Everyone learns from himself

How to understand when we are not understanding

29 MAY 2016,
Young students
Young students

According to Montessori’s precept everyone learns from himself. So it is the student that has to adapt (with the help of the teacher) study methods, mnemonic strategies to himself. This adaptation is the critical point and the main reason why the mnemonics and study methods did not take hold in schools. Since they require an effort both on the part of the student and on that of the teacher, they are seen as a waste of time. The student asks himself: “Why I should study myself as well as many subjects that I already have to learn?” Meantime the teacher asserts: “I know my subject, and I know the best way to teach it”. So both miss a chance. Furthermore, the best results are seen only in the long term. And the fields of study methods and mnemonic strategies are not a schematic, unambiguous trial, but a handcrafted work. We use scientific discoveries, but after we apply them to a dimension of human activity that can’t be reduced, an activity that requires the proactive commitment of the students and the teachers.

So, it is not the teacher that has to work on the styles of the student. It is the student that has to work on himself. It’s useless for a teacher to pretend to be a psychologist if even psychologists do not agree with each other on the fundamental questions about learning and teaching. The teacher instead must provide the appropriate tools to the student so that the latter can try to find his own best way to assimilate contents. But above all the first has to assist the latter in this important work of discovery. I will discuss this topic later in a subsequent article, for now it is worth considering some basic aspects of learning and cognitive styles.

The textbooks are written for an undifferentiated reader, they are not written for each of us that is a very particular reader. The challenge of the author of a textbook is to argue in such a way that the explanations that he gives are as clear as possible and understandable to any possible reader. At least in part this is the same challenge as the teacher; the latter either talks to a typical student – a person who does not exist in the classroom – or talks to the image of himself when he was a student. One of the main differences between a teacher and a textbook writer is obviously that the teacher can change his teaching strategy by evaluating the class, something that an author can’t do.

Each one is different from the others, but there is only a small number of logical and cognitive lines that people follow studying: this is the fundamental assumption of the theorists of learning styles classification. But, for others (and I am one of them) the size of these lines is much larger and less defined than the supporters of learning styles believe. David Kolb has developed an Experiential Learning Model (ELM) founded on the circularity of four conceptual elements (“The experiential learning cycle”):
1) Concrete Experience: the knowledge always departs from a concrete experience such as the teacher speaking; someone sees something new, or observes an expert that shows how to do something, etc.
2) Reflective Observation: the learner has to be able to reflect about what happens when he/she did the concrete experience.
3) Abstract Conceptualization: the learner has to develop the cognitive and cultural instruments to conceptualize the past experiences and the reflections that he/she has done with them.
4) Active Experimentation: the learner has to possess the appropriate skills to take decisions and to solve problems with the aim of developing new ideas and facing up to new experiences.

The circularity consists in the fact that a process of learning departs from a concrete experience and it ends in another new different experience. So the process leaves again for the new acquired experience to a new process of knowledge. This model of knowledge is developed from other scholars as well as by Kolb himself. One of the main contributions is that of Jennifer A. Moon according to which «experiential learning is most effective when it involves: 1) a "reflective learning phase" 2) a phase of learning resulting from the actions inherent to experiential learning, and 3) "a further phase of learning from feedback"». This process brings the learner to an evolution of personality and an enrichment of thought that can be facilitated a lot with the help of study methods and mnemonic strategies. It is primarily in the first phase – that of the “reflective learning phase” – that I put the problem of abstraction and, consequently, that of attention.

The centrality of abstraction

Kolb’s model and the Moon’s implementations are important because right from the start they refer to the level of abstraction of the contents of knowledge, so, the first thing to keep in mind is the abstracted content of the information. We need to understand how and how many contents are linked together and learn how to evaluate their differences in terms of abstraction.

It's easier than it looks: memories, mental images, concepts, ideas, etc. that follow each other in argumentation should not differ greatly as regards their form of concreteness or abstraction. If we have to connect an abstract concept with a very concrete content of knowledge, we have to mediate by inserting a third element that links the first two and so having a content with an intermediate level of abstraction between the first abstract concept and second concrete thought. The case of the “examples” often plays this task: they are best when they are able to transform abstract concepts into concrete images. It happens not passing directly from one to another, but by mediating with cognitive and linguistic elements with a value of abstraction midway between the first abstract concept and the last concrete image.

