4 Learning Processes

31 Aug

I was re-re-reading one of my very favorite education books: Contemporary Theories of Learning (Illeris, 2018) and thinking about how to support all different learners. Obviously, we must provide experiences that meet the needs of our learners and helps them to learn. But how do we actually learn? What does the learning process look like? How do we make sense of all the data and information surrounding us? For clarity, I like to use the definition of learning as a two-step progression containing the processes of external interaction and internal elaboration. [1] Interacting with data is just the first step in the learning process, gathering the information. The second step, elaboration, transforms the information to become a part of our personal knowledge structure.

Exactly how do we react to the bits of data in our environment and change it to become information that can be stored in our minds? In early learning this is easy to observe – young children actively try to make sense of the surrounding world. They are accumulating new words and concepts with a remarkable pace! Their intrinsic motivation to learn is a continuous source of inspiration, and I often wish we as adults could approach new things with the same amazing curiosity. When we organize the information, we are constructing our own knowledge – which sometimes is accurate, but most often needs some fine-tuning. This elaboration part is exactly why we need educators to provide some structural support. Otherwise, we might still call every four-legged animal a dog.  A very important part of instruction (in any level of education) is helping students to understand the connections for new information and showing how to build concept hierarchies and categorize information in a meaningful way.

So, when we consider how learning happens, there appears to be 4 different learning processes to keep in mind while designing learning experiences: cumulative, assimilative, accommodative and transformative. These all are natural processes, and the first one we use is the cumulative process where we learn something that is not connected to anything else that we already know. This mostly happens during the first years of our lives because everything is new, and we just mechanically observe the world and add the data as information to our minds. In addition to early learning, we sometimes use cumulative learning process when we need to memorize something without a context. This is why passwords are sometimes hard to remember: without personal meaning the information is easily discarded especially if it isn’t used often.

The most common type of learning is termed assimilative or learning by addition. [2] When we assimilate data, we add new information into something we have previously learned. This is very common type of classroom learning, but may still lead to quite shallow or strategic learning approaches, especially if the application is only for the test or quiz, instead of extending the new knowledge beyond classroom context [3]. Some examples are new words and concepts, like learning a new language and just memorizing the words or rote learning the multiplication tables or important dates of history. Hence the common (and very valid) question heard from students: “When will we ever use this?” However, we don’t have to stay within the plain behaviorist learning paradigm with assimilative learning. To design better learning experiences for students in any levels of education, we will want to use learner-centered practices and provide learning strategies like mindmap templates to support students’ individual meaning-making activities during assimilative learning. This also leads to the deeper level of learning – accommodating new information.

Accommodative learning process takes us to a place where we must challenge and change our existing thinking patterns. This problem can lead to a productive struggle: when new information doesn’t fit into our existing scheme, we need to figure out why. This deeper learning can be hard, and it can be extremely rewarding. Alas, without Growth Mindset it may lead learners to a dead end of believing they cannot learn, which is why anyone who wants to teach, must know how to offer support for productive learning struggles. Designing learning experiences with expansive framing in mind (ways to support learning reflection, encouraging collaborative learning, discussing self-explaining strategies, etc.) instead of assuming that students already know how to do this is a great starting point. Here is a link to learning strategies at NinasNotes. Accommodative learning process happens within ZPD–the Zone of Proximal Development–where learners need support and scaffolding to successfully acquire new information and skills. Accommodating new information is a prerequisite for Transformational Learning, which requires a great deal of learner agency. Agency as a concept refers to self-awareness and degree of freedom. [4]

When learning experience is transformational it means that our thinking or even personality changes–transforms–into something new, requiring the previous schemes, structures and categories to change. This change in our frame of reference challenges both our habits of mind and viewpoints that are constructed from our beliefs, values, attitudes and feelings. [5] Designing transformative learning experiences therefore requires creating a safe space for learners to explore their beliefs and take risks of trying something different, something new. Excellent ways to facilitate the transformational learning process is to explicitly teach about metacognitive strategies, embed Social-Emotional Learning into instructional practice, engage in a dialogue with students and use a coaching approach in the classroom.

Metacognition: The awareness and perceptions we have about ourselves as learners, understanding of the requirements and processes for completing learning tasks, and knowledge of strategies that can be used for learning.

To sum it up: We need to be very mindful when designing learning experiences for our students, keeping in mind that the same instructional content will most likely evoke 2-4 different learning processes among the learner population, depending on their previous knowledge and exposure to the content. We should never assume our learners know how to choose successful learning strategies; and we must always be ready to offer metacognitive support.

References:

[1]  Illeris, K. (2018). Contemporary theories of learning: Learning theorists … in their own words. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

[2] Illeris, K. (2009). Contemporary theories of learning: learning theorists—in their own words. London: Routledge / edited by Knud Illeris

[3] Huberman, M., Bitter, C., Anthony, J., & O’Day, J. (2014). The shape of deeper learning: strategies, structures, and cultures in deeper learning network high schools. Findings from the study of deeper learning opportunities and outcomes: Report 1. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from: http://www.air.org/resource/spotlight-deeper-learning

[4] Smith, N.C. (2017). Students’ perceptions of learner agency: A phenomenographic inquiry into the lived learning experiences of high school students. (Doctoral Dissertation).  Northeastern Repository

[5] Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New directions for adult and continuing education1997(74), 5-12.

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