Bill Long 11/3/07
A New Approach to How We Learn
I have written several essays on this site on the process of learning. The "Line by Line Life," for example, is one, as is "Reconceptualizing Learning." I come at learning from a different angle in this essay. My thesis is that the way we learn is primarily through "bite-sized" chunks, and that both our learning methods and materials ought to be designed to maximize learning based on that observation. This means, for example, that the primary mode of learning for students in the future will come through "bite-sized" essays, no more than 1500 words in length, and the subjects of each essay will be those that can be sufficiently explained in 1000-1500 words.
It does not mean that every essay of 1500 words is useful to promote learning; indeed, I assume that most 1500 word-essays will be useless. But it suggests that books and longer essays are, by and large, rather unhelpful for the tasks of learning that confront us. Books, I am convinced, are not very helpful because they are nearly impossible to write well. (I am referring to works of writing that are not meant primarily to be "literature" here). Books are nearly impossible to write well because they attempt to cover too much ground and, as a result, go into all kinds of dead-ends, useless digressions and incomplete treatments of subjects that ought to be carefully limned.
I am sure that debates over educational theory will be with us until the end of the world, but my experience in learning, writing, and teaching over the years convinces me that we learn best like we eat best--by trying to consume small bite-sized morsels, rather than seeking to wolf down large quantities or gorge ourselves with all the intellectual "food" before us.
Learning from Children with Autism
I am also convinced of this by my recent research and consultation with professionals who provide treatment services to children with autism. That exploding phenomenon in our culture is not simply an occasion for concern and for legislative attempts to spread the cost of autism treatment among many providers, but also to reflect on how all of us learn. The most effective therapy for those afflicted with autism is, in most instances, intensive behavior intervention. This approach requires, above all, discrete trials and breaking up of tasks into the smallest possible units, so that the "progress" of the child with autism in mastering activities can be measured precisely. My point is that behavior therapists have isolated something crucial about the learning process not simply for people with autism but for all of us: we learn when things are broken up into the smallest natural units for our intellectual consumption.
People generally write and speak in a confusing manner for three reasons: (1) they don't know what they are talking about; (2) they haven't broken up the task of their subject into the requisite small bites to explain; and (3) they don't know how to "put together" the discrete parts of their presentation into a connected whole. Rather than looking at professors or authors who write or speak in a confusing manner as "brilliant," I tend to pity them--they have just not been able to divide the tasks of explication and understanding down to the basic units of learning in order to be able to explain their knowledge to others.
But there is something else that happens when we begin to look at learning as the focus on mastery of discrete chunks of information--that can be communicated in 1000-1500 word essays. We are forced to examine the phenomenon closely and begin to divide the subject for ourselves. Then, when we begin to probe the topics that are in our original division, we discover at least things: (1) we have to revise our list and (2) people who have treated the subject before us have not done a very good job at describing the subject. In general people's modes of thinking are rather fractured or random. We leap from one subject to another because we are distracted or we lose interest. We draw into ourselves; we are mesmerized by the "colors" around us; we become easily bored. Our attention span is probably not the length of your average lecture (even though a good lecturer ought to be able to hold an audience's interest for at least an hour); nor is it really 20 minutes.
I think, in fact, we have the capacity and general tendency to become almost instantly bored and therefore our goal in teaching and writing ought to be to catch attention throught the clear exposition of a problem or issue, list crucial data about it, and then get out of the subject within 1000-1500 words. We are facing the phenomenon of "instant boredom," and our learning and teaching methods ought to recognize that. So, we write one essay. Then, we write a second essay on the subject either developing the theme or dealing with a related issue, and if a person's interest is held by the first essay, he/she will go to the second one. We have to "earn" a person's attention each time we write a new essay; hence the goal at the beginning of each is to lay out precisely where we plan to be going.
The "End" or "Goal" of it All
Academic courses, then, should not be couched in terms of lofty goals or objectives. Rather, I think they should emphasize how many learning chunks a person should master. In many ways the students should have to come up with what constitutes a "chunk," and defend that to the teacher. It doesn't mean that the student has to write that many essays, but s/he should begin to see learning as a "chunking" process. I would suppose that a class should require at least 100 "units" or "chunks" of learning. Give the broad topics. Show how to develop a chunk or two. Let the students loose on a fairly narrow issue in order to see how they develop their own chunks. Then, let 'er rip. Our learning will never be the same again--and, students might begin to fall in love with learning so much that we wouldn't have to worry about if Johnny can read. He/She will be entranced. And, possibly the best thing of all--the teacher will learn a lot.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long