About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Developing "mind velco"

Related to comments Ken Allen and Tony Karrer made on my blog, I began to think about the mind of the adult and the "basis" on which adults learn (the "mind velcro" on which we can build on).

The first two phases of Learning

I was recently watching a TV show about teenagers (living with two, I need all the help I can get!) and they presented some information on some of the research that has been coming out of brain scans. There are basically two times in a person's life when there is great growth and change in the brain: around 3-7 years old and at puberty. It has been an accepted fact that early childhood is a time when the brain develops exponentially as language skills especially are developed. However, new research shows that at puberty, old connections that have not been used (experiences that are not reinforced, information used only once) the brain culls to make way for new learning. As the brain changes during puberty, some areas such as reasoning finally growing, teenagers can learn just as much as in young childhood.

This brings me to something Ken pointed out. If young children don't have the ability yet to reason, then it is possible that they learn the motions of reasoning, but not the abstract concepts. As a result, what they have really learned in not in abstract form. That does not happen until the reasoning portion of the brain develops.

When I think back on my school days, I remember the mechanical processes (how they were taught, instructions from teachers and my parents) learned in Kindergarten to 3nd grade. These were rules for reading, multiplication tables, spelling words. I don't remember anything but the mechanics. Middle school is a blur and I can't recall any of my experiences in school (except for the social angst associated with being a middle school student). When I think of what I learned in high school, I think of much more abstract ideas (rhetoric, subtle differences in vocabulary, scientific method).

However, certain concepts are still stronger from my elementary years (the laws of addition) without the understanding of the abstract ideas (algebra). For example, it was not until I had to work with my children that the laws of addition made sense from a conceptual level. While I am sure we went over the concepts in algebra, I maintained the simplistic understanding from grade school as it was not necessary for me to truly understand the math behind it. I mastered the functions of arithmetic so a deeper understanding of the math behind it was not necessary.

What Does This Mean for Adult Learners?

Language teachers know that the hardest skills to change are those that were learned incorrectly originally and "fossilized" at a young age. With the new research on puberty, I would also suspect that those that were reinforced during puberty (again without critical thought, the meaning may be fossilized in a distorted manner) are especially difficult to change. Perhaps this is why some people still hold on to the "lessons" they learned from high school and refuse to change (such as what is the "correct way" to write, communication tools, etc...).

Over the next few weeks I will be exploring some of these issues while I work on my dissertation. One thing I have noticed already is that adults become entrenched in their learning, holding on to the "truths" they learned at a young age. It is important to 1) change fossilized skills that are built on a lower level of learning, 2) create experiences that require adults to look at the assumptions (velcro) that is the basis for their learning, and 3) push adults to recognize there may be gaps in their understanding (not what they learned but how they came to make meaning of the content) that may require a new adult perspective at fundamental skills (such as knowledge, writing, analysis, arithmetic, communication). The last two are tricky, because by making them look at basic skills, many perceive this at too "elementary" or that we, as trainers/educators are underestimating their intelligence.


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Wow Virginia - Kia ora! There is a lot in there.

Looking back on my learning as a child (wrote a post on that) I'm left with a lot of unanswered questions. here are two:

1 - As a child of 7 to 10 years I lived in Africa. I picked up the local lingo, Nyanja, where we lived in Nyasaland (now Malawi). I can recall only a handful of words that stuck. But learning that language seemed to do nothing for my skill as a linguist at all (11% for Latin and 17% for French).

2 - I did develop an astonishing sense of direction while I was in Africa, which I demonstrated as an 11 year old to my grandfather in Scotland. He was gob-smacked at what I could do. I lost this skill fairly quickly, I guess because I wasn't using it in the city. I now have a hopeless sense of direction to the point where I have to make mental notes wherever I go in a new place or even driving round parts of my home city of Wellington.

I've tried to think of things that I've had to unlearn, either as a secondary school student or as an adult. I came up with nothing.

