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What do we really mean by learning?

If you think education is expensive, try estimating the cost of ignorance.”- Howard Gardner

Over the last couple of weeks, we have gone deep into the science of learning, how to learn intensely and how sleep and spaced repetition can help help us remember things. Todaywe will zoom out and answer the question, “what do we really mean by learning?”.

The rough definition of learning is some data or knowhow that has been stored and can be used later. That definition is too broad to be employed when you need to understand how well you have learned something. Today we are going to talk about the breadth and depth of learning. I must say, it has been eye opening to research this - I hope you enjoy.

Depth of learning

There are different depths of learning. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a useful scale that categorises cognitive skills according to depth from the most basic to move advanced levels. Once you understand the different layers of learning you can see how deeply you have learnt something.

Let's think about the different levels in terms of learning a language:

1) Remember: learn some words

2) Understand: describe the meaning of a sentence

3) Apply: form your own sentences

4) Analyse: Break down a paragraph to identify tenses, structures and choice of vocabulary

5) Evaluate: Compare two writers. Opine on the one that uses more colloquial language.

6) Create: Compose a poem in a certain style. Reflect local sub-cultural nuances. Use the appropriate grammatical structures to maximise effect.

It's easy for people to say they have "learned French", when they have only got to "Apply". Our more precise definitions around learning can help us locate where we, or people we are assessing are on that scale. That objectivity is crucial to identify how we progress, but also to make sure that overconfident people do not claim credit for skills they have only partially developed. As an aside, how many politicians would you select to run the country if you removed their chat, and based it on their skills?!

That's not the end of the story. There are also different directions of learning that lead to different types of intelligence.

The different types of intelligence

Intelligence can be acquired in multiple domains. Howard Gardner in his theory of multiple intelligences proposed 8 facets of intelligence. They are:

1) Logical -mathematical intelligence (numbers and abstractions)

2) Spatial (3d judgment, ability to visualise)

3) Linguistic (words and language)

4) Kinesthetic (physical dexterity and physical control)

5) Musical (sounds rhythmsy, tones)

6) Interpersonal (EQ)

7) Intrapersonal (understand one’s self and make accurate judgments)

8) Naturalistics (relation to your natural environment)

Also considered in the framework were Existential Intelligence (being able to contemplate the meaning and purpose of life), Pedagogical Intelligence (being good at teaching) and Moral Intelligence (understanding and applying ethical trade-offs).

When looking through this model, it reminded me that intelligence is more varied than knowing things and passing exams. Learning for the workplace and for life in general is far broader than what we are tested on at school. At school, logical-mathematical intelligence was celebrated through prizes, and Kinesthetic (e.g. cross country) was also celebrated. However there was very little emphasis on Naturalistics, which for mental health and diet might be extremely important. This is actually less a critique of schools and more of communities. We cannot expect schools to do all the heavy lifting. In generations before, wisdom was shared by grandparents, aunts and uncles, or respected elders within a community (for example at a place of worship). As communities are less well defined now, that sharing of broader knowledge does not have a natural place.

It is also stands out that some of the most sought after professionals are either very deep in a particular intelligence or very broad. Take an example of a surgeon as needing a broad skillset. They need logic in to make a diagnosis, spatial and kinesthetic awareness to perform the surgery and interpersonal skills to communicate with the patient.

Intelligence and Culture

There are also cultural reasons why some aspects of intelligence are prioritised over others. In some culture, your place in the family or community through interpersonal interaction is considered a must, whereas in others it is less so. Other cultures place huge emphasis on physical strength and ability to perform things like hunting whereas others might focus on ability to make money. This makes IQ or any other measure of intelligence culturally weighted. I might be seen as very low intelligence if I cannot differentiate between a harmful mushroom or a medicinal one.

So what?

Here are three take-aways before we pick it up next week:

  1. The word learning is broad and to be more useful to us as an assessment tool, we need to understand the breadth and depth of learning.

  2. There are six stages of learning. Remembering -> Understanding -> Applying -> Analysing -> Evaluating -> Creating, where each stage has greater mastery over the subject. These stages help us assess the learning of ourselves and others.

  3. We can learn in many dimensions that include Logical -mathematical, Spatial, Linguistic, Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal and Naturalistics. Deciding if someone is intelligent has huge individual and cultural bias.

Thank you for joining. Next blog in the learning series coming next week.

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