What Learning is Not

What Learning is Not

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The Dark Matter of Learning Psychology

When astronomers look into space, they see stars, asteroids, comets, planets, and other things floating around up there. However, when they measure the speed with which the parts of the universe are moving, it becomes clear that there is more out there than what astronomers can visibly see. The measurements reveal that only about 5% of the matter in the universe is stars, planets, asteroids, and other “normal” stuff. The rest, apparently, is something they call dark energy and dark matter.

About 25% of the universe seems to be dark matter. Scientists know it is dark, but beyond that, they don’t know what it is. Astronomers and physicists have an easier time saying what dark matter is not, rather than what it is. They know that dark matter is not just clouds of normal matter that is a black color. They know that dark matter is not black holes. They also know that dark matter is not antimatter. So then, what is dark matter? They’re not really sure, but they know what it isn’t.

When a concept is new, unclear, or abstract, we often have a difficult time explaining it.

Sometimes, a concept becomes clearer when we say what it is not. We can compare it to similar things, and then differentiate it.

Learning is not a new phenomenon, but it is unclear and abstract. Further, few teachers today get training in the psychology and sociology of learning. Fewer still get training in the meandering path of learning in the human brain—how we truly learn, and learn it to the point that the new knowledge has the power to change our attitudes and behavior.

Below, then, are a few thoughts about what learning is not.

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Learning is Not Teaching

Teaching is everything we do in order to help students understand something. Teaching is the lectures, the PowerPoints, the movies, the small group projects—it is everything we do so that the students will learn. Teaching is what the teacher does. Learning is what the student does.

Teachers cannot force learning. They cannot insist on learning. They cannot demand learning. Teachers who announce that “this will be on the test” will probably get students to remember it for the short term. However, those students are almost guaranteed to forget it immediately after the test. Telling students that “this will be on the test” tells students that there is no other real reason to remember it. They will not only forget it, they are likely to lose motivation for ever learning the topic.

Learning is what happens inside the skin of the student. All our wonderful teaching is filtered through countless variables, experiences, distractions, and other demands for attention. Teaching is a noble cause, but learning is the central issue.

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Learning is Not Curriculum

Curriculum is the book that tells us what kids should learn, and when, and how. Curriculums give the lesson plans that help teachers teach, as well as the long-term goals that tell us what Johnny is supposed to know. Of course, the curriculum doesn’t know Johnny, and doesn’t know how he learns or what he needs to do to remember something. Curriculum is a set of standards that has a disregard for who the students are or how they learn.

Curriculum is prescriptive, an idea of what people should learn now and in the future. Learning, on the other hand, is a willingness and courage to try new things, experience new ideas, and allow information to assimilate into knowledge.

Curriculum demands that we learn a little every day, in a straight line graph. Curriculum demands that every day, in every way, we learn a little bit more. Learning, however, emerges through a stuttered process of skips and jumps, falling backwards, fits and starts, long plateaus and sudden jumps. Learning is never predictable, and never occurs in a straight line graph.

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Learning Knowledge is Not Learning Information

Information is different than knowledge. Information is random facts, isolated bits of data. Information is factoids—like what year Abraham Lincoln was born, or how many molecules are in a polypeptide bond. Information is trivial and unimportant, and unless you get on a game show, information doesn’t really contribute to the quality of life.

Knowledge, on the other hand, is information that has accumulated into a pattern and is useful somehow in one’s life. Knowledge is how to make your garden grow, or how to play chess. Knowledge is the floor plan of your house, how to eat to prevent heart disease, and how to drive a car. Knowledge is always a pattern of information that has coalesced and has become important for the user.

Learning information is easy. We hear the isolated factoid, are told it will be on the test, and so we repeat it over and over. We might create a flashcard or a mnemonic device to remember it. The problem is, when we no longer need the information, it’s discarded quickly.

