WHAT REALLY IS LEARNING? If we are to know if “significant learning


If we are to know if “significant learning” is
taking place in the classroom, we must be
capable of recognizing it when it occurs. If you
look up the definition of “learn” in a dictionary,
you will likely find the following: 1) to acquire
knowledge of a subject or skill through
education or experience, 2) to gain information about somebody or something, or 3) to memorize
something, for example, facts, a poem, a piece of music, or a dance.

 This definition is not
particularly insightful, although it reminds us that the word can be used to describe the
acquisition of both knowledge and skill, and that acquisition can be by a variety of means,
including education, experience, or memorization. Still, we are left without a clear
understanding of what it means to “acquire knowledge or skill.” Other things that “we acquire”
are obtained by physical means. How does this relate to learning? Are there different degrees
of “acquisition” and, if so, do they represent equal types of learning? For example, is
memorizing a fact the same as learning to interpret a complex text? How about learning to play
a musical instrument? The Oxford English Dictionary also provides a definition that
acknowledges the importance of teaching as a vehicle for learning, a welcome reminder for
teachers. Taking a different view, Atkinson et al. (1993) describe learning as “a relatively
permanent change in behavior that results from practice.

" Others (e.g., Simon 1996) have
pointed out that the purpose of learning has recently shifted from being able to recall information
(surface learning) to being able to find and use it (deep learning).
Until several decades ago, most college teachers thought that teaching simply involved filling
a student’s head with information. Knowledge was ‘transmitted’ from an authority (the teacher)
to a learner (the student), generally by lecture. This thinking and practice are firmly entrenched
in most classrooms despite the fact that the ineffectiveness of lecture-based teaching has been
known for quite some time.
Wirth & Perkins - Learning to Learn 11
A lecture is a process by which the notes of
the professor become the notes of the
students without passing through the minds
of either
R.K. Rathbun
Modern cognitive psychology tells us that learning is a constructive, not receptive, process
(Glaser 1991). This theory of learning (constructivism) holds that understanding comes through
experiences and interaction with the environment, and that the learner uses a foundation of
previous knowledge to construct new understanding. Consequently, the learner has primary
responsibility for constructing knowledge and understanding, not the teacher. In a constructivist
classroom, the teacher is no longer the “authority” but instead is a guide or facilitator who assists
students in learning.

 According to Kolb (1984), the learning
cycle begins when the learner interacts with
the environment (concrete experience).
Sensory information from this experience is
integrated and compared with existing
knowledge (reflective observation). New
models, ideas, and plans for action are created from this information (abstract hypotheses), and
finally new action is taken (active testing). The Kolb cycle is consistent with the earlier work of
Piaget and others who pointed out that learning has both a concrete (active) and an abstract
(intellectual) dimension (Figure 2).
Within the brain, knowledge is organized and structured in networks of related concepts.
Accordingly, new knowledge must connect to, or build upon a framework of existing knowledge
(Zull 2002). Put simply, learning involves building mental models (schema) consisting of new
and existing information. The richer the links between new and existing information, the deeper
Figure 2. Kolb’s learning cycle.
12 Wirth & Perkins - Learning to Learn
When Pablo Casals reached ninety-five, a
young reporter asked him a question: "Mr.
Casals, you are ninety-five and the greatest
cellist who ever lived. Why do you still
practice six hours a day?" Casals answered,
"Because I think I’m making progress."
the knowledge and the more readily it can be retrieved and applied in new situations. Building
rich links involves an iterative process of building, testing, and refining schema that organizes
knowledge into conceptual frameworks. If existing knowledge serves as a foundation for new
learning, then it is also essential that existing misconceptions, preconceptions, and naive
conceptions are acknowledged and corrected during the learning process.
There are both ‘surface’ and ‘deep’
approaches to learning (Savin-Baden and
Major 2004). Surface approaches to learning
concentrate on memorization (Bloom’s lowest
level: knowledge). In surface learning, the
learner’s goal is often to complete required
learning tasks by memorizing information
needed for assessments. 

Surface learners mostly focus on facts without integration, they are
generally unreflective, and they see learning tasks as external impositions. In contrast, students
with deep approaches to learning have an intention to understand. They generally engage in
vigorous interaction with content, relate new ideas to old ones, relate concepts to everyday
experience, relate evidence to conclusions, and examine the logic of arguments. While doing
this, they “construct” their own knowledge. Think for a minute about your own approaches to
learning. Where do they fall between the surface and deep approaches described above?
To what extent is learning enhanced or limited by genetics? Although natural talent is often
considered to play a significant role in becoming an “expert,” even “talented” individuals must
engage in significant practice to reach the master level (Ericsson et al. 1994). 

The single best
measure of mastery in a subject is time spent intellectually engaged with that particular subject.
For example, chess masters spend roughly 50,000 to 100,000 hours studying chess to reach the
“expert” level of playing chess (Simon and Chase 1973). Stop. Re-read that sentence again.
Think about it. Those are some big numbers. How big are they (you should be trying to reach a
deeper level of understanding here)? Let’s do a quick calculation. An average of 75,000 hours
means spending 8 hours per day, 365 days per year, for more than 25 years to become an
accomplished chess player! That’s how long it takes to develop the necessary skills for
recognizing patterns of chess pieces, understanding their implications for future outcomes, and
making the best moves. No wonder spending just a few hours on a homework problem, or even
a semester reading a textbook often fails to provide the level of understanding that we often
desire. Clearly, significant learning requires major investments of time. Unfortunately, time on
task alone does not guarantee that significant learning will occur.

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