Sometimes I worry about the myths that are out there about learning. Ok, to be honest I worry about them a lot. Learning styles, generational differences, digital natives, the list goes on. But one that has personally been surfacing a lot is the type of activity that leads to meaningful learning. So it’s time for me to lay it out, for the record.
I’ve talked previously about social processing, so I’m going to focus specifically on individual processing. And, realize, my goals are not the ability to recite rote knowledge, but I’ll even address that. Note, by the way, that there are really two types of knowledge (c.f. Van Merriënboer), the things you need and the complex problems you apply them to. So, first we’ll start with the knowledge you need, and then the problems you apply them to.
To help folks get knowledge down, memorizing the core facts they’ll draw upon in solving complex problems, the main component necessary is reactivating the knowledge. You need to match the term with the definition, the model with it’s relationships, etc. Sheer repetition doesn’t help, even here it’s making choices and getting feedback.
So, for instance, coloring a poster with the associated words doesn’t do the necessary processing, you need to activate the necessary concepts with connections to relevant things. You need to semantically process the terms again and again. Elaborating them, putting them in context, applying them to simple problems is necessary. Flash cards work because they require the association task. Just exposure doesn’t work, even with testing, it’s discrimination from competing alternatives.
Then we get to the application. And frankly, if you’re not having folks learn things to use them, why are you bothering? That’s why I like Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping, she works backwards from the task and then only focuses on the knowledge necessary to do the task. A good heuristic approach that couples elegantly to a principled foundation. And, as converging theories suggest, you need to be applying knowledge to support the ability to transfer that skill out of the learning experience.
So, you need to be looking at the knowledge to be learned in a more discriminating fashion than just exposure, and you then need to be applying that knowledge to a suite of tasks to support making it useful. There’s more, such as the necessary spread of tasks to support appropriate decontextualization to support transfer, and sufficient and spacing of practice to support retention, but here I just want to emphasize that rote exposure to knowledge doesn’t mean it will be learned, and that learning facts without applying them doesn’t lead to any meaningful outcome. So can we start focusing on learning activities that generate meaningful processing? Please?