Since the 1920s, the dominant model of education has been to teach information. The traditional model viewed information and knowledge as identical. We could teach information, and the students will just magically remember and use the information for the rest of their lives. This one-dimensional view of knowledge never held up under research, but the model still remains.

Even today, our idea is that if we could fill student heads with enough information, it will just kind of coalesce into a pattern, and automatically become knowledge. Research shows this doesn’t happen either. Students either flush the information right after the test, or the factoid stays with them in an isolated state called inertness. The factoid tends to not connect with other information or knowledge.

In education, we’ve been taught only to care about the product—a test or some kind of performance assessment at the end of the unit. Caring about the product is critical for learning information. But when we care about the journey of learning, and watch the slow, meandering path of knowledge taking shape—then we understand the process. Caring about the slow, meandering learning process is critical for learning knowledge.

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Learning is Not Performance

When we have taught something, the normal process is to have some kind of test or performance to evaluate whether they learned it. However, learning and performance are two different phenomenon. They are related, but not the same. Learning is not performance.

Sometimes we have learned something but can not yet perform it. Frequently, we know something but lack the tangential skills to show it. A student might have memorized a Shakespearean sonnet, but when it comes time to recite it, the student gets nervous and can’t remember. That’s not a failure of learning the sonnet, it’s a failure of coping with stress.

Sometimes we can perform something without having learned it. This is a phenomenon that every teacher sees—when the student fills out a worksheet or does a book report, but twenty minutes later the student can’t remember the content.

Sometimes we can learn something but don’t have the ability to express it. When engineers tried to build the first bread machine appliance, they could not get the kneading process right. They went to the top bread bakers in the nation to have them explain it. The top bakers tried to explain it, but the engineers were still left stumped. Finally, the engineers temporarily quit their jobs, and went to work in the bakery, working along side the bread bakers. After a few weeks, the bakers were able to show them the subtleties of the process. The bakers knew how to make bread, but because it was so natural to them, they couldn’t express how to do it.

Assessments of performance should be used by teachers to improve and supplement their teaching, not to grade and sort children. Performance assessments can give helpful information to see where kids are on their learning journey. Performance assessments can be helpful to the teacher, but they give limited information about what a child knows and doesn’t know.

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Learning is Not Doing Homework

Children (and adults!) can do an assignment mindlessly, and thus not learn anything. Never look at a perfect assignment and assume that the child has learned something. Going through the motions is not the same as learning.

This is one of the reasons why research studies have shown virtually no benefit from doing homework, particularly in the younger grades. In the younger grades, studies have shown that homework even has negative consequences—increasing stress, increasing anxiety about education in general, increasing parental conflict, and taking time away from more helpful activities.

Teachers who assign and grade homework should consider asking themselves difficult questions. Is the homework an act of following directions? Or is it learning? Is the homework practice of skills or actually learning a new skill?

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Learning is Not Following Rubrics

Most of the assignments teachers give out is a black box to kids. That means that the teacher has given the assignment, and the teacher will evaluate the assignment; but how the assignment will be evaluated is a mystery to the student. Some students, usually the older ones in college, will say “I don’t know what you want,” or “what are you looking for?” Most younger students simply realize they will have to do their best to read the teacher’s mind to figure out what they should insert into the assignment.

In answer to this conundrum of students being unsure what is required, some teachers write rubrics, so that the student has to read the teacher’s mind slightly less. However, most rubrics are so poorly written that they are simply an organized way to continue to be subjective. Rubrics become yet another way to give kids a number, rather than personal, authentic feedback.

Further, rubrics reinforce the view that this is a teacher-controlled assignment, and that the teacher is firmly in charge, and the student has to perform for the teacher, regardless of whether learning is involved. Kids get the message that “I have no control in the matter. I have to do what someone else wants.”

Teachers can and should give students feedback on their learning. However, feedback is often too structured, too oriented at the number of points, too objective, and too much saddled with a perspective of fixed intelligence.

