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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Learning and strategies: a well kept secret

 The brain performs many processes at the same time under the best, ideal and worst circumstances, who has not had a bad day or a brilliant moment?.

But how do we learn to do all that?, Why do some things seem so simple that you can do it  with closed eyes and others tasks simply seem to be denied?.

This is where learning process has its reason for being. It is common to hear that nobody is born knowing, but it's not entirely true, because learning has a certain factors, both personal and adaptive. Personal factors are loaded with a bit of genetics and joy for certain activities, which create an innate facility for carrying out certain tasks (Stanovich, 2009).

This creates confidence in the performance of tasks and facilitates the repetition of them. That's why it's wrong to believe that superior intelligence or ability is the key to success, it just puts pressure on people, because this idea is based on the perspective of a rigid and not malleable brain (Dweck, 2007). The idea under this is:  You are what you can be and you never will be anything else, but this is an impoverished perspective of learning.

On the other hand, neurocognition perspective opens the door to a moldable brain, changeable, able to learn from the strategies for the acquisition of necessary skills (Hawkins and Blakeslee, 2004). If the brain were seen as a computer, then all it needs to perform a variety of executions is a program that lets it perform tasks for which it's not designed, and this creates sufficient self-discipline and motivation to performance anything (Duckworth and Seligman, 2005).

The question then is whether anyone can be a successful pianist or a gymnast capable of carrying out perfect executions .The most obvious answer is: Yes, just have to try, but then it will have to consider the environment and conditions to do it.  So, it's not possible to know if you can do something until you try and that's where the environment becomes relevant (Ericsson, Charness, Feltovich and Hoffman, 2006).

Looking at the human brain as static is similar to the vision that was created of the universe, probably by Heinrich Olbers (Hawking, 2002) and has long since been established conclusively that the universe expands, creates and build itself, and the same has been said about the brain, although education insists that if an ability is not possible for something specific, measured at a certain time and under specific circumstances, can never be acquired, only intelligent people progress, only the school can educate ... I hope to live enough  to laugh about this and see a society motivated to learn.

How?, the first idea is trying and that's why strategies has a reason to be designed. The strategies are the means or steps, which help to reach a skill. Similar to algorithms or heuristics that achieve a result in any exact science, whose final product is to achieve knowledge of the world (Frank, 1974).

These strategies require two conditions: the first is motivation to follow the steps, and the second is that strategy contains in itself the self-correction (Blanchette & Richards, 2010).

With no motivation to learn, brain gets bored and focuses on irrelevant details, because motivation is a combination of attention to the environment, a mixture of neurotransmitters and personality (Goslin, 2007).

Motivation is one of the engines that makes brain of creatures, including humans,  forces to the limit and achieve  goals. Which human race thank every day, because it is a sign of progress.

But the complements of the strategies are mental processes, since they require systematic explanation of how to carry out a task, breaking it into elemental steps to share with others.

From the standpoint of education, the goal is the cognitive development and metacognitive skills, under the scheme of learning to learn, creating the myth that intelligence can overcome any obstacle. At this sense, cognitive skills are the most easiest to learn into a classroom from the early grades, refer to the acquisition and management of environmental information for instance, while metacognitives skills, need self-monitoring skills of the execution itself, in order to correct task performance and require enhanced cognitive development (Monereo and Castello, 2001; Monereo and Badia, 2001)

Basically a strategy is the systematic process of steps, divided into micro or macro instruction to learn something. From this you can find multiple ways to achieve first, the understanding of the strategy and then becomes in a skill.

Any strategy must have a goal of what you want to teach, taking into account execution level where students start and where you want to take them (Beltrán Llera, 2003). In this sense, Vygostky's picture emerges from the zone of proximal development to measure the achievement of the strategy in the light of knowledge acquired. And of course has to be considered what to teach and to whom, and with the strategy, let us decide the how.

From this, it's possible to establish techniques or procedures how to teach to  students, deciding the moment to accompanying, for which there are techniques such as modeling, scaffolding, and the goal is self-executing of the task.

Now we can consider the next ingredient, since it must be remembered that the information reaches the brain through the senses, and I believe that some of the learning difficulties are nothing but problems acquiring information, and this has relevance because exists the  idea that vision is the main sensory processing and then a strategy can be designed  from something called vicarious learning, also named observational learning, but don’t forget the hearing as a means of learning, for example in the case of language learning (Fischer, 2010).

A design of strategies require a systematic analysis of teaching and learning scheme, for example, if there is a need of teaching  someone to write, we must first ask, what are the interactions of this person with the writing process?, because for writing, although it seems logical, it's often forgotten, a need of  oculomotor development and a dominant hand, the absence of the sustained development of it, can produce  writing difficulties, such as writing on multiple non-uniform areas of the sheet. It will be also important if the person knows the relationship letter- sound.

There are many techniques for teaching writing, all of them are successful, no doubt, but if you think about the brain and how it interacts, you can choose best the technique having on mind the level of progress in the acquisition, allowing you to freely analyze and observing how the student takes either a pencil or pen and the way that is placed on the surface, and how it will slide to make a shape to a letter, a word, an idea.

Choosing a technique, and believe it will have to work for everyone, means to deny the existence of learners and their context. There is a technique for everyone, and of course you can combine, modify, extend, shorten depending on the needs and it should be considered that the learner will also make their own adaptations. The most common mistake is to believe that everyone understands the same. Say, take the pencil with your right hand and write, is to deny the left-handed action as a dominant hand.

