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Learn How to Learn: How to Understand and Connect Difficult Ideas Easily

Learn How to Learn: How to Understand and Connect Difficult Ideas Easily

I think you’ll agree with me when I say:

“We do not understand the difference between Information and Knowledge.”

As it turns out, most people assume they are the same thing, yet they are not. In fact, Information is required for Knowledge, but we are missing one key element… “Thinking”.

In this article, we will look into the process of learning information, and how we can really transfer it into learned knowledge.

What is transfer of learning

Professors at Cornell University and authors of Thinking at Every Desk, Derek and Laura Cabrera inform us that Knowledge = Information X Thinking. They are on a mission to introduce “Thinking” back into the classroom. Let me demonstrate one way in which they are doing this.

    Through the Cabrera’s Systems Thinking theory of Distinctions – Systems – Relationships – Perspectives (DSRP = “Thinking”), they show us how disparate subjects are interconnected and that DSRP increases our speed of knowing something. Essentially, it will increase our transfer.

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    Transfer is a way to learn something in one area and apply it in another. We can do this through a variety of ways, yet let’s examine two:

    1. Vertical Transfer (also known as Far Transfer). A child learns something in third grade and applies it in fourth grade (or even as an adult). This is the more difficult form of transfer as you are applying what you are learning to something completely different — like learning the game of Wei-chi (aka Go) and applying it to strategy.
    2. Horizontal Transfer (also known as Near Transfer). A student learns something in one subject (i.e. English) and transfers it to another (i.e. Math).

    The Cabrera’s illustrate the significance of the transfer of learning. In fact, if a student or person has a high transfer, he or she will then become their own best teacher. As mentioned in Thinking at Every Desk,

    “If a student has a high transfer skills, she can learn one thing and then teach herself 10, 50, or 100 additional things.”

    Thinking about thinking

    When we understand the importance of transfer of learning and use DSRP to bring it about, we see phenomenal results in three important areas:[1]

    1. Increased Metacognition (thinking about thinking).
    2. Increased Deep Understanding (you learn the difference between analysis and synthesis).
    3. Increased Transfer (you are able to make vertical and horizontal connections).

      Let’s examine some practical approaches to use in the discovery of these hidden ideas:

      Break Apart + Put Back Together = Learning

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        My absolute favorite transfer of learning technique is one outlined by the Cabrera’s in Systems Thinking Made Simple:New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems. The technique is the “Parts Lessons Firetruck” and is a fun exercise to use with your children.

        Using this technique with my 3-year old daughter, I had the opportunity to demonstrate the Systems Rule (or part-whole) lesson with her by building a cardboard firetruck. By examining the firetruck through part-whole, my daughter was able to identify more parts of the truck than before.

        Applying what you already know

        Vertical or Far Transfer is the most critical. I recommend the following quick video published by Education Week for a deeper understanding of transfer of learning:

        Let’s take a quick look at the 5 strategies outline in the video for applying transfer of learning:

        • Explicit teaching. Using and applying what you are learning every day (an argumentative essay leads to persuading your boss to give you a raise).
        • Group learning. The more you are involved with a group in a classroom, the more likely you will be able to learn in a group while in the workforce.
        • Reflection. If taking notes in a class helps you learn a concept, then taking notes in other areas (i.e. class or work) will help you learn there as well.
        • Use analogies and metaphors. Analogies and metaphors take what you already know and apply it to a new situation to understand it better.
        • Generalizing. Push yourself to generalize broader principles from specific situations. If you study one thing and uncover elements needed to create something, use the same approach and discover key elements for another.

        How to apply transfer of learning (Step-by-step guide)

        You might be wondering, how can I apply this?

        It’s actually quite simple:

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        Step 1. Use previous knowledge

        Let’s say you previously learned how to play the game Wei-chi (aka Go). Using your understanding of the game, you can apply those skills in another context.

        Step 2. Applying previous knowledge to a new context (contexts that appear alien to one another)

        If you are in a position where you must understand the strategy of another country (for example: China), you could use your previous knowledge (the game of Wei-chi).

        Step 3. Strengthening connections

        The game of Wei-chi and understanding the strategy of China are two highly abstract (yet identical) concepts. As you dive deep into your learning process (understanding of China), you will find your understanding of Wei-chi will assist you in your conscious search for new connections.

        Step 4. Document and reflect on new connections

        Make sure to document your ideas and connections throughout the transfer of learning process. Reflect throughout the process and think (cognition) about your thinking (metacognition). This will improve your ability to abstract profound principles underlying the new idea being examined.

        Hidden connections between ideas

        Lastly, let me demonstrate how I use transfer of learning everyday.

        As an author of books on foster care and a former foster child myself, my mind is always coming up with ways to fix the foster care system. One of the things I am currently researching is how to build a more effective and efficient communication network to quickly help a child who is being abused.

        Due to my understanding of transfer of learning, I was able to immediately grasp the importance of uncovering the link between two completely different ideas.

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          First, I came across an article on asknature.org while searching for ways termites and ants communicate. In an article titled Collaborating for Group Decisions, I noticed two key sentences:

          • The researchers will develop ad hoc communication networks to spread critical information among first responders, similar to how a virus spreads.
          • Models of collaboration based on the study of ants and bees may be useful in understanding the basic principles and best practices when developing strategies to coordinate knowledge sharing in chaotic social settings.

          The key elements I connected were: how a virus spreads and knowledge sharing. Thus, I am working on a strategy in foster care to collaborate (and communicate) and spread knowledge like a virus (specifically Influenza A). This led me to an analysis of two key concepts:

          1. I had to analyze (break apart) the structure of the Influenza Virus and Network Theory (I chose to focus on Small World and Decentralized Networks).
          2. I then had to synthesize (put them back together as a new whole) and form my idea on how to improve communication and spread knowledge like a virus in the foster care system.

          It is only through the discovery of hidden connections between ideas and by introducing “Thinking” back into the equation that we can gain actual Knowledge. A special thanks to Derek and Laura Cabrera for introducing me to DSRP!

          I will leave you with one last quote,

          “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose!” – Dr. Seuss

          Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

          Reference

          [1] Derek and Laura Cabrera: Thinking at Every Desk

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          Last Updated on July 17, 2019

          The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

          The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

          What happens in our heads when we set goals?

          Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

          Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

          According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

          Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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          Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

          Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

          The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

          Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

          So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

          Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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          One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

          Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

          Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

          The Neurology of Ownership

          Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

          In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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          But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

          This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

          Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

          The Upshot for Goal-Setters

          So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

          On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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          It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

          On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

          But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

          More About Goals Setting

          Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

          Reference

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