First and foremost, to successfully understand the learning process, the ability to plan and lead effectively is essential to dispelling some of the myths about learning. Understanding isn’t just “grasping”, “absorbing”, “captivating”, but learning the difference in how to say and write “apprehend” with a H in the middle.
Secondly, compiling information in an ordered and controlled format using “effective presentations” is NOT enough for someone to learn. All it means is information was shared, but no knowledge was received.
Furthermore, learning needs more than just paying attention, using your senses and the cognitive abilities of individuals. In other words, people don’t just learn with their heads.
To get students to learn, it is not enough for teachers to just “turn up” and “know how to teach”. It is, however, important that your students have taken in and understood the knowledge that you’ve imparted.
“Information is not the same as knowledge”
Fernando Savater (writer and professor of philosophy) in his book El Valor de Educar (The Value of Educating) states that one of the major problems in this era is the assumption that being intelligent means being well-informed and having access to much information automatically develops intelligence. Cast your minds to back to the Spanish publicity slogan for the History Channel, which said, “History Channel te hace convertir en un genio” (History Channel makes you a genius), because you can learn about the world’s longest bridge and its exact measurements, who were the first people to arrive in America or how many elephants crossed the Alps with Hannibal. If genius is based on simply gathering information, no longer making the world’s most famous intellects the geniuses that we know, then their brilliance was just knowledge that they turned to their disposal and not passively stored in their minds.
In Potenciar la Razón: Tarea Educativa (Enhancing reasoning: Educational Task), Savater says, “Information is not the same as knowledge; knowledge is to reflect on information, the ability to dissect and criticize information, the ability to prioritize, to arrange, and maximize information. Everything is information, but it’s knowledge that empowers us.”
For this reason we must understand that effective teaching does not mean just disseminating information, but ensuring that it is transformed into knowledge in the minds of every learner. If this doesn’t happen, neither the teaching nor learning has reached the desired effect.
But how do we ensure the learning takes place? How do we impart information to guarantee that we build the learner’s knowledge?
Learning and the construction of knowledge
Learning anything requires motivation. There is always the rational conviction to learn, but you also need a deep desire, like an emotional need, for knowledge. Therefore, learning (i.e. turning information into knowledge) requires a huge mental effort and, if there isn’t great enough motivation, learning will only take place in parts, for short periods or not at all. And what happens when the person has no motivation to learn? We become complacent with the behavior and don’t think of a better strategy for motivating the learner.
It is now time to look at a new way of learning and see the value it will have on the learner. Jean Piaget was an epistemologist, psychologist and biologist from Switzerland. He was also the founder of genetic epistemology, famous for his contributions to childhood development study and constructivist theory in development of intelligence. Piaget pointed out that being motivated by excellence is a cognitive conflict, such as giving the learner a situation or equation which seems apparently simple to solve, but is actually impossible or inconsistent to the learner as it conflicts with something he/she knows or believes. By placing in the mind of the learner a situation which says, “I thought I knew but apparently not …” is an excellent intrinsic motivator, giving the student the impetus to learn what they don’t know. A great way of doing this is creating an experience, providing a situatio, getting the learner to explain what they make of it, and then play “devil’s advocate” by saying that their explanation is not enough.
Language and reflection in the construction of knowledge
On the other hand, learning also requires words. Vygotsky, the famous Russian psychologist, says there is nothing in the brain that hasn’t come from the first comprehended word, nor only in my word, but in dialogue, in discussion, in negotiation of meanings. The more opportunities that we get to use language and discuss what we are learning, the more likely we are to build our repertoire of knowledge and learning.
Learning also comes from experience and reflection. It involves making mistakes, evaluation, and contemplation. In short, learning needs to be achieved by using the whole person, whole body, your emotions, and your relationships with other people; not just your brain.
Those who aspire to make others learn must take this into account: we need to fully engage the learner, especially their emotions and desire to change, especially when it has been discovered that what we do isn’t effective. It is essential to take the information we are imparting, reflect on it, discuss it with others, compare it with other own experiences, test it through trial and error, analyzing mistakes, evaluating, discussing it again with others, trying it again, until that information that was alien at the start is now part of their knowledge. This should be the routine process to all kinds of instruction, training or education in general.
Luis Bretel is an educator and Postgraduate professor at UPC (Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas). He is also an expert in design and implementation of educational programs and international consultant. He is a founding member of the Pan American Network for Problem-Based Learning (PBL Pan-). To learn more about Bretel’s work, visit his blog, Sinergia e Innovación. Visit here to see information on UPC’s Postgraduate courses.