Becoming aware of the difference of abstraction between a thought and what follows is the first step to improving quickly in learning, in all forms of learning. This is essentially a problem of attention and, at the same time, concentration. This involves exercise and develops the ability to distinguish a concept from others, a mental image from other representations, and some aspects of ideas and images from the other different aspects. To distinguish means understanding the ties that bind the thoughts together, and simultaneously, it means to be able to conceive the thoughts in themselves. So if we are able to distinguish thoughts (ideas, concepts, mental images, etc.) one from another we also exercise the ability of attention and concentration.

We have to consider our thoughts as if we observe them from the outside and focus on their sequence. This must happen, especially when we read. It is not an extra job to do, but a different way of approaching reading: paying attention to the different sentences and the different thoughts they convey. Sentences always suggest mental images, so we have to pay attention to the latter. If a proposition doesn’t suggest any images in our mind, it means that we don’t understand what we have just read. Then we have to stop for a moment and analyze what's in what we have just read that does not bind with the imagination. You don't have to do this every time, but only when you find something in your reading that you do not understand. This is a tool to overcome the mental block and at the same time a way to exercise our thought and to concentrate. Focus, that is the ability to distinguish things and to pay attention to the similarity and the differences between them.

Another question, closely related to this one, is about: how to understand when thoughts are badly linked together? The answer is relative to the issue called “effort after meaning”, so defined to indicate the effort that is accomplished to make an unknown thing more familiar. That is the effort that takes place to understand the meaning of a concept. The greater the effort the greater the difference of abstraction between the elements that follow one another in the explanation, in the description and definition of the contents of knowledge that we are acquiring. In scientific psychology the problem is quite complex; here – in order to simplify the question – we can consider the effort after meaning like the effort we make when something lacks in our composition of thoughts and this “cognitive situation” makes it difficult to understand the overall meaning of what we want to know. If something escapes us, it may depend on two reasons. First: all the things expressed are badly explained in the book or by the teacher. The problem is the order. Second: not all the things are exposed (in the book or by the teacher), something is missing. In both cases, it becomes essential to understand how the concepts, the mental images and the ideas are related to each other.

Seeing the links between the elementary units of thought is the best way to overlap the difficulties in learning. The main difference (namely the discrepancy between what people usually do and what I suggest here) is that people tend to understand the overall meaning. They often rebuild the part that escapes them (and so they make sense of what they learn retrospectively) or, sometimes, surrendering and going further without stopping to consider things carefully. Anyway, they go beyond without grasping the meaning and so wasting their time. On the contrary, when something escapes us (and only in this case), we have to stop ourselves and analyze step-by-step the subject of study until we find the critical point. This latter one can be a bad link between notions or a lack of information (often it is something taken for granted), but anyway it is something that escapes when we proceed from the top (e.g. general principles, theories or, more broadly, from the rough or approximate idea we get) to the bottom (the particular ideas, specific theories, etc.).

People are various and everyone thinks in a different manner compared with others, but usually it is indispensable to get a general idea about what we learn. Without it is very hard to proceed. Ausubel argues that it is less difficult to grasp the differentiated aspects of a more comprehensive and previously learned totality rather than formulating the entirety on the basis of its differentiated parts previously learned. This is a correct observation, but when the totality escapes, or when we find an obstacle to increasing knowledge, we have to proceed in another way: we must reverse the goal of our effort to understand.

According to Ausubel we (usually and correctly) try to understand the main issues and the general meaning. While this system continues to work, it is correct to proceed in this manner; better if deepening with subsequent readings or reflections and proceed down from the general to the particular. But, when by doing so we do not understand completely what we study, we have to stop and go in the opposite direction: we must focus on the details and their order until we get to identify poor connections or wrong links (that is, a problem of disposition and order) and the unexpressed things. When we are aware of what we are missing, we can start looking.