Monday, November 12, 2012

Are you really learning a subject?

If you see the Learning plan ( LP) of a student, one important component of planning is 'learning' the core and complementary subjects. Unfortunately, the concept of learning is not fully understood. We confuse learning with many other similar words. We think that learning is being able to recite the 'learnt answers' in the same sequential manner. Or we think that learning is applying the algorithmic solution of moving from x to y on a predetermined path such as in Geometry or Algebra to another similar problem. Because marks in a test only captures 'rote' recitation, marks also do not capture the learning that has happened in a student. So what is learning? 

Stage I of learning

When we listen to someone for the first time, we hear the 'data' that is being given to us. For instance,when a student hears the history of the Jallianwalla Bagh's tragedy of 1919 in a history class, he absorbs it as a data. However, when he absorbs this data in the context of freedom struggle, his understanding of Jallianwalla Bag becomes deeper. Now, the student understands 'fuller' meaning and significance of Jallianwalla Bagh incident. The student has converted 'data' (raw bits of data structured by the 'instructor') into 'information' ( same bits of data restructured by the 'student').  In other words, Learning "does not take place in the act of listening to (or viewing) information explained, but rather in the moments when we are asked to make sense of that information, to wrestle with ideas." When, the student's  learning remains at the the level of 'data', he is stuck up and his understanding is shallow. This data may be useful in answering the question on Jallianwalla bagh in the exam, but it does not halp him deepen his understanding of subject he is trying to understand.

Stage II of learning

But learning can also happen at a even more deeper level. Deepening may happen in various forms.  For instance, when the student compares 'Salt march of 1930'  with 'Jallianwala bag' incident , he or she understands that not 'all incidents' have similar impact on freedom struggle movement. He starts 'building relationship of data with outcomes' newly. He starts gaining 'better picture' of the overall freedom struggle movement by connecting individual pieces of historical events. This is descriptive knowledge. At this stage, he is using anamolies, inconsistencies in the 'data' to get better knowledge of the events ( such as Jallianwalla bag ) and how they are correlated with the outcome ( freedom struggle). 

Stage III of learning

Learning can deepen further. A student may start understanding 'causes' of different events. For instance, why and how different elements of Jallianwalla bagh incident exactly 'caused or helped' freedom movement.  This is called converting 'correlation' into 'causation'. Not just understanding how x is related to y, but understanding why x causes y. (Not just understanding how flu is related to fever, but why flu causes fever.) This deepening enables the student to understand the conditions when x can cause y. At this stage, the student starts developing the 'predictive knowledge'. Here learning is "to apply, synthesize and use what we have learned to create something.” This kind of learning is facilitated when a student learns to develop 'experiements and prototypes' that 'mimic' the cause-effect loop of thinking in real life. 


Typically, a student will deepen the learning of a subject or chapter for which the teacher is good, or deepen the learning of the subject he or she likes. Learning becomes automatic and unconscious.

However, in order to excel in his life, a student has to guide his learning consciously. He cannot spend time on learning non-important subjects. If, in his Academic-excellence plan, he decides to learn 'physics' or 'english', he has to consciously deepen the understanding of those subjects. Irrespective of the poor teacher of physics, or the difficulties of the school, he has to find options to deepen the understanding of physics. He has to use multiple methods to deepen the understanding of a given subject that he has planned in his AEP. For instance, he may have to e-learning tools on internet to deepen his understanding of physics. Or he may find expert teachers in physics who are in different schools. Or he has may use Physics Olympiad to gain deeper understanding. Or he may find friends who are equally interested in 'physics '. Excellence is not possible without a deliberate plan. 

Excellence also happens when one uses the limited time effectively. An LP enables student to prioritise his time judiciously. Deeper the learning, the longer it takes. And because there is limited time in a day, a student has to 'prioritise' the subjects he has to learn. He cannot learn all the subjects to the same depth of learning. With LP, a student learns to prioritise his time carefully, so that he can achieve excellence in given subject. 

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