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Types of Learning


     Teaching English literature to college students is certainly different than teaching woodworking to ninth graders. Teaching swimming to high schoolers is certainly different than teaching the alphabet to kindergartners. Traditionally we divide all learning into subject matter areas - mathematics, science, history, music, language, and so on. But this is certainly not the only way to divide up learning. In this chapter I will present different categories than these traditional ones. In fact I will present two systems of classification that cross each other. Most subjects have some components of each type. In future chapters I will try to show how these systems of classification are relevant to the practical matters of teaching and learning.

     In the first set of categories all learning can be divided into:

1. Perceptual

2. Motor

3. Conceptual

Perceptual learning consists of making sense out of sensory stimuli. An example of perceptual learning would be a young child learning to recognize the letters of the alphabet. Associations are made between the visual stimulus - the sight of the letter "p" for example - and the concept of the letter that is being built up in the child's mind. Other examples of perceptual learning would be learning to make sense out of what one sees through a microscope, learning to judge distances while driving a car, learning to identify birds by subtle difference in their songs, learning to read Braille, and so on.

     Perceptual learning can be guided to some extent by language and thought, but it cannot be totally reduced to language. The sensory stimulus must be available to the learner. When learning to identify trees by leaf and bark characteristics, for example, one can be guided as to what to look for by verbal instructions of the teacher, and one can use conceptual thought to form comparisons, categories, and so on, to aid the learning. However such guidance and aid is limited. Without the visual and tactile sensations of the actual specimens, the raw sensory data that is, one could hardly expect to learn to tell one tree from another.

     Once a particular element of perceptual learning is learned then it acquires conceptual associations and can be represented in language, and since it can be represented it can be handled. For example once a person knows what "green" means, then the word "green" is an adequate representation of the visual stimulus, and of the concept that has been built up in the learner's mind. This concept and its name can then be used in conceptual learning. When the teacher says "Color the grass green.", it is meaningful to the student.

     Perceptual learning is very important in the first year of life. The infant must make sense out of the world by what he perceives through his senses. In Chapter Two I talked about how a child must learn that certain sights, sounds, and feelings are recurring, and that they form consistent patterns. However I think there is a step before that. Before sights , sounds, and feelings, can be organized, the child must first learn to deal with sights, sounds, and feelings. That is he must learn to see. He must learn to hear. He must learn to feel. In Chapter Two, when introducing the idea of structures of knowledge, I gave the examples of trying to identify and remember bird songs, and of trying to remember and learn to pronounce the German umlaut vowels. I used these as examples of the rare instances in which we are exposed to raw sensory input input later in life. They also are good examples of perceptual learning, for we must learn to perceive them, and that is not easy or automatic. I will use these examples again in the next chapter when I discuss perception as a skill.

     Only after one learns how to perceive, to at least some extent, can perceptual patterns must become recognized. When perceptual patterns become recognizable then concepts can become possible, which in turn make possible the vast edifices of knowledge that are to come in later years.

     Motor learning, the second basic type of learning, is what we do with our muscles. Examples of motor learning would be learning to shift gears in a car, learning to hold a spoon, learning to draw letters with a crayon, learning to break an egg, and so on. Motor learning is essentially a trial and error process. One executes a movement, and if that movement does not produce the desired result one tries a different movement. Motor learning is dependent on perception. One must perceive the results of one trial before one is in a position to try again. This perception may be in any of the senses. For example in learning to speak a child uses his sense of hearing to give him feedback. If this feedback is not available, if the child is deaf, then he cannot learn to speak, at least not as others do. Learning to draw is dependent on the sense of sight for feedback. Learning to walk is dependent on the proprioceptive sense (the sense that tells us just where each part of our body is at any given moment) and the vestibular sense (the sense that enables us to keep track of our bodily motion and position.)

     Motor learning, like perceptual learning, is very important in the first year of childhood. One depends totally on motor ability to manipulate his environment, and manipulation of the environment is crucial to all further learning. The child moves his legs and arms to get from place to place. He moves his eyes to obtain visual sensations. He moves his tongue, lips, jaws, and larynx to produce sounds and words. If all these motor abilities were blocked in some way the child's ability to learn would be severely curtailed, no matter how much native potential his brain might have.

