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An Original DocumentLearning by Doing Something Yourself

By John S Veitch

You Become What You Do
You Become What You Think About

Experts in human development have said, "We become what we think about most". www linkOur dominant ideas become reflected in the person we are becoming. In this sense we really do choose who we will become. "The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice." (George Eliot) Reading, or listening to the radio, or watching a film, is only a first stage of the learning process. To learn something you must engage with the topic. Thinking and learning are essentially the same process, so how and why do we engage in thinking?

You Become What You Do

The late www linkProfessor Graham Nuthall of Canterbury University, in New Zealand was an expert in classroom behaviours. It's his claim that children in school only learn what they do. No matter what the topic is, a few days later, (often a few minutes later) everything they were told or read about the topic has been forgotten. We can only remember what relates directly to us because of our previous knowledge. If we talk to someone about a concept that was just introduced we help to make it our own. If our friends are interested in a topic, it's easier for us to get interested too. Any new idea has to be reinforced several times before it becomes available in your long term memory. But the first and second reinforcements need to come fairly soon, or the concept is "lost". (The first two days seem to be critical.) You can use that knowledge in your life.

Language use, thinking and learning are a linked process in which social meaning and social interaction play a critical part. The critical learning processes of the individual depend on an internal engagement with a new idea or skill. But any new learning isn't quickly incorporated into our long term memory, or into our skill base. We need to practise or reinforce the concept many times before it becomes available to us as a useful idea or skill.

Teaching practice tends to assume that learning new things is relatively simple. Ideas are introduced, demonstrated, discussed, written about and that box is ticked, "Covered". The teacher moves on, there's so much to get through. Sadly much class time is wasted because for many pupils there has not been enough experience, enough reinforcement or enough engagement with the previous concepts for them to be properly understood. In the same classroom different children learn different things, depending on how they engage in the tasks the teacher introduces, and on how the student peers each learner is closely linked too respond.

Graham Nuthall explains:  "The more we examined the differences between the more and less able students the more we were convinced that differences in achievement were not the function of differences in learning ability, but differences in culture. Some students have to learn to live in two cultures: the culture of their home and friends, and the culture of the teacher. Other students need only live in one culture because their home and friends share the culture of the teacher. ... The conclusion of this study is that these cultural differences produce cumulative effects. ... In this way classrooms produce the differences that we come to accept as differences in academic ability." (Nuthall and Alton-Lee. "Understanding Learning in the Classroom. Report to the Ministry of Education." 1997)

Improving the learning in a classroom involves much more focus on the social processes which influence the way students engage in learning. Tasks assigned by the teacher should have the effect of "increasing the levels of acceptance, trust, sharing and mutual support that occurs between students." This means we need to design new "learning communities" so that we "integrate students' interactions with the curriculum with their interactions with each other and the teacher, so that their entire experience contributes to their development as intelligent learners." (Nuthall: "Learning How to Learn", International Journal of Educational Research, 31 (3) pg141-256, 1999)

This site "Adapt to Experience" is my attempt to contribute to a learning community that is much broader than anything I can create. I proceed on trust, taking it for granted that the learning community that I am part of exists, and that my small contribution will find it's place in the debate. The task is to engage with the world we live in, to integrate the actions each of us are taking, and to give feedback to thought leaders across the world. This process will help us all to understand the world we live in, and give us effective tools to improve our lives and to develop our communities. Everything depends on what we choose to DO.

Prior training can be an advantage or a handicap. Sometimes you need to unlearn an old habitual response before the new more desirable response can be easily used. Personally I've learn so much about teaching and learning from my own efforts to learn to dance. I have lots of bad habits. When my dance teacher reminds me, I can remember to "dance with a strong left side" and to "dance in the floor". By thinking about it and with effort I can approximate what he wants. But outside the studio, if find it difficult to apply those principles to my dancing. The old bad habits keep returning. Unlearning an old response can take a long time.

Here is my general rule for personal learning. Make it your practice each day to do something to help you engage with some new data or information that interests you, and try to reinforce that learning several times over the next week, but be sure to do so starting tomorrow.

Write a note about it. Re-read your own notes. Tell a friend. Explain the idea to a stranger. Research the idea. Prepare a fact and opinion file. Essentially DO SOMETHING.

If you are a member of www linkan online social network, sharing what you are learning with the network has triple value. You work hard to make sense, firstly for yourself, then you help others to engage with you on this topic, and finally you may get some useful personal feedback.