Theory in Practice: What learning is

Important reflections from the Education Bookcast podcast by Stanislaw Pstrokonski

As educational professionals and practitioners, one of the most important skills we can demonstrate is the ability to translate models of thinking and learning into practice. Stanislaw Pstrokonski’s Education Bookcast on “What learning is” introduces the three-part model of the mind and relates it to other theories that can be applied in educational settings as well as everyday life. Since the podcast is over an hour-long, I’m going to summarise the most important aspects of that model, and how they may affect teaching styles and school policies.

The three-part model breaks down the mind into the following parts:

  • The computer – your long-term memory. In other words, it is the entirety of your accumulated knowledge and skills.

  • The chimp – your mind’s emotional component. Though quick to react and hard to control, it can be conditioned by habits ingrained in your long-term memory.

  • The human – your short-term memory and the object of your focus and attention.

There are a few other things to remember before we translate this model into practice.

The most essential point – learning is the process of adding to one’s long-term memory.

Keeping that in mind, you also need to understand the following:

  • The computer is the only part of the mind that can be actively changed (through learning, or forgetting, for example).

  • When experiencing a situation, the computer is the fastest to act, then the chimp, and finally the human.

    • This means the computer is actually influencing your perception of the situation!
  • The human has a limited capacity to hold information, which means it can become cognitively overloaded, so the computer is a more efficient method of information storage.

What are the implications for teaching?

The model illustrates that the most important variable for learning is the level of expertise you have already acquired. If presented with a completely new subject, we have no long-term memory to draw on, which means we are forced to focus all our short-term memory on the task, thereby becoming cognitively overloaded.

For example, young students introduced to the idea of atoms generally have no preconceptions of such a tiny, imperceptible thing. Add this to the fact that atoms combine in certain ways to make molecules which form all matter, and the short-term memory of these young students has many new concepts on which to focus, prompting cognitive overload.

The consequences of this are apparent in discovery learning. Experts who have compartmentalised knowledge on a subject learn better by being told to solve a problem than do novices, who have no preconditioning on how to approach the problem. From this, we can see it is most effective for teachers to directly dictate knowledge on new subjects.

In doing so, however, teachers may be susceptible to expert blindness. This is when an authority in the field has stored knowledge so deeply in their long-term memory that they forget the process by which they learned this knowledge, making it very difficult to transmit to novices.

Both education professionals and students should also be wary of confirmation bias, a positive reaction to information that confirms previously held beliefs and values, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the overestimation of competence that accompanies a limited gain of skill in a certain domain. These are directly catalysed by long-term memory influencing our perceptions.

Finally, since our working memories are limited in space, and our long-term memory automatically impacts our thinking before conscious reasoning even begins, the benefits of critical thinking, though lauded as a universal solution, pale in comparison to the power of knowledge and expertise stored in long-term memory.

Listen to ‘What learning is’ episode in full

About the Author:

Luke Kemper

Luke Kemper is Insight and Intelligence Lead at HEP. He recently graduated from the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in Education, Globalisation and International Development. Before that, he worked for seven years as a university lecturer and high school teacher in China and Poland.