BUT I am aware of the need for unlearning when I teach kids - some have implicit faith in their (erroneous) understanding too! It is the second part of the cycle when a new teaching topic is broached. The first part is ascertaining the extent of unteaching required!

I wonder how long a false concept can remain in the mind from these formative years and still be corrected decades later? I'd love to find one and see how long it takes me to put it to right :-) .

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

V Yonkers said...

I think the problem is that adults don't in fact "unlearn" things, but change their patterns. Language and spelling are the most obvious examples. For most of my life until I had a conversation with my sister when I was in my 20's, I thought the expression was "next store neighbor" and someone lived "next store" rather than "next door neighbor" and "next door". While I don't write "next store", the thought is still there (and then I must mentally change it).

While adults might change their patterns, many do not change their understanding (but rather do what they must because that is what they are told they must accept). I still do addition the way I was taught in grade school despite the fact that I have been taught and shown different ways to do addition. What differs now is that exposure to those differences has made my understanding of addition much deeper. I understand what the process of addition is based upon because I had to understand why different patterns produced the same answer.

Tom Haskins said...

When I've taught strategy to business students, I remind them they've been using strategies since they were 3 years old (without the concepts). Youngsters learn how to get what they want, get out of trouble, appease the giants and manage their siblings -- all without abstractions to explain their actions. The more I read in cognitive neuroscience, the more I see this natural learning, and flushing out of under-utilized neural connections -- as driven by survival urges. We learn language (or languages) to survive in a family that uses language to deal with each other. The first round of intense absorption handles the immediate context of primary caregivers and siblings.

The second round, in teen years, deals with surviving in the larger context of friends, organized activities and formal schooling. In this round of natural learning, we are often challenged to justify our actions, externalize our decision processes and formalize our anticipation of consequences. We pick up lots of conceptual models to face these challenges. In families where the teens are socialized only by peers and the media, there may be no pressure to develop abstractions. Then the teens will do what works, what feels good and what cultivates autonomy from imposed controls - all without conceptualization.

There is also some evidence that this second round of intense natural learning "locks into some livelihood routines". Adolescents immersed in athletics will be sports fans for life and amaze others with the use of their minds to produce current stats, bios and schedules for a variety of teams and sports. Adolescents spending time at the library will be book worms throughout their life. Those captivated by making friends will always be social butterflies and community organizers. Those helping parents or grandparents with home repair or health care will feel predisposed to continue those routines in later life. Because these "livelihood routines" place such a demand on the brain's limited capacity, the purging of under-utilized connections occurs to make room for this need "adult set of functionalities".

V Yonkers said...

Tom, do you find that your students have difficulty using new strategies rather than the ones they have always relied on?

It seems to me that it is important at the high school and university levels that students are exposed to multiple activities (rather than just focusing on what they are good at). This would make a better rounded person flexible to multiple experiences.

Tom Haskins said...

Rather than frame it as "adopting new strategies", I pose the challenge of using the right strategy at the right time. Then some of their "tried and true" strategies have their place, but suddenly look over-used and misapplied. I'm adding resources to their arsenals rather than fixing tunnel vision students who seem to be set in their ways. One way I differentiate between strategies is psychological: "In your present situation, are you: 1) in a powerless position with no leverage to make changes, 2) on a level playing field with an opportunity to over-power your rival and win at their expense 3) in a coordinated effort where the combination of diverse strengths may indirectly defeat the rival's advantage or 4) in a creative position to redefine the game being played and spawn a win/win outcome for the rival and yourself. With this approach, the student will realize most of the strategies they already use are predicated on their personal powerlessness, and are highly questionable given so many better options. The students also become more self aware by considering strategies differentiated psychologically.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia!

I wonder if being in a 'state of denial' is similar to what you describe when an adult changes their pattern of behaviour but do not change their understanding? Or is denial more behaviourally linked? Perhaps the change in behaviour is een as a means to 'survival' and so is not cognitively linked to the belief.

Ka kite