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Society of Mind

22.4 learning and teaching

One frustration every teacher knows arises when a child learns a subject well enough to pass a test, yet never puts that skill to use on problems met in real life. It doesn't often help to scold but it sometimes helps to explain, through examples, how to apply the concept to other contexts. Why do some children seem to do this for themselves, automatically and spontaneously, while others seem to have to learn essentially the same thing over and over in different domains? Why are some children better than others at transfer of learning from one domain to another? It doesn't explain anything to say that those children are smarter, brighter, or more intelligent. Such vaguely defined capacities vary greatly even among different parts of the same mind.

The power of what we learn depends on how we represent it in our minds. We've seen how the same experience can lead to learning different action scripts by replacing certain polynemes with isonomes.

Certain of those versions will apply only to specific situations, others will apply to many more situations, and yet others will be so general and vague as to lead only to confusion. Some children learn to represent knowledge in versatile ways; others end up with accumulations of inflexible, single-purpose procedures or with almost useless generalities. How do children acquire their representation skills in the first place? An educational environment can lead a child to build large, complicated processes from smaller ones by laying out sequences of steps. Good teachers know what size to make each step and can often suggest analogies to help the child's mind to use what it already knows for building larger scripts and processes. By making each step small enough, we can keep the child from getting lost in unfamiliar worlds of meaningless alternatives; then the child will remain able to use previous skills to test and modify the growing new structures. But when a new fragment of knowledge or process constitutes too abrupt a break from the past, then none of the child's old recognizers and action scripts will apply to it; the child will get stuck, and transfer of learning won't occur. Why are some children better than others at teaching themselves to make changes inside their minds?

Each child learns, from time to time, various better ways to learn — but no one understands how this is done. We tend to speak about intelligence because we find it virtually impossible to understand how this is done from watching only what the child does. The problem is that one can't observe a child's strategies for learning how to learn — because those strategies are twice removed from what we can see. It is hard enough to guess the character of the A-brain systems that directly cause those actions. Think how much more difficult it would be for an observer to imagine the multilayer teacher-learner structures that must have worked inside the child to train the A-brain agencies! And that observer has no way at all to guess what crucial lucky accidents may have led those hidden B-brains to persistent concerns with finding better ways to learn. Perhaps our educational research should be less concerned with teaching children to acquire particular skills and more concerned with how we learn to learn.