There is then a subdivision of tasks, the goal of the task is to write but, what do you expect to be written? A book or just a word, how?: Capital letters, lower case, on what surface?: Using only the large squares on a sheet, lines or a white sheet, and this is not the same as writing on a blackboard 40 X 60 inches. The medium is a standard pencil or a crayon. Is there enough light or brightness on the surface?.

There are contents that can be made from micro tasks and other that require only one or two steps. The more steps required, the slower will be the acquisition of the process, but sometimes a person needs more insight into the task that is why we say that a strategy can and should be self-corrected (Roediger III and Finn, 2010).

The sophistication of the techniques and the choice of them, should consider the level of understanding that the person has on a subject and how much they allow the systematic practice that leads to consolidation. An example of this is the driving or flight simulators, which are fun tools even for video games, while allowing the continued practice and it will be always a step towards implementation with scenarios and real variables.

As well, you can have previous steps leading up to the task, similar to rear wheels of a bicycle , which are removed once the learner feels confident enough to move in space considering the speed and terrain.

And the choice of technique employed, it shouldn't forget that memory has a prediction system that helps the brain to complete pieces of puzzles or events (Hawkins and Blakeslee, 2004) in this regard, it's possible to skip steps, but also if you think that an element of the chain is necessary in a specific situation, can be added if necessary, this will be especially important when working with cognitive strategies.

In the case of metacognitive strategies, the important point is to make aware the process that is carried out, to get a self monitoring of execution, under the scheme of what has to be done, how, under what goal, what tools, what skill required for each tool, whether micro monitors are more likely to correct errors as soon as they arise (Solomon, 2007).

The goal then is to make a person capable to determine its scopes and limitations, determined to use their cognitive tools to benefit our own development. That's why some issues are interwoven such as creativity, motivation and enthusiasm.

But the implementation of strategies is not a matter of magic or immediate success. A strategy can work at short-term or after very long time, depending on the goal to achieve. An example is reading or writing, although the first years of school build the bases of both processes, the use and management thereof, makes the difference between a good writer or an expert reader, able to use what they read in a work. And this is another point against the world's educational vision, because it's expected that children know things, such as divine command, but if there is a reason for it, the knowledge system simply can not sustain for long time the information under the principle of the cognitive economy. Brain needs repeate tasks, enjoy them and get a benefit pro the system, creating neural networks to develop a stable foundation for future learning. That is not an order from a teacher, but by the determination of structures of the frontal and prefrontal areas of the brain, where it mostly holds the decision making process (Roberts, Anderson, and Husain, 2010).

The cabling system of networks, will then take an important role, because thanks them, the task will become a habit, or a bridge for new tasks (Tirapu-Ustárroz, Luna-Lario, Hernandez-Goñi and Garcia- Suescun, 2011). And then the student has passed from a strategy, from the minimal to the experts’ level.

Some tasks allow modeling, based on vicarious or imitation learning,  especially those that require a motor skills, such as those used in sports, writing, arts, while others require more prior knowledge, as the instructional strategies used in  classrooms (Anderson, 1997).

Scaffolding is the support provided by an expert to a novice, it is always necessary, but not all rookies require the same dose, it must be considerate prior learning and the level of sophistication of the task. How often do you find a: I saw it at the National Geographic or Discovery Channel?, and never minimize the role of television series or peer activities (Dweck, 2007).

The more difficult a goal is, more support is required, and more motivation to have a successful student, but if the task is too simple, it can be boring and therefore impractical.

That's why instructional design models can be unsuccessful, regardless of the degree of sophistication with which they were designed. A strategy may work perfect for a group of people and not enough for another. Hence there are as many strategic models as leaves on a tree. Every one can be great, if used under the proper framework, but any mistake can result in a horror in teaching.

One of the strategies currently used with  greater advance in education are ludic strategies. We may fall in the debate of whether they are strategies or techniques, but the point is they allow monitor for effectiveness of learning in most cases, because the goal is clear, is motivating and fun, and it's making learning breaks classic schemes. But even if this is not something to be applauded in formal education, it's the way that species evolved to learn, playing, exploring, through trial and error, repeating over and over again the same, to reach the domain of something that if is not achieved, it can cost your life, then we must not forget that learning is at the service of conservation of the species. And it's the way someone become a major league baseball player, and that's how trust is achieved in itself, that's key to success. It may not be able to do other things, but for your domain field, you're the best, how did you get it?.

Hence, the problem-based learning or simulation has been at the forefront of teaching especially in the medical and economic areas (González López Frias Castro, 2011; Graeml, Baena and Mihai Yannaki, 2011), trying to create an expert before reaching the battlefield. But not to forget that reality can have combinations of more complex variables.

Reach the domain of something,  takes time, requires motivation, activation of brain areas that  are modified from the repetition of tasks, these are complemented by others that call prior learning, and every day you can learn and modify the muscle cognitive. It is flexible, likes to learn, likes to also demonstrate what it knows, but it can not learn like other brains. So an important ability is to monitor the strategies, and enjoy the change. Our cognitive economy saves energy when it creates habits, it is true, we should not think about how to fasten a button or turning on a laptop, is done in automatic, but think for a moment, how many attempts it took to achieve it?.

Alma Dzib Goodin

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3D image: Juan Conde Tovani

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