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Other forms of learning
Q: How do we know when a dog is a dog?
The late education researcher Rosalind Driver, King's College, London, who pioneered studies in how children construct their understanding of ideas in science, felt it was important to distinguish "school science" from the science that scientists actually use in research. While a mastery of school science is often measured by abilities for rote memorization (e.g., how well students can regurgitate boldfaced words in a text), success in science as practiced by scientists is measured by the person's abilities to solve problems and make sense of difficult ideas. While memorization certainly plays an important role, this type of learning represents just one relatively minor aspect of science as practiced by scientists in the real world.
Many of the ideas that are traditionally valued in education, such as memorizing the boldfaced vocabulary words in a science text, are tasks that place strong demands on attention and short-term memory, and that lead to learning through a process of rehearsal and repetition. Even though these forms of learning are relatively easy to test, and are therefore emphasized in schools, these do not represent the only forms of learning important in everyday life.
Take, for example, the remarkable abilities we have for classifying objects. Even a four-year-old child can tell that an object is a "dog," whether it's a St. Bernard or a Chihuahua, despite the fact that there are a seemingly infinite number of possible variations in this object's appearance. Even as an adult, most of us would be hard-pressed to articulate the qualities that define "doggyness." And yet, we can confidently distinguish a dog from a cat, or equate a poodle to a Great Dane, despite the fact that we may not be able to describe in words how we accomplish this amazing feat.
Learning the gist of what makes a dog a dog (learning the concept of doggyness) is a form of learning that is distinctly different from the learning we use to memorize a phone number or a list of state capitals. Rote memorization makes use of attention and short-term memory to promote learning through a conscious process of repetition and rehearsal. Learning the gist of doggyness, on the other hand, is to a large extent unconscious.
When we learn the classification "dog," we unconsciously take note of myriad, unarticulated visual nuances common to each of the things we have been told are dogs. We then build our understanding of the concept of dog over time, without consciously rehearsing the factors used to categorize the gist of a dog.
Though there are clear prescriptions for how to teach through rote memorization (make a list of things to memorize, review it over and over, test the learning, repeat, review), we don't yet have a similar prescription to help students learn gist. (top)
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And yet, many of the ideas important in life (the ideas that separate school science from meaningful understanding) are concepts that we learn unconsciously in this way, using a process that is very similar to the one we use in learning the gist of a dog. For example, learning to tell the difference between the sound of an oboe and a clarinet, or knowing which kitchen drawer has the bottle opener, are everyday examples of learning that takes place (for the most part) implicitly through gist.
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Even though neuroscientists have long recognized that learning gist differs fundamentally from other forms of learning that we associate with rote memorization, the neuroscience underlying gist is only just now coming under study. One finding relevant to our discussion on individual differences in learning is that abilities for learning gist don't necessarily correspond to abilities for rote memorization.
Just because a student may have a great deal of difficulty with attention or short-term memory, and consequently have difficulty memorizing names, numbers, or other rote facts, he or she may not show any difficulties learning gist, and in some cases may even outperform those who otherwise memorize well. Let us illustrate this finding with some recent examples drawn from the field of dyslexia, a neurological disorder that impairs abilities for spelling and reading, known to be associated with difficulties in visual attention and short-term memory.