Epsilon Learnng Systems
EPSILON LEARNING SYSTEMS - "Enabling People to Learn"

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The Learning Process
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The Learning Process

People learn all the time, from everything around them. As educators, as parents, as learners ourselves, we know that some situations are more conducive to learning than others, and that learning can be unpredictable. Are there methods for ensuring that the learning we wish to encourage does indeed take place, and in as effective a manner as possible? Can education and training be made more systematic, predictable, and measurable?

Consideration of the learning process itself, particularly as informed by recent discoveries in cognitive neuroscience, provides a wealth of guidance for a general Learning Systems Theory and for building positive and effective learning experiences for a wide range of learners. Understanding how learning actually occurs in the brain can help to inform the design of:

  • support systems that anticipate the needs of learners in their learning activities
  • knowledge management systems that align to the strategic needs of learning organizations
  • learning systems that provide the rich content needed for different learning styles and depth of learning

From a cognitivist perspective, learning is a mental activity involving internal coding of incoming information, and it may be defined as the acquisition of knowledge and skills; on the other hand, behaviorists tend to see learning as a change in performance arising from experience. In fact, if learning is viewed as a whole process, with input and output, these apparently opposing perspectives become simply two sides of a single coin, with acquisition representing the input phase and performance as the output.

The process of learning

Viewed in this way, it becomes clear that the central feature of learning is the storing of information or know-how. Of course it's not as simple a storage process as putting something away in the attic and forgetting about it. We also must be able to retrieve that information again appropriately. As any librarian will tell you, the key to being able to retrieve or apply stored information is to catalogue and index it as it is being stored.

In humans (and other higher-order organisms) this process occurs in the brain and generally results in "memories." Sensory experiences (input) give rise to changes in the connections between the neurons of our brains, and the reactivation of these stored neural patterns enables the expression of that learning at a later time. Whether it be simple recall of information or complex psychomotor activities such as playing Chopin on the piano, it involves the same indexing, storage, and retrieval process.

So how does memory get indexed? For each of us, learning occurs within a rich context of a lifetime of experiences. Existing memories of our experiences provide the context within which we incorporate new experiences, information, and abilities. As we learn new things, they become associated by way of the interactions and interconnections between the neurons in our brains with prior experiences that provide the context for the new information. In the human learning process the indexing occurs through the linking of these associations with earlier memories. It's a process of contextualization based on experience, and our existing memories provide the catalogue or scheme of "hooks" or indexing "tags" that allows us to retrieve what we've learned as we need to.

Consider, for example, how a baby learns to recognize her mother's face. Over a period of days and weeks, the baby consistently sees her mother's characteristic facial features at the same time as she is experiencing the satisfaction of gaining nourishment along with the warmth and comfort of being securely held. The baby is building a set of memories and interconnected experiences between those facial characteristics and a wide spectrum of other sensations. Over time, the baby develops a richly contextualized set of experiences that associate nourishment, well-being, and security with those facial features; and eventually she learns to express her recognition with a smile and the vocalization "Mom."

There are a number of implications that arise from approaching learning as a process of indexing and contextualization. First of all, each individual clearly "encodes" learning in his or her own unique way, depending on preexisting encoded experiences. Effective instruction therefore becomes a matter of ensuring that new information can be assimilated within the context of an individual's prior experience and knowledge.

In practical terms, this activation of prior learning involves presenting the same cues to elicit a demonstration of learning as were used to facilitate the encoding process. For example, if the aim of instruction is for students to be able to apply what they've learned in the classroom to real-world situations, then it's best to provide them with real-world contexts and cues appropriate to the application of what they are learning.



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