     Motor learning, like perceptual learning, can be guided by language and thought, but it cannot be reduced completely to language. For example in learning to swing a golf club one can structure one's practice according to instructions from another person and one's own thoughts of how best to practice. However without the opportunity to do the actual practice, to swing the club at a ball, one cannot learn the motor skill. Like perceptual learning, motor learning can be reduced to concepts, and to language, once the learning is complete. For example once a person has learned the basic movements of hitting a golf ball he can call that the "basic swing" and he can learn a variation of that basic swing and give it a different name. He can conceptualize and name the different components of the various swings and converse with others about the subject.

     The third type of learning is conceptual. This is often called "cognitive" learning, and as I understand the term it is synonymous with what I am referring to as conceptual learning. The essential feature of conceptual learning is that is involves concepts. Concepts derive, as I pointed out in Chapter Two, from perceptual and motor leaning, and by recombination of simpler concepts. Examples of conceptual learning would be learning that Columbus discovered America. This learning consists of making association among the concepts of "Columbus", "America", and "discovery". There are many, many more concepts involved in this learning also, of course, for each of these three concepts, "Columbus," "America", and "discovery" is a complex of associations among simpler concepts that go clear back to the sensory experience of earliest childhood. Other examples of conceptual learning would be learning that the distance around a circle is 3 1/7 times the distance through the circle, or learning that air is made up mostly of nitrogen, or learning that blue is considered to be a "cool color".

     Conceptual learning, at least beyond the stage of very early childhood, is guided primarily by language. In most situations the entire idea to be conveyed can be translated into a string of words, as I discussed in Chapter Six. If it cannot be translated to a string of words it often means that a perceptual or motor learning component is involved. It may also mean, and this is worthy of elaboration at another time, that the idea is new enough that it is very hard to translate into words.

     Any given course or topic may consist predominantly of only one type of learning, or it may be a combination of more than one type. For example a high school history course is almost totally a matter of conceptual learning. Learning the letters of the alphabet by a very young child is primarily a matter of perceptual and conceptual learning. Learning to write the letters of the alphabet is primarily a matter of motor learning.

     Learning to drive a car is a good example of a combination of all three types of learning, and all three types are vitally important if one is to be a competent and safe driver. If the student driver cannot skillfully use the brake, a matter of motor learning, then he will not be a good driver. If he cannot adequately judge the speed and position of other cars, a matter of perceptual learning, then he will not be a good driver. And if he does not understand the rules of the road and the rationale behind these rules, a matter of conceptual learning, then again he cannot be a good driver.

     Now I will discuss the second set of categories into which all learning can be divided. These categories are:

1. associations

2. skills

3. habits

     I will discuss associations in this chapter, but will have separate chapters for skills and habits.

     An association is a connection. It may be a connection between one concept and another, or it may be a connection between a perception and a motor action, or between a perception and another perception, or between a concept and a motor action, and so on for all possible combinations of perceptions, motor actions, and concepts.

     There are six combinations if we do not consider the order. These would be:

perceptual-perceptual associations

perceptual-motor associations

perceptual-conceptual associations

motor-motor association

motor-conceptual associations

conceptual-conceptual associations

     However there are times when the order should be considered. Often an association is a matter of stimulus-response. For example one sees a bird and thinks of morning. The sight of the bird is a perceptual stimulus and that is associated with the concept of morning. That is a perceptual-conceptual association. However the reverse association may not be made. Thinking about morning may not be a stimulus for imagining the sight of a bird. Not all associations are symmetrical. Thus to be exhaustive one would have to consider nine types of associations:

1. perceptual-perceptual
2. perceptual-motor
3. perceptual-conceptual

4. motor-perceptual
5. motor-motor
6. motor-conceptual

7. conceptual-perceptual
8. conceptual-motor
9. conceptual-conceptual

     I will attempt to give examples of each of these nine categories. However I will not take them in the order I listed them. Rather I will take them in approximate order of their importance, and number them as I have above.

9. Conceptual-conceptual associations form the bulk of the great edifices of knowledge that we build in academic subjects. When we learn that Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1519, we are making conceptual-conceptual associations - associations among the concepts of "Balboa", "Pacific Ocean", and "1519". And of course each of these concepts is built up of many other associations. Almost all the examples I gave when discussing structures of knowledge consists of conceptual-conceptual associations.

