Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Basics of learning

Life would be impossible for any animated living creature without learning. It would be interesting to know if any learning takes place for a fetus inside a mother's womb. But we can know for sure that learning exists immediately after the delivery of the baby from the womb. We are tempted to say that the baby's cry is a response to the environmental stimuli. Is this always true? Environmental stimuli include noise, light, etc. The fact is when the baby is fed with milk he stops crying. So is the baby cry a conditioned (CS) or unconditioned stimulus (IS)? But the most important thing to know before discussing whether the cry is a (CS) or an (IS) it is whether the response -feeding with milk- is a response to the cry. It simply is in the majority of cases. Discussing the nature of the stimulus is rather complex. Let's suppose it is a (CS) then we are in the classical conditioning case of Pavlov. The Pavlov's Classical conditioning occurs when a stimulus primarily unconditioned becomes conditioned when it is associated repeatedly with another unconditioned stimulus. Let me explain briefly the Pavlov's classical conditioning. Pavlov was a biologist who worked in the Russian military academy.. His interest in knowing how animals salivate to the presentation of food leads him to the theory of classical conditioning. Pavlov designed an experiment where food was presented to a dog while a bell was ringing simultaneously. The dog normally salivates to the presentation of food. But after different experiments where the food was presented jointly with the sound of a bell the dog learned to salivate to the sound of the bell alone. This is the Pavlov's classical conditioning. Another closed theory  is that of Thorndike called Instrumental Conditioning. I may devote a post where I can explain these theories in detail.

By the time a child is ready to go to school he/she has been exposed to these theories in everyday life. While these theories are widely used in formal and informal settings there is one missing component that wasn't taught to the child: it is how to learn. This is mainly how to master the learning of simple and complex academic subjects.

There are several factors that affect learning..Among many others we can consider the following: the environment, mental and physical health, methods of study, etc. If the room in which learning takes place is not properly lighted and aired learning can be impeded. Proper nutrition influences learning. Food with high levels of carbohydrates don't facilitate concentration. In particular it is recommended to consume food with levels of complex carbohydrates that can nourish the brain. Food with complex carbohydrate include lettuce, broccoli, carrots, onions and other leafy vegetables. Grains are also important. It is healthier to consume breads with fiber like wheat or grains instead of the white bread. Obviously learning cannot take place if one's mind is agitated.

There are some considerations to be taken when someone learns an academic subject. First the understanding of concepts is important. Sometimes they can be represented by pictures although it is not always possible in learning complex abstract subjects. Second a proper progression is important if one wants to master all the concepts of the subject. You can't solve a simple first degree equation like ax+b=0 if you don't know such concepts like inverse and opposite of a number, adding numbers, simplifying fractions among other basics. Third how can you pretend to solve an equation if you don't know what the words means in the first place. Ignoring the meaning of the concept can lead you to accept any solution. I was stunned to see the number of complex words in a kindergarten or first grade story book. At this stage the child not being able able to look up a word in a dictionary just misunderstands it and those misunderstandings carry out later in life in his study where he/she exhibits all kind of unpleasant behavior. 

Yves Simon, Educator and Civil Engineer.            .