cause an inability to make knowledge relevant and thus interesting.
  2. Facilitator's perception can also become too narrow. Parents in particular can become obsessed and overexcited if one of their children shows particular promise in some subject matter. The parents and teachers of prodigies almost cannot help but start to watch and become excited about this subject content to the exclusion of all else. The competence and improvement messages thus tend to accumulate around this subject and thought of competence and improvement in other areas is ignored. Thus although the child becomes more and more competent in this field may start to become anxious about other areas of knowledge which eventually lead back to being anxious about everything including the one area they are good at. Even the way they are being pushed by parents and teachers, in this special area, starts to make it unpleasant, as the intrinsic pleasure they originally felt for the subject, is gradually eaten away, by their own feelings of lack of autonomy. They begin to feel they are only performing for their parent's praise, and not of the intrinsic pleasure of learning.

A wide spectrum of individual interests.

It is clear from the research that children and adults need not only to get feedback about their continuing improvement in specific subjects but they need to develop a wide range of differing interests to develop confidence, happiness, and to reduce their anxiety.

Intrinsic motivation.

Renninger continues: "..because individual interest does not reside solely in the task or in the person but in the possibilities for activity with a task that are perceived by the individual, it needs to be recognized as a specified type of intrinsic motivation that differs from that on which intrinsic motivation has typically focused." Renninger calls individual interest a wide-angle lens for thinking about intrinsic motivation, a way of thinking about engaging in activity to obtain intrinsic pleasure. When we know where a person is and what they know already, we can provide many opportunities to engage in that activity and activate situational and individual interest. We can:
  1. Provide elements of information that link directly with information already existing in a subject knowledge base. This in turn will provide the person with choices or options that they are most willing to take.

  2. Stimulate the perception of relevant problems, the generation of relevant ideas and application of relevant strategies to solve problems. Stimulate the relevant use of others as a resource to bounce ideas off, to receive ideas from and to receive and improvements from. Stimulate the relevant combining of ideas to generate further solutions to problems. All of which will increase the perception of competence and the perception of escalating improvement in competence over time.

  3. Control the flow of information to stimulate the asking of curiosity questions that will improve performance and the expectation of improvement in future performance. 

  4. Concentrate on lesson structure that is likely to increase the value that each student places on particular subject matter.

Less well-developed individual interests that remain.

Renninger continues: "Even if a less well-developed individual interest never becomes well-developed, teachers are in a position to facilitate the expansion of students' sense of possibility and to organize instruction to meet their strengths and needs. Given that students already have contents of well developed individual interest and that new ones develop over time, teachers can work with students to develop their knowledge and value for other content and they can communicate the possibility of learning it. They can provide students with opportunities that increase levels of confidence and competence. They can help them to work effectively with less well developed individual interest - to evaluate accurately what a problem/task involves, to generate ideas about problem solution and apply strategy to meet the demand of the task."

Myelin learning.

Neuroscience can be invaluable in helping us understand why we need to to build our skills and knowledge on the skills and knowledge we already have. Myelin is what surrounds the connectors of the mind, the part of the brain called white matter. In the brain, white matter is composed of bundles of neuron connectors called axons. These connect various grey matter areas of the brain to each other, and carry nerve impulses between neurons. These connecting nerve fibers or axons are wrapped in a dense fat called myelin which prevents the electrical impulses leaking out of those axons.

Myelin wraps around axons in response to neurons firing and impulses traveling along these connecting nerve fibers. The more often electrical impulses travel along these pathways, the more myelin wraps around these axons and the faster and more efficiently these impulses travel. These myelinated axons in turn decide which other neurons fire by virtue of the speed the impulses in them are traveling. This in turn depends on the amount of myelin wrapped around the axon which in turn depends on how often the neuron fires that that initiates an electrical impulse in that axon. In his book "The Talent Code"  Daniel Coyle puts it like this:

"The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster and more fluent our movements and thoughts become. ...'What do good athletes do when they train? ...They send precise impulses along wires that give the signal to myelinate that wire. They end up, after all the training, with a super-duper wire - lots of band width, high-speed T-3 line.' ...Whenever you do something your brain sends a signal through the chains of nerve fibers to your muscles. Each time you practice anything - sing a tune, swing a club, read this sentence- a different highly specific circuit lights up in your mind, sort of like a string of Christmas lights. The simplest skill - say, a tennis backhand  -  involves a circuit made up of hundreds of thousands of fibers and synapses."

