a quest to understand how we might best learn 1

I have been teaching in higher education for just about 30 years, starting during my time as a graduate student. I like to think that I have become over those years a reasonable teacher. My students enjoy my classes, by all reports, and I feel comfortable in front of a group of students.

I have had some small amount of training in teaching over those years, and I’ve also developed and delivered some bits of training for my colleagues. But for all of my experience, accumulated over time, I have come to realize that I have a gap in my knowledge. And I want to bridge this gap.

Bridging this gap is going to be a quest of sorts, and it is not one that I’m going to be able to undertake on my own. Nor it is a quest I should undertake on my own. It will be a slow going quest, because I’ll have to learn about and explore areas of human knowledge that are significantly beyond what my personal area of expertise. But then, this is the sort of quest that I enjoy. And it’s never too late to start the quest.

How it is that people learn?

We are creatures of flesh, our minds running vaguely like software on the physical structure of our brains. There is a conversation to be had as part of this whole investigation about memes and the role of memes in the evolution of the brain. There is a conversation to be had about how our brains and society have evolved in tandem with one another. There is a conversation to be had about the physical environment in which our distant ancestors evolved.

But in all the time I’ve been teaching, I’ve not yet been involved in a conversation about how our physical infrastructure affects how we learn, and this is what I wish to understand. And it has come to seem very strange to me that we don’t have a greater appreciation of how we learn. How can we teach effectively if we don’t understand how we learn.

I can speculate on one reason for this, and it goes into an even deeper question. This deeper question is the extent to which we as individual human beings understand how our own brains work. Because I’m convinced, from what little I know about psychology, that most people have no clear idea of why we do the things we do. Our brains do an extremely effective job of hiding their inner workings from us.

But this is speculation, and uninformed speculation at that. And so part of the quest will be, just what do we know and how might we use that to help us be better teachers. And to be better people.

~ by Jim Anderson on 24 March 2018.

4 Responses to “a quest to understand how we might best learn 1”

  1. You have set a tall order James and most answers will be a mere peep into our consciousness. The area that particularly interests me is the metaphor. These are not just literary devices but language constructs that frame how we see the world and act. Metaphors, like memes, are cultural. I wondet if meme is a visual equivalent to metaphor. Anyway, if we are brought up seeing time as a resource, our language and subsequent actions will reflect this, e.g. running out of time etc. Arguments are couched in the language of war, e.g. defend and attack a position. Disease is framed by struggle/invasion , e.g. he lost the fight, the virus spread. These are standard metaphors but new ones come along that influence us, e.g the Calais jungle and all the connotations of seeing refugees there as threats.
    Metaphors are subconscious, cultural and personal and we don’t realise the impact they have on how we learn and act. A lecturer will be using his/her personal and standard metaphors when teaching a subject and be unaware that this may or may not land well with students. Essentially learning is being able to challenge our frame (linguistically this is the metaphor) or way of seeing the world or concept within the world and this means working with what we already have and making changes from there . Maybe we should be encouraging students to develop their own metaphor that can open up difficult concepts which is also part of constructivism where we engage in making our own sense of whst we learn.
    See. George Lakoff talking to teachers https://youtu.be/fpIa16Bynzg

  2. Oh, I am up for joining this quest! Right now, being an “older person”, I am particularly interested in how humans can *continue* to learn (both why this happens, and how to do it). I think learning seems to go with adaptability, and also with generalism (on a species basis). And learning in later life certainly goes with forgetting — rearranging brain architecture involves destroying connections as well as forging them. So there are also issues around prioritisation — how do I “decide” which knowledge is important enough to keep long-term, even if I’m not using it much? Or do I simply remember what I’m using, and forget what I’m not using?

    • Thanks for the comment and welcome aboard. And I remember when I was towards the beginning of my university student days, taking a class in basic psychology. Our teacher, a near-retired professor, made the comment that forgetting is one of the most important things, since among other things brain space is finite.

  3. […] that I ponder when I have the time, I find the detail of this question fascinating, and like other questions, there isn’t a quick […]

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