The Learning Waterfall and Natural Learning

From a bird's-eye view, the natural learning process consists of three steps. These steps are arranged in sequence, like stages in a waterfall. The most important lesson we can draw from cognitive psychology is that schools must be configured to support, not short-circuit, this learning waterfall.

The Learning Waterfall

Adopt a Goal


Generate a Question


Develop an Answer

This diagram stresses the importance of setting the stage for learning. Getting answers is only the last part of the process. Without the earlier parts, people cannot learn from answers that are given to them.

The secret to why people are able to learn so much in their daily lives is really no secret at all. They learn about things that pertain to their goals -- they learn about things in which they are interested. Because they are interested, they try things out and sometimes fail. These failures, along with their interests, cause them to ask questions. Sometimes these questions are directed to outside sources like friends or books. But, often, these questions are internally-oriented, as when we ask ourselves, "Why did I do it that way?" or "How could I avoid looking so foolish again?" Once we have developed a question about some topic in which we are interested, then we are ready to learn the answer. After we have developed an answer (or are given one), we then have little trouble remembering it.

Moreover, in natural learning, a person has some experiences, wonders about them, and draws some conclusions. The specifics come first, the generalizations come later. The process of wondering serves to create indices in the person's memory. Those indices then tie the cases to each other, and to the generalizations the person forms. As the person has subsequent experiences that do not fit the generalization, they become indexed under it as exceptions. This process results in a "rich" generalization, to which is attached the following:

This rich indexing helps the student get reminded of the relevant generalization, and to go beyond it when it fails.

Schools, though, tend to present generalizations before specifics. But a generalization is really only valuable if you make it yourself. The reason for this is simple enough. Generalizations come from cases, lots of cases. If someone teaches you a generalization (a formula for example is a type of generalization that is typically taught) then it better be useful nearly every day, or you will most likely forget it. The generalizations we remember we make ourselves, drawing on the rich case base we have acquired that has, in a sense, forced us to make that generalization as a way of tying together what we know in a useful form. When we make such a generalization ourselves we can be sure to remember it because we obviously needed it. We needed it because the same kind of cases kept coming up and we needed to understand them. Generalization and understanding are intimately connected. Generalizations that we are told have no place to sit in memory, no cases they tie together, are quickly forgotten from lack of use. They are "lean" generalizations, isolated from the knowledge that would answer questions like "Why is it so?," "Why do I want to know it?," "What are the exceptions?" and "How does this impact on other things that I know?"

In summary, in order to take advantage of students' natural learning abilities, we must provide an environment which supports the learning waterfall. This means students must be allowed to pursue goals that interest them. And it means students must be allowed to try things out and fail. It also means students must be given answers only after they have generated questions. To leverage the processes of natural learning, we must offer answers on an as-needed basis. Instead of making the student conform to a schedule of instruction, we must make the schedule of instruction conform to the student.

The education system should take first things first. The system must first be concerned with goals, since before they can proceed to later stages of the waterfall, students must first acquire goals which interest them. Goals must underlie education.

Next Story The Teaching Architectures in the Learning Waterfall

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