Monday, February 28, 2005

What is Learning?

We wrote this in class. Thought I would share it with you. Please forgive the lack of editting since it was only written in about 10 minutes in class.

What is Learning?

A distinction that is not made often enough in our educational system is the difference between recollection and learning. I have observed this misnomer even in the realm of higher education. Frequently, rote memorization replaces actual learning. In my experience, students are often asked to memorize pages of dates and historical persona but this may not be indicative of an understanding of the subject matter. If simply retaining knowledge does not qualify, in my opinion, as learning then what does it mean to learn?

Robert Slavin defines learning in his text Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice (2003) as acquiring non-innate abilities. These abilities can range from learning how to ride a bicycle to learning how to perform algebraic equations. I am fond of this definition because it does not relate memorization to learning. I think excluding memorization from the definition is appropriate because young children are able to memorize complicated items, but they do not have a true understanding of what they mean. An anecdotal example is that I was once babysitting a little girl and we sang the alphabet song together. After we had finished singing as asked her if she knew what the letters in the song were for and she replied that they were for singing this particular song. This little girl and memorized the letters of the alphabet, but she had not learned their purpose. In memorizing the alphabet song, she was not acquiring any new skills and thus not truly learning. Of course, many arguments can be made that she was learning how to memorize a song, etc., but I am only referring to the content of the song for this example.

Another feature that I believe is an important indication of whether something is truly learned is the ability to apply the new ability. For example, if one has truly learned physics, as opposed to simply memorizing the mathematical operations, she should be able to apply this knowledge in her college mechanical engineering class. If one is able to apply their new ability to a new scenario, this is learning. Naturally, students will sometimes need assistance from their teacher (especially in the primary grades) in remembering to apply their knowledge to a new problem. Not that the teacher will work systematically through the new problem with the students, but simply reminding them of what specific skill will help them solve the problem. Perhaps if they are still struggling after this hint, then the teacher can step in and be of more assistance.

Where does this leave educators? I believe that it leaves us at a point where we seriously need to reevaluate the ways in which we are assessing our students. In closing, I think it is important not only that educators are aware of the difference between memorization and learning but that we strive to make our students aware as well. This way, they can be partly responsible for their own learning and give valuable feedback on the effectiveness of their teacher’s instruction.

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