Having an internal representation that reflects reality is what we have – at least we think we have – and the whole purpose of learning is to bring our internal reality closer in line with the objective reality that exists in the world at large.
This is a more difficult process than we realize. Since our internal reality is made up of our semantically organized store of long-term memories that contains images (moving and still), words, feelings and any other sensation that can be attached to anything that is already there, h=understanding memory is important for learning. Bringing our internal into closer alignment with reality.
Information is nothing more than information. Information does not lie within people’s brains. Once information is in your head, it becomes knowledge. We begin laying down permanent memory traces as soon as our senses become functional and spend the rest of our lives adding to and restructuring the semantic structure of what is already there. Once the information that we move from our working memory into our long-term memories through making links with the knowledge that is already there, that information becomes a part of our knowledge store.
It is important to remember that we build our own personalized long-term memory structure. We add what we experience (learn) to the structure that is already present. We add memory traces to what is already there. And, in the process, produce more memories to which incoming information can be attached. As we learn more, we have more available knowledge to which we can attach new information to. As a result, we are constantly adding to our knowledge base. Every word, image, smell, taste, feeling – everything that we move from working memory to long-term memory becomes attached, overlaid, to some other part of our knowledge base. This leads to understanding.
Understanding develops as we add to, organize, and integrate the new information that we acquire with the knowledge we have already stored in long-term memory. The more knowledge we acquire within a semantically organized family of knowledge, the greater our understanding of that family of knowledge becomes. As we expand our understanding of a subject, we align our internal reality with the objective reality of the real world – possibly. The process of embedding knowledge into an enriched understanding takes time and energy and the usual process that we engage in is to take the most important aspects of the new information (according to our judgment) and overlay something that is already there.
Aligning our internal reality with objective reality is where the entire process breaks down. The base of our knowledge is what we attach our new knowledge and so, in normal circumstances, we simply overlay our new information onto our existing knowledge base and expand our understanding of something based on what we already know and how this new information fits based on our own, internal semantic arrangement of our pre-existing knowledge. You can see where this is going. If our already stored knowledge does not really align with reality, our new information will follow that alignment. If the fundamental foundation of our understanding of something is wrong, all of our learning will simply deepen our erroneous understanding of the subject.
So, what hope do we have? How can our learning, and hence, our understanding, align with any kind of objective reality? It is impossible to have our internally constructed reality match exactly with objective reality. However, it is possible to bring that alignment closer as we mature.
So, how do we fix this problem inherent in our basic cognitive structural architecture? We can do it, but it is extremely difficult. Overlaying new knowledge onto an existing knowledge base and making permanent memory traces that ties it all together is a difficult process. What we have to do is restructure the entire foundation of our understanding of some subject. Once we restructure the foundation of our understanding, we then have to reincorporate all of our knowledge and understanding about that subject to comfortably over the new foundation. This fundamental restructuring is an order of magnitude more difficult than the difficult process of simply overlaying what we learn and tie it to what we already know.
The subjective experience of this restructuring can range from a new coat of paint – the easiest, most common, and least effective – to a complete tearing down of our understanding and rebuilding it from the deepest base to the new form of understanding, incorporating and adjusting our newly formed semantic organization to take in what we now know. Rarely done outside of formal learning structures. After all, we go to school in order to gain knowledge and understanding that reflect reality as closely as possible.
In formal education, we rely on gaining new understanding from authority figures (teachers, professors, etc.). In the process, those charged with teaching us have the responsibility of equipping us with the cognitive tools (cognitive enablers) necessary to expand our sensory input, influence our internal hierarchical structure, check our new-found knowledge and understand, and enrich our understanding by providing us with tools to manipulate and internally develop our own understanding. The foundations are laid in the early years of formal education by equipping us with a set of concrete cognitive enablers: reading, writing, basic numeracy, and basic problem-solving.
These concrete cognitive enablers allow us to bring what we learn about the concrete world and incorporate this knowledge into a sensible hierarchy. At this stage of our learning and development, all that we learn is concrete. A bacteria or virus is as concrete as a table and chairs – because your teacher told you it is.
Although the concrete cognitive enablers are abstract in and of themselves, they are not there to understand and manipulate abstract concepts. Concepts that only exist within our thinking. Simple abstract concepts can be taught, and the early learning about their very existence is an eye-opening experience for developing brains. I find it wonderfully fulfilling when I can lead a learner to the point where they discover, not only the existence of abstract entities but begin to develop the ability to manipulate them in their own right. This ability resides in the pre-frontal cortex, the final part of the brain to be fully incorporated into our brains. Although there is access to the pre-frontal cortex fairly early in a child’s development, the integration to really grasp and manipulate abstract concepts happens when the brain’s wiring (myelination) reaches a stage when the pre-frontal cortex can be fully integrated and seamlessly interact with the rest of the brain.
At this stage, in order to understand and manipulate abstract concepts, a new set of cognitive enablers must be taught and developed. Just like the concrete cognitive enablers must be taught, nurtured, and developed, abstract cognitive enablers must also be taught, nurtured, and developed. I have written extensively about the evidence that is available to let us know that this is not really done in our society. It is true that a few individuals manage to learn them and can use them all the time, but the number who can wield a full suite of abstract cognitive enablers is vanishingly small and getting smaller as our current education system develops.
Why is this important in a discussion about information -> knowledge -> understanding -> And reality? Because fundamentally restructuring a field of knowledge or subject area involves the fundamental restructuring of a part of long-term memory. This is about an abstract concept as they come. Not only thinking about our thinking (abstract) but exploring internal hierarchies and connections (abstract). In addition, the fundamental memories (understanding) upon which a hierarchy is built needs to be examined closely (abstract) and completely restructured based on new knowledge that can’t be refuted (abstract). This is a lot of understanding and manipulating abstract concepts. This takes a lot of time, energy, and well developed abstract cognitive enablers.
It is much easier to ignore and throw away or try to refute the new evidence of reality than it is to completely restructure our memories and our thinking patterns. And, this is what we normally do.
Self-correction based on evidence is one of the most important, and most difficult thinking skill that we can develop, and it is rare to find in a general sense (context-dependent learning is a whole other concept).
As a result, we have a confirmation bias which leads us to look for and incorporate new information into our already established knowledge structure. It’s easier that way and we can say “I don’t believe a lot of “research” that is out there. It keeps us comfortable and doesn’t take the energy that a wholesale restructuring would take.
Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.