Learning and knowledge

Learning is an essential mental process (not only for human beings) and deserves a special attention. Psychology has extensively studied this subject and made a significant contributions to its understanding. In fact, several ‘gradients' of learning can be distinguished.

 

1. The simplest form of learning, but by no means simple, is often referred to as reflex conditioning (or its variant instrumental conditioning). For example, if you ring a bell every time when a dog gets food, eventually it will start salivating on hearing a bell even in the absence of food. The term reflex conditioning, though, has somewhat misleading connotation. Animals or humans are not completely passive in this process, as these words suggest. It is experimentally proven that at least the initial stages of conditioning involve cortical activity, indicating that any response is a purposeful act motivated by goal attainment. Penfield points out that ‘every learned reaction that becomes automatic was first carried out within the light of conscious attention and in accordance with understanding of the mind' (Penfield, 1975, p.59). Thus, it is more plausible to assume, in line with Popper and Eccles' reasoning (1977, 503), that the stimuli incite particular expectations (perhaps in the form of an image such as food) that then trigger a certain response. Of course, if such a response produces desirable results, in time it will become automatic. This is concurrent with the notion that a reward contributes to motivation rather than learning, as ‘latent learning' experiments confirm. Animals (and humans) learn even if they do not have any incentive to do so, probably as a result of innate drives to explore and form cognitive maps.

 

2. A more complex form is cognitive learning. There are a number of learning types in this category.

  • The basic one is memorising. As already discussed, although we may spontaneously remember some isolated pieces of information, memorising usually requires active participation (investing an effort, concentration).
  • Observational learning (imitating or mimicking others) belongs to this category too. This learning is not straightforward either. It is a sort of experimentation or a role-play, testing what outcomes particular behaviour produces.
  • Insight learning is yet another type. Sometimes, the solution to a problem for example, is found in an instant, with a sudden grasp of the concept. Something clicks when we discover a new, central connection that reveals a larger picture or other possibilities and connections, like a piece of a jigsaw that reveals where the other parts fit. These insights enable the integration of new information in a meaningful way. They can be understood as a product of the accumulative pressure that a sustained intent creates, which usually requires a period of incubation (seeming passivity). Certain techniques or faculties (e.g. intuition) may facilitate this process, but this does not mean that such insights are reserved for humans. It is observed that some primates are also capable of learning in this way (see, for example, Köhler, 1925).

 

3. The most interesting and complex type of learning is learning that besides memorising also involves understanding (that can be tacit, as in the process of learning new skills). The term learning, in fact, commonly refers to this type. We learn meanings, or the relations of one stimulus to another, which is what makes it different from just memorising. Such learning involves extrapolations - awareness of principles behind the specific events, procedures or tasks, and thus requires an active self. As any good teacher knows, proper learning needs understanding, and understanding implies attention. If no active effort is made, no learning of this type occurs. Experiments with animals (e.g. the ‘kitten carousel' mentioned earlier, p183) and some educational methods (e.g. learning though discovery) show that the more proactive learning is, the better it is. Real learning, therefore, is a dynamic process that cannot be reduced to conditioned responses or training. For example, an infant puts shis hand in a fire, gets burned and ‘learns' not to do it any more. Scientists at the beginning of the 20th century carry pieces of radioactive material in their pockets because they glow, get leukaemia, and ‘learn' not to do it anymore. However, this is very different from understanding why fire burns skin, and why a radioactive material kills. Hence, this type of learning deserves a category of its own.

 

The result of learning is knowledge. Learning creates a network, it is a process of constructing information and experience (the materials of awareness) by selecting, separating, linking, sorting, generalising and storing information on the basis of formal or tacit principles. Knowledge is this network. Knowledge acquisition starts from setting boundaries to possibilities in order to open new ones on a different level. So, learning at first limits, but then expands one's freedom. For instance, learning to ride a bike narrows the possible ways of riding a bike (excluding all the ‘bad' ones), but knowing how to do it well enables a greater freedom of movement. Learning and accepting chess rules limits the number of possible moves, but it allows the freedom to play chess in a meaningful way and endless combinations within the given boundaries. This of course does not refer only to practical skills, but to empirical and theoretical knowledge too. Learning and understanding how physical forces work, for example, limits the number of possible interpretations, but then using that knowledge allows operating within a larger perspective, which opens further possibilities.

 

The relationship between awareness and learning

Awareness and learning are closely related, but they are not the same (they are qualitatively different mediums). Unlike awareness, learning constructs the materials, but it does not have a focus (constructs have no focus). Moreover, although awareness can be, it is not necessarily accumulative, while learning always is (characterised by ‘becoming' rather than ‘being').