Myelin doesn't unwrap.

This is all well and good. As the Myelin wraps around axons it sets up whole complexes of patterns of neuron firings which in turn represent skill sets. But there is a problem, myelin wraps, it does not unwrap. Coyle explains it like this:

"Like a highway-paving machine, myelination happens in one direction. Once a skill circuit is insulated, you can't un-insulate it (except through old age or disease). That's why habits are hard to break. The only way to change them is to build new habits by repeating new behaviors - by myelinating new circuits."

All this has massive implications for learning. Clearly learning something for which you have no previous learning would involve an immense effort on the part of the learner. Fortunately learning does not work that way, but rather always builds on something that was learned before. If we try to erase habits and replace them with new ones you have to build the new ones on something that went before. Inevitably that means building on some neurons and axons that are already connected to the old habit which is already a super fast optimized action. What you are building is slow, weak and shaky and difficult to enter into. The old habit being optimized simply interferes by taking over the moment we lose concentration. We just find ourselves in a rut where we keep going down the same path because it is easier to go down it.

A house of cards.

But habits are just the tip of the iceberg. Every operation in the brain builds on previous information in this way. Skill sets, incorrectly learned, are just as difficult to change. If you learn two finger typing, you will find it all but impossible to learn ten finger typing. In fact any skill that is incorrectly learned will be very difficult to bypass so you can learn the skill correctly. Also concepts and thoughts also build on what has been learned before. They too involve myelin wrapping around axons which cannot be unwrapped. Concepts built on concepts that are found to be incorrect must themselves be relearned, as without the old incorrect concept they will make no sense. Learning can therefore be made very difficult if it is accepted too readily, too rigidly, too dogmatically or too uncritically. If you knock a support out of a rigid cognitive structure it will collapse, but if you knock a support out of a flexible cognitive structure it will find other support.

Myelin change and iteration.

Despite all the talk about repetition and practice above we never do something exactly the same way. The word 'practice' has, over time, lost its original meaning and has come to mean repetition. A better word, that makes clear what really happens when we learn, is iteration. Iteration is not exactly repetition. It describes a process of repetition of a task within which the action is varied in order to improve the performance of the task.

Our understanding of myelin, surprisingly, also leads to the conclusion that we really only learn when when change occurs. If we perform the same action over and over exactly the same way myelination would increase in exactly the same way. More myelin means faster but no change in the action sequence. No change means no learning. The action may become more automatic and quicker but it is still the same sequence of electric impulses from the brain and the same sequence of muscular reactions. This, if it ever happened, would be truly repetition. However, it probably never happens, nor would it be good if it did. It likewise would not be good to even approach this condition anywhere but in a situation where no further learning is required or desired.

Therefore it seems likely, that every time we perform an action it is just a little different to every other time. Instead of calling this practice lets call it an iteration. Sometimes this iteration is a little better and sometimes it is a little worse. When an iteration seems a little better we try to perform it that way again, causing myelin to wrap around the axons involved. When the iteration seems a little worse we try not to perform it that way again and no myelin wraps around the axons involved in making it worse. By varying the amount of myelin that wraps around an axon we control the speed of the impulse traveling through that axon and thus determine whether two or more impulses reach a neuron at the same time or just one. In this way we can control the pattern of the neurons firing which activate the action. In his book Coyle explains it like this:

"...myelin has the capacity to regulate velocity, speeding or occasionally even slowing signals so they hit synapses at the optimal time. Timing is vital because neurons or binary: either they fire or they don't, no grey area. Whether they fire depends solely on whether the incoming impulse is big enough to exceed their threshold of activation. To explain the the implications, Fields [Dr. Douglas Fields] had me imagine a skill circuit where two neurons have to combine impulses to make a third high-threshold neuron fire - for say a golf swing. But here's the catch: in order to combine properly, those two incoming impulses must arrive at nearly exactly the same time - sort of like two small people running at a heavy door to push it open. That required time window turns out to be about 4 milliseconds, or about half the time it takes a bee to flap its wings once. If the first two signals arrive more than 4 milliseconds apart, the door stays shut, the crucial third neuron does not fire, and the golf ball soars into the rough. "Your brain has so many connections and possibilities that your genes can't code the neurons to time thing so precisely,' Fields said. 'But you can build myelin to do it.'"    

Challenge. The importance of challenge and struggle in learning follows on from this information on the function of myelin. Challenge is the gap between what you know and what you don't know, combined with interest. When the challenge is small the amount of myelin wrapping around axons is small and when the challenge is great the amount of myelin wrapping is large. When we are challenged, when we challenge ourselves, we put a goal in place for ourselves. This kind of goal is based on something we have already perceived in action in the external world, that we are trying to imitate. We try to achieve that goal. If the challenge is difficult to achieve, it is possible we will not succeed on our first try. If that wasn't the case we wouldn't need to learn anything. Here's the crux of it. The greater the challenge the greater the risk of failure, but also the greater the possibility of making large changes in your brain connections, and thus the greater the likelihood of making maximum gains in learning. On the other hand performing routine tasks requires little risk of failure, but in turn provides little change in brain structure and so minimal gains in learning. Coyle had the following to say:

"Struggle is not optional - it's neurologically required: in order to get your skill circuit to fire optimally, you must by definition fire the circuit suboptimally; you must make mistakes and pay attention to those mistakes; you must slowly teach your circuit. You must also keep firing the circuit - i.e., practicing - in order to keep myelin functioning properly. After all myelin is living tissue."


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has conducted a massive self reporting study of people in all walks of life. He found that there is an optimum level of challenge for every person in every learning situation. In his book "Flow" the conclusion he arrived at is this. On the one hand if the challenge is too great we tend to become anxious and this mitigates against our intrinsic motivation. On the other hand if the challenge is too little we become bored and this mitigates against our motivation. However in between these two extremes there is a perfect place where our ability to learn is almost exactly matched by the challenge presented. When this happens Csikszentmihalyi  predicts we go into a special learning state he calls flow. This state has been reported by people to be highly pleasurable and people in this state report that they are highly intrinsically motivated.


Thus it should not be surprising to us to discover, that what turns out to make learning a skill memorable, is the action's connectedness to what the learner already new, and its connectedness within itself. Memory in learning turns out to be all about connectedness.


Our interests are an important part of what we know. When we learn, both what we want to know, and what we can know, depend on what we have already learned and know. If you listen to a person speaking about a subject that he knows very well, and about which you know very little, not only will you not be interested, but what he is saying will sound like mostly gibberish, with a few words you know thrown in. It is as if he is speaking a foreign language. Every teacher experiences this. He looks out at the sea of faces in the classroom, and most of them will look blank or bored. Why is this? Because, not only is what he is saying not interesting, but it makes no connection to anything in those children's brains. It sounds to them like he is speaking another language, which to all intents and purposes he might as well be.

A life of long, continuous, learning.

Learning is a process of connection. The reason we know or understand something is because it connects to a mess of other things which in turn connect to a pile of other things and so on, ad infinitum. If we stop connecting information to other information that information loses its meaning, its ability to be recalled, and the special pleasure associated with real learning. Of course, there is some pleasure in absorbing any old information that does not connect with anything much. But this is more like an addiction than viewing the world incrementally more clearly, in an expanding web of knowledge, as in true learning. This expanding joy of connecting within and connecting without is just another way of experiencing and being motivated to learn throughout our lives. In this way we become life long learners.

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