"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Natural Way of Learning?

My son is left-handed so it has been challenging to teach him tasks done by hands. The challenge comes from the fact that I could not show him how to do things properly with my left hand since I am right-handed. It is less challenging when it comes to tasks that do not require fine motor skills. My son can learn about animals and can retain information quite well in this area. Elaine of LittleSheep Learning posted an article, "Learning Styles: An Introduction" about a year ago. In the article, she wrote:
Children learn in a variety of ways and knowing the way your child learns can make it a lot easier to teach them – the different ways that people learn are called learning styles. 
The simplest way of demonstrating is by using an example – if you get a new gadget; to learn how to use it do you:
  • read the instructions?
  • get someone else to tell you how to use it?
  • or do you push and press the buttons until it all works?
These are all valid ways of learning how to do something and the method that you instinctively choose is your learning style.

Learning Styles: An Introduction from LittleSheep Learning

Daniel Willingham takes a closer look at this issue in a recent post in his blog. Willingham asks the question "What type of learning is most natural?". And the three choices are similar to those provided by Elaine:
Which of these learning situations strikes you as the most natural, the most authentic? 
1) A child learns to play a video game by exploring it on his own.
2) A child learns to play a video game by watching a more experienced player.
3) A child learns to play a video game by being taught by a more experienced player.
Paying attention to sound bites echoed so many times by education reformers, one now might have the impression that the first one is the natural way of learning. After all, the first option is discovery-based learning. Even the Philippines' DepEd K to 12 curriculum champions inquiry-based approaches to learning. But as Willingham points out, "natural" is not really the important criterion on which to choose the best way to learn. It is effectiveness. It is efficiency.

The great thing about Willinghams blog is that he would discuss a recent study from peer reviewed literature that helps address this question. And in this instance, Willingham presents the work of Shafto et al. published in the Perspectives on Psychological Science:

Learning From Others

The Consequences of Psychological Reasoning for Human Learning

  1. Michael C. Frank
  1. 1University of Louisville
  2. 2Stanford University
  1. Patrick Shafto, University of Louisville, 103 Life Sciences Building, Louisville, KY 40205 E-mail: p.shafto@louisville.edu


From early childhood, human beings learn not only from collections of facts about the world but also from social contexts through observations of other people, communication, and explicit teaching. In these contexts, the data are the result of human actions—actions that come about because of people’s goals and intentions. To interpret the implications of others’ actions correctly, learners must understand the people generating the data. Most models of learning, however, assume that data are randomly collected facts about the world and cannot explain how social contexts influence learning. We provide a Bayesian analysis of learning from knowledgeable others, which formalizes how learners may use a person’s actions and goals to make inferences about the actor’s knowledge about the world. We illustrate this framework using two examples from causal learning and conclude by discussing the implications for cognition, social reasoning, and cognitive development.

Willingham points out the following from this paper:
You’re in Paris, and want a good cup of coffee.

1) You walk into a cafe, order coffee, and hope for the best.
2) You see someone who you know lives in the neighborhood. You see her buying coffee at a particular cafe so you get yours there too.
3) You see someone you know lives in the neighborhood. You see her buying coffee at a particular cafe. She sees you observing her, looks at her cup, looks at you, and nods with a smile
Yes, these are the same three choices, three ways by which one can learn. Shafto et al. concludes that the third scenario is the most common for young children to learn. After all, young children copy from adults who are much more knowledgeable and experienced. Young children learn a lot through communication with "experts". Willingham adds the following particularly insightful statement: "...when a more knowledgeable person not only provides information but tunes the communication to the knowledge of the learner, that is, in an important sense, teaching."

Teaching is part of education, and is one natural way children can learn. Even adults learn more efficiently this way. In the laboratory, I work with a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer. The magnet is a superconductor that needs to be kept at a very low temperature. This setup requires cryogens such as liquid helium and liquid nitrogen. I did not learn how to do the cryogen fills of this magnet by trying until it works. Someone showed me how to do these things. The tuning and shimming procedures required to obtain a good output from this instrument were also learned from observing an instructor. I did not discover these things. I was taught. And what actually happens with those tiny nuclei inside the magnetic field as we irradiate these with a pulse of radiofrequency photons - that was also taught.

Willingham ends his article with "So whatever value you attach to “naturalness,” bear in mind that much of what children learn in their early years of life may not be the product of unaided exploration of their environment, but may instead be the consequence of teaching. Teaching might be considered a quite natural state of affairs." 

It is natural for me.

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