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On Learning

This is the part of the piece of writing I would use as the disclaimer, up here in the preface. I am not in education, I have not been educated on these matters, I am making stuff up as I go along, don't take me as an authority, your mileage may vary, contents may have settled during shipment and this is sold by weight not volume.

Please don't tell me how unoriginal this is, whose theory of whatever it rehashes, how much better it could have been stated with these links to those research materials. I have done no research whatsoever into this matter and am presenting my findings because I want to get them down before I contemplate where it might be intended to go.

OK. Disclaimers over, let's get to what I wanted to espouse.

I think there are different kinds of learning, and different goals in education.

Sure, that's not revolutionary, but I had to have some easily-digested thesis before I broke down what I meant.

Learning is an overloaded term that does not go far enough.  The types of learning we think about most often are glorified conditioned responses, or what I will henceforth call "imprints".  Skinner argued that behaviors could be reinforced, that through positive rewards, positive actions could be conditioned to continue.  Pavlov illustrated this by causing dogs to drool when hearing a bell.  Not, you know, that dog drool is a positive action, but that here we have a demonstrable conditioned response.

There is too much "learning" and too much emphasis in education on "learning" and too much study of "learning" to have people remember the point:  Learning is a means to an end, and the end is understanding.

You can drill multiplication tables and spelling words and the periodic table of elements into anybody, given enough time and enough rewards.  Congratulations, you can imprint a series of encoded information.  Then you can turn around and give a test that measures how much of the information was properly imprinted.  Is that teaching?  Is that really a measure of learning?

Supposing you can cause a parrot to correctly repeat the relevant pieces of multiplication tables -- does that mean it has learned multiplication?  If is passes an oral examination can we certificate it for anything?

Without (intentionally) politicizing the issue, the chief problems with "education" as I see it in the USA (the only country I've been able to observe "the system" first-hand) are that we are attempting to standardize the means by which successful imprinting can be measured, and that quite a bit of time and resources are devoted to understanding which imprints will "take" the quickest for which individuals.  "Oh, Billy is an auditory learner but Bobby is more of a visual learner" is hogwash.

Billy takes imprints faster through his ears and Bobby takes them faster through his eyes.  Nevermind that both would be capable of doing it all by touch through Braille, it would just take much much longer and be more prone to errors in encoding because a first set of imprints would be required -- those to "learn" Braille -- and only once those became second nature could any subsequent imprints be reliable.

There is of course a great deal of study also applied to the ways in which various imprints are shall we say unsuccessful.  If one is color-blind, one cannot make a reliable imprint of red.  If one is deaf, one cannot make a reliable imprint of sound.  If one is autistic, one cannot make a reliable imprint of social cues.  Dyslexia, synesthesia, I could go on but I have hopefully laid out the analogy well enough that it holds.

So.  The faults I find are that much is made of a child's ability to be imprinted in a certain timeframe with a certain set of codes, yet little is made of that child's (or teacher's) ability to understand the imprints being exchanged, and less of the chasm between the two.

With apologies to Douglas Hofstadter, self-aware and self-reinforcing feedback or symbols are to me akin to layers of understanding.  True learning is in taking a series of observations (selected elements without express correlations) and relating them to each other in ways that hadn't previously been clear (to the observer) but which are nevertheless valid and meaningful.  In other words, true learning is in the formulation of a new imprint, rather than the passing along of a regurgitated one.

The crux of the leap from "imprint" to "understanding" leads back to the self-aware or self-reinforcing nature.  Understanding, in a way, is having an imprint form about an imprint (or set of imprints).

"They" say that you learn the most about something when you try to teach it to someone else.  I believe that's true because in the attempt (to pass along the imprint), you come to a better understanding of what it is you are trying to imprint.

A critical part of understanding is predicting application.  Using fingers to make these motions causes the scissors to cut.  I've learned how to cut with scissors.  I practice shapes on paper.  If I translate that to a new application -- say, hair -- I have understood scissors better and have learned more.

A different example would be the invention of velcro.  The imprint of a burr attaching to a sock is "understood" at the level of being reproducible and desirably useful.  Further understanding, however, is required before the conclusion can be derived that a generation of children is coming up for which "tying one's shoes" is meaningless -- hooks-and-loops do not tie.  The same manual dexterity required to tie a shoelace or maneuver a button through a buttonhole is not required to line up two pieces of velcro; the manual strength required to gain adhesion from the velcro pieces is less than that required to close two lined-up bits of metal that should snap together.  Pulling the burr from the sock and putting it back on does not automatically lead one down those paths to those ramifications.

Rocketry (or any other examples of the militarization of scientific applications) is another area where certain ideas were hatched and implemented without foreseeing some of the eventual alternative uses and their ultimate consequences.  As new imprints were formed and different understandings reached, quite a few things were learned.

In a way, what I am writing now is something I certainly do not "fully understand" (or even "a little bit" understand, in the "learning" sense I intend).  That scares and excites me a bit.  I could be onto nothing at all, or old ground outside my fields of expertise.  I could be onto something revolutionary.

This will have to be good enough for now.  Over time, I'll make more observations.  I'll formulate new imprints.  I'll understand the ones I've laid out better.  I'll learn about my theory of learning.  Maybe it will be better (put) someday.

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Comments

Semiotics are in order. That is all. Oh. And keep pondering. This is nonchildren related interesting discussion material for our next date night.

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