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English review - Learning

On a somewhat dreary November evening, a cosily packed lecture hall was the setting of an evening to learn a thing or two about, exactly that: learning. Harold Bekkering, professor of Socio-cognitive neuroscience at the Radboud University and principle researcher at the Donders Institute in Nijmegen, and Jan Bransen, professor of Philosophy of the behavioural sciences at the Radboud University, discussed several questions related to learning. Such as, do we learn throughout our entire life? How do we learn? And, should educational institutions be changed

Learning, modelling and predicting

Harold Bekkering argued that the function of our brain is to produce conceptual models of the world around us, in order to successfully predict and understand the world. In this process, two key mechanisms are involved. First, Bekkering described Hebbian learning, in which neurons that are activated simultaneously are connected to each other. For example, when a dog is accustomed to hearing a bell before getting his food, it will, after a while, associate the sound of the bell with getting food and thus produce saliva on hearing only the bell. The second mechanism Bekkering discussed was embodied cognition. Our conceptual models are not merely restricted to our brain but also  connected to the world around us. For example, when we cook, we know where our kitchen utensils are, we smell the spices. Learning involves more than just our brains.

Making mistakes

Making mistakes is crucial for our learning process. Bekkering argued that, in order to expand and improve our conceptual models, we need to be surprised. When our models are not confronted with surprises they become lazy, and will not adapt and expand, thereby restricting our learning process. Crucial in the learning process are the consequences that others are subject to when acting. So, if we see someone beating a doll without any negative consequences, we will come to believe that this is acceptable behaviour. Our norms and values are shaped by the consequences we see when others act.

Learning from your own point of view

In light of these considerations, Bekkering proposed several changes to our current educational institutions. Instead of presenting students with a standard set of information that they have to reproduce, students should be able to learn from their own interests and their already existing conceptual models. For example, when someone is interested in dinosaurs, subjects such as arithmetic can be put in terms of dinosaur sizes in order to make it fit better with their own interests. This requires teachers to become coaches; identifying what students are interested in and providing them with the means to learn more about those things that motivate them.

The division of labour and learning

Jan Bransen did not wholly agree with Bekkering’s conception of learning as modelling. Instead, he presented another view on learning. According to Bransen, learning and doing used to be connected for humans, as they are for all animals. For example, knowing how to spot a camouflaged predator is crucial for surviving. However, humans have created a division of labour, in which learning is relegated to only a few people, and learning is detached from doing. This has led us to the idea that learning is nothing more than gathering right answers to a bunch of questions. This can be seen in present day educational systems. Learning has become the reproduction of large quantities of information on standard tests. This has led to the situation in which those who graduate do so with a vast amount of useless knowledge. It is then up to them to figure out how to make this knowledge useful.

Learning and habits

Instead of seeing learning as collecting right answers, Bransen suggested we view learning as the development of habits. However, habits are ambiguous. It refers to what one is used to. But it also refers to social habits, indicating social expectations and norms. When people grow up, they learn how to act in the world. Central to this learning how to act in the world is the social character of the world, and the expectations we have of ourselves and others and the expectations others have of us. This social character of learning is also what made Bransen critical of Bekkering’s theory, since we cannot learn to completely predict the social world. The social world always concerns other people, whose behaviour might not conform to our conceptual models. Therefore, learning is not so much about predicting, as it is about expectations.

But what about our schools?

In the closing discussion Harold Bekkering and Jan Bransen discussed their views on educational practices. Both argued that current educational practices should change, but disagreed on how these practices should change. Bekkering argued for a system focussed on, and tailored to, the individual models and interests of students, in order to make assimilation of new information into their already existing models easier. Furthermore, well-being needs to be prioritized in education. Education should allow everyone to pursue their personal passion, and facilitate them in that pursuit. Bransen on the other hand emphasized the importance of being part of a social group, and especially mastering a language, in order to communicate our interests in the first place. Part of this process is learning that our views and questions are welcome and contribute to discussions.

Learning and the future of education, an undecided ideal

To conclude, how we envision the process of learning affects how we shape our educational institutions. Whether it is Harold Bekkering’s conception, emphasizing the modelling our brains do of the world around us, which led him to argue for an educational system that is more adjusted to the interests and models of students, and where teachers become coaches. Or, if it is Jan Bransen’s view, focussing on the social aspects of learning, which emphasizes the importance of giving others the tools and confidence to engage in discussion. What was clear however is that we are not done learning, especially not about learning itself.

This report was written by Ward van Weenen, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.