     Conceptual-conceptual associations may be add-on elements in a structure of knowledge. Or they may be implied elements. We use implication to derive these implied elements, and if we do not understand the implication we are missing something very important. But we remember them as simple associations.

     Language is the medium by which concepts can be manipulated and new associations made. And a language, of course, is a vast number of conceptual-conceptual associations.

1. Perceptual-perceptual associations allow us to make sense out of the vast amount of sensory information we receive. I believe face recognition is a very good example to begin with. We are amazed to read how some animals can identify their young by smell and will reject any young animal that doesn't smell right. I think it is no less amazing that we instantly recognize individuals by sight. I believe face recognition works by building up and storing perceptual-perceptual associations. A recognizable face is recognizable because of the many visual associations we make. We may be very conscious of some of these associations, but not all. For example we might be aware that Joe has brown hair, a prominent chin, and a narrow nose, or that Fred has big ears. This conscious verbal awareness, however, is only a very small part of how we recognize faces. Brown hair does not always mean "Joe", and big ears do not always mean "Fred" . We may use these features to remember Joe and Fred, but only in association with many other features about Joe and Fred. Subtle lines, colors, textures, and shapes are all associated together as a face. Only a talented and very verbal artist could begin to put into words all these features that are visually associated. Once these visual associations are made we can recognize Joe and Fred without trouble. When we first meet a new person we do not automatically make these associations. But with a few exposures to that person we easily make the associations necessary to recognize him or her. A teacher attempting to remember names and faces of a new class at the beginning of the school year may be acutely aware of the difficulty in making enough associations to fluently remember who is who. Each new face, for the first few days of the new school year, makes the teacher ask herself, "Now, who's that? Is that Jenny? Or do I know her? Is she in my class?" Then after a few weeks she forgets that there was ever any problem in recognizing a hundred or more new faces.

     Visual-aural associations, visual-aural-olfactory associations, and perhaps even visual-aural-tactile associations may be involved in person recognition. These are also perceptual-perceptual associations. And of course perceptual-conceptual associations play a part in person recognition.

     It might be pointed out that our brains have special equipment that makes face recognition possible, even routine. It might also be pointed out that face recognition could be considered instinctual. We have both the equipment and the innate motivation to identify and remember faces. I agree. My point is only that perceptual-perceptual associations are the way that faces and persons are recognized. Similarly we have the brains and innate exploratory drives that make academic structures of knowledge possible. Again it is not relevant at this point to argue nature versus nurture.

     A great many perceptual-perceptual associations are built into our daily lives and we are not aware of them until they cause problems.. Consider this example: A person gets his car from the repair shop and finds it feels funny. He thinks it isn't right some way and wonders if he should take it back to the shop. The mechanic replaced the clutch. The driver has many perceptual associations between the feel of the clutch and the actions of the car. When the mechanic reassembled the parts he adjusted the clutch travel a little bit differently than it was previously. Therefore slightly different actions of the car are associated with the feel of the clutch. The perceptual-perceptual associations in the mind of the driver are "out of sync".

2. An example of perceptual-motor associations would be any reflex. Of course many reflexes are built in. An association can be "hard wired" or "softwired". Moving one's lips while reading would be "soft-wired" perceptual-motor associations. Jerking one's finger away from a hot stove would be a "hard-wired" perceptual motor association. But again nature versus nurture is not immediately relevant.

     Bicycle riding is very heavily dependent on perceptual-motor associations. A bicyclist keeps his balance by constant minute posture and steering adjustments prompted by vestibular, proprioceptive, and visual stimuli. He doesn't have to think about these adjustments. They are automatic, because he has acquired an adequate repertoire of appropriate perceptual-motor associations. Bicycle riding is also a skill of course, as I will discuss shortly. The skill, however, rests on a repertoire of perceptual-motor associations.

3. Perceptual-conceptual associations are exceedingly common. Whenever we see a word we associate it with a concept or concepts. Any symbol is a perceptual-conceptual association, or complex of associations. Learning to read is primarily a matter of building up a vast repertoire of fluent perceptual-conceptual associations. We interface with the environment by having perceptual-conceptual associations. Whenever we hear the sound of a motor or an airplane or bird we associate it with a concept or concepts.

7. Conceptual-perceptual associations are what we are concerned with when we talk about imagination. A writer wants to make good use of these associations. A writer has only words. Words are attached to concepts, but concepts are associated with many perceptions.

