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.