Learning and the brain

A few weeks ago we read in Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) about cognitivism: “Learning… is a cognitive phenomenon. The organism ‘comes to see’ the solution after pondering a problem. The learner thinks about all of the ingredients  necessary to solve a problem and puts them together (cognitively) first one way and then another until the problem is solved… The locus of control over the learning activity… lies within the individual learner; for behaviorists, it lies within the environment (p. 285).” This week’s readings on the brain threw light onto the science behind cognitivism. It was helpful to learn about how the study of human memory – sensory, working (short-term), and long-term memory, and the phases of encoding, storage/retention, and retrieval – as it reinforced for me the underpinnings of cognitivist approaches to instruction, for example Gagne’s nine events of instruction.

I particularly appreciated reading about schemas, or “categorical knowledge,” which people form about events and objects: “…schemas… are filled with descriptive materials and are seen as the building blocks of the cognitive process… they are active processes whose primary function is to facilitate the use of knowledge (Merriam et al., p. 401).” Merriam et al. explain that adults all have “…individualized set[s] of schemata that reflect both our experiences and world view (p. 402).” They go on to explain how prior knowledge and experience are an important part of learning and becoming an “expert,” one who is able to perceive problems and solve them strategically within a particular domain (p. 404).

In addition, this week’s Merriam and Bierema chapter reviewed Sternberg’s three components of intelligence – analytical (“IQ”), creative (thinking “out of the box”), and practical intelligence. They explain that “practical intelligence has to do with how we deal with everyday experiences in real-world contexts. Practical intelligence involves acquiring and using tacit knowledge – that knowledge which we come to know through experience and which we rarely articulate (p. 180).” This theory, as well as the theory of schemata, underscore for me the importance of what I have experienced as an adult educator: eliciting and building on adult learners’ previous knowledge and experience – bringing schemas to the surface and facilitating application of knowledge to “real-world” problems – facilitates learning.

It was interesting to read at the end of the Merriam et al. chapter that, according to Bruer, “Currently, we do not know enough about brain development and neural function to link that understanding directly, in any meaningful, defensible way, to instruction and educational practice (p. 417).” Jane Vella’s work with “quantum learning” is cited as an example of making connections between and assumptions about neurological function and learning theory and outcomes that are unproven (p. 417). This comes after the authors state earlier in the chapter, “… in helping adults connect their current experience to their prior knowledge and experience, we need to be knowledgeable about the amount of prior knowledge they possess in a particular area and design our learning activities accordingly (p. 404).” Isn’t this based on our understanding of schemata and expertise? I have read Vella’s work, and I admit that I found her more recent “quantum learning” ideas a bit vague and confusing. Perhaps the authors distinguish between basing learning theory and outcomes on proven neurological functions (schemata/expertise) versus unproven ones (quantum learning)?

While reading Malone’s article felt a bit like coming into the middle of a discussion and not quite catching up, I did appreciate the overview of social cognitive theory (Bandura) and choice theory (Glasser). I found the description of self-efficacy particularly useful: “…to have feeling of self-worth, individuals need to feel a sense of competence (self-efficacy) (Malone, 2002, 11).” I can see the influence of this concept in adult education, particularly in the emphasis on goal setting and self-esteem.

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Learning and the brain

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