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Learning is Not Focusing on the Task

Some teachers value being focused. They try hard to get their students to be focused, and they give positive strokes to those who have concentrated well. We value that mental focus. We even call it “on task” and declare that a good thing. We declare that time “off task” is bad, wasted time. However, learning is not “being focused.”

First of all, we are not genetically equipped to be focused for long periods of time—we are built to be distracted. Imagine two cavemen at the beginning of history. One is easily distracted, the other is super-focused. They are both trying to start a fire when a saber-toothed tiger walks up behind them. Which caveman is likely to pass his genes on to the next generation? Obviously, the caveman who is easily distracted will hear the predator coming and make a run for it. We are genetically predisposed to easy distractions.

Even today, the learning process is such a wandering path, so embedded in social relationships, that time on task is not a particularly good measure of learning. In fact, research shows that the more time children (and adults) spend time on a task, the more their attention fades. This phenomenon is called vigilance decrement. Research suggests that students who spend some time off-task actually learn more than those who spend more time on-task.

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Learning is Not Memory

Sometimes people think of learning as whatever you’ve managed to cram into your memory. The idea goes that if you can crowbar something into your short term memory, that’s good. And it’s even better if you can repeat it and drill it over and over until it gets into your long term memory. Some people say that getting a factoid into your long term memory is, by definition, learning.

However, having a factoid stuffed into long term memory is not the same as knowledge. It’s possible, and in fact likely, that the factoid remains unattached to any other information. It sits there, by itself, unable to connect to other information. This is called inert information—it’s information that is unconnected to anything else, and thus cannot help to create patterns of knowledge.

Further, forgetting is actually essential to learning. Humans easily develop commitments to a particular point of view, and keep these beliefs despite clear evidence that the belief is no longer valid. Cognitive psychologists call this a premature cognitive commitment. Forgetting actually reduces the likelihood of premature cognitive commitments.

But perhaps the bigger problem is that the model of “short and long term memory” is a centuries-old concept. It has not kept up with the research. As a model for how things work, it has very little value. The human brain does not have a short term memory storage unit and a long-term memory storage unit. The human brain simply does not work that way. The human brain remembers some things which have immediate salience (like a waitress who doesn’t write down your order), and remembers other things that have meaning (like the floor plan of the house where you grew up).

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Learning is Not What Should Work

For about 1800 years, the most common medical practice in western Europe was to bleed people who were sick. They believed that the body had four different fluids, and when those fluids got out of balance, people got sick. They believed that removing some of the blood would put those fluids back in balance, thus restoring health. Of course, bleeding didn’t really work. But they didn’t bleed people because it worked. They did it because it should work. The practice of bleeding people fit their mental model for how the body worked. Never mind if it worked. It should work, and so they kept on doing it.

Today, we do many teaching activities because they should work. We’ve been teaching it that way for a long time, and so, by God, it should work.

The dominant method of teaching foreign language is by conjugating verbs. However, research suggests that only 4% of the population can learn a language that way. Yet, we still keep doing it, because it should work.

We teach vocabulary words by making students look it up in the dictionary, writing the definition, and then using it in a sentence. However, research suggests that not a single child in the history of the human race has ever learned a word that way. But we keep doing it, because it should work.

We make high school students read classic books, even though research suggests kids hate the books and will forget everything immediately after the test. We use kill-and-drill methods with mathematics, even though research suggests kids will learn to hate math—well into adulthood–if we teach that way. We emphasize dates and names in history class, even though it teaches kids that history is irrelevant.

Just because a particular teaching technique is common, has a long history, or makes sense, doesn’t make it a good one.

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Final Thought

There’s an old Chinese proverb that reminds us that pulling on a seedling will not help it grow faster. We can try to force learning, and then be frustrated when the learning doesn’t happen the way we want it to happen. Or, we can forget about forcing learning. Instead, we can work with the peculiarities of the human brain to make an environment where learning—real learning—emerges on its own. We cannot insist on learning. We can only allow learning to emerge.

–Jim Ollhoff, PhD

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