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Learning for Understanding

The goal of learning that is to simply pass exams is a fairly recent phenomenon – historically, the goal of learning was so that the learners were prepared to use their knowledge in a post-learning environment to help solve problems and contribute to society. Since the need to contribute anything to society has greatly diminished, and the most pressing need to is enhance career and financial prospects, learning for performance activities (exams and assessments) has become the end goal for most learners. Earlier, I wrote about the performance-enhancing strategy of capitalizing on state-dependent learning.

However, there was a time when learning was primarily to understand the world.

When a person is learning for understanding, different strategies are needed. I often hear students bemoaning the idea that they are engaged in education for the institution to teach them to simply do something. They talk about their hate for the underlying theory and simply want to know how to make something work. If learners actually want to learn in order to understand the world and understand how to maximize their potential in the world, they need to be asking the WHY (or how) questions.

In 1908, Scholckow & Judd did a classic experiment illustrating exactly why it is important to understand why something is the way it is. They had subjects (children) learn to hit a target that was submerged in water, with darts (think of the safety/ethical implications of that study done today). The children were divided into two groups, with the first group simply learning to hit the target submerged in 12 inches of water to some pre-determined level of accuracy.

Meanwhile, the second group had to learn the principles of light refraction, which explained to them why they had to adjust their throws to hit the target submerged under 12 inches of water, and then they learned to hit the target to the same pre-determined level of accuracy. Both groups achieved the same level of accuracy – demonstrating that you don’t need to understand the why of something in order to do well at it.

However, when the water level was changed to four inches (and later, eight inches), the subjects who were taught about the refraction of light were easily able to adjust their dart throwing, and quickly reached proficiency at both water levels. The subjects who were not taught about light refraction struggled to adjust their throws and appeared to revert to a novice level of learning an entirely new task – at both water levels.

The advantages of learning underlying principles have been illustrated time and again in the learning literature, and yet, we find ourselves in a situation where teachers (and lecturers and professors) all pay lip service to the idea of conceptual understanding while requiring their students to do little more than regurgitate consumed information (after all, they are consumers, and are paying experts to tell them what they need to know in order to pass exams).

This is why, as an expert in the scholarship of learning, I find it so frustrating when other professionals tell me all they want to know are some teaching tips that will make them look good. If you don’t understand how your students learn, you become a one-trick pony and will flounder when the water level changes.

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