8. Conceptual-motor associations would involve a concept leading to an action. When one plans to go to the library then one plans motor actions to accomplish this goal. This is true on a very broad scale, and also on a very minute scale. Each little movement of one's foot on a brake pedal may be associated with one's intention of stopping at a gas station on the way home from work to get gas so as to not have to stop for gas at a less convenient time the next day. "Motor planning" is very important in human behavior, but is usually not at all evident until special circumstances, such as a stroke, impair it. I believe motor planning consists of, or at least relies on, conceptual-motor associations.

6. Motor-conceptual associations are a little more obscure. It would involve thinking of something as a result of doing something. Reaching for a key might remind one that the house is vulnerable to theft. Shifting gears in a car might bring to mind the need for transmission repair.

4. Motor-perceptual associations are similarly obscure. It would involve perceiving something, or bringing to mind a perception of something, as a result of doing something. An example might be a person picking up his car keys and as a result remembering the smell of the car when it was new. Or one might demonstrate a dance step and as a result remember a bit of music from a high school prom.

5. Motor-motor associations are formed when a child learns to follow an object with his eyes as he moves it with his hands. Of course perceptual-motor and motor-perceptual associations are also very prominent in this learning. This would be true of any other examples I can think of. Developing any motor skills depends on making a large number of motor-motor associations.

     Playing a musical instrument depends, among many other things, making a large number of motor-motor associations. I discovered this in my teenage years learning to play piano. I would learn a piece and be able to play it rather fluently, unless I somehow got stopped in the middle. And this would happen very often due to a very minor lapse in attention. Once I was stopped, I was stopped solid. I could not just continue where I was. I would have to begin again at either the beginning of the piece, or at least at the beginning of the preceding phrase. I did not think in terms of motor-motor associations then, but I did think in terms of stimulus and response. I concluded that the stimulus for one action was the playing of the previous action. Playing one note or chord is a response to playing the previous note or chord, and a stimulus for the playing of the next. Thus playing the whole piece consists of a stimulus-response chain. Ideally playing a piece should be a matter of responding to the stimulus of the printed music. This would be perceptual-motor associations, and of course that is very important in playing an instrument. However I concluded that this perceptual-motor connection was less important (at least to a polished performance) than the motor-motor connection. When I got stopped for any reason the printed notes on the page were not sufficient stimulus to get me going at the same spot where I got stopped. When a chain is broken at any point it fails entirely. Thus I could only begin at a spot where a new chain could be initiated, either at the beginning of the piece, or at the beginning of a section or phrase. If this were the case, I wondered, how could professional musicians manage to play piece after piece with apparent perfection? How perfect their stimulus-response chains must be, I wondered, to never be broken. The answer, of course, is that accomplished musicians don't operate solely on the basis of perfect stimulus-response chains. They use association nets, rather than association chains. A net can be broken in one place and still be a net, while a chain broken in one place is totally destroyed. But this is a topic to be developed elsewhere. The point here is that motor-motor association chains are very important in many motor skills.

     I will again list the nine combinations, this time with a term or two of example.

1. perceptual-perceptual - face recognition
2. perceptual-motor - reflexes, bike riding
3. perceptual-conceptual - symbols, reading

4. motor-perceptual - only obscure examples
5. motor-motor - piano playing
6. motor-conceptual - only obscure examples

7. conceptual-perceptual - imagination
8. conceptual-motor - motor planning
9. conceptual-conceptual - all academic subjects

     None of these examples are pure. Associations come in very large complexes. Consider this scenario: A person is driving home from work. He automatically responds to the road and traffic signals. Simply staying on the road is primarily a matter of using perceptual-motor associations. Few conceptual associations are needed. He doesn't have to give much attention to his routine driving. Each traffic sign or billboard he sees elicit many perceptual conceptual associations. A cigarette advertisement on a billboard leads him in a train of thought about a nephew who is probably sneaking cigarettes. This is a mass of conceptual-conceptual associations. He imagines his nephew trying to impress his classmates with his smoking. The imaginings are a complex of conceptual-perceptual associations. At a stop sign he does a "rolling stop" and then wishes he hadn't. For a few seconds he thinks about the two previous traffic tickets he got in the last year and remembers his resolve to be a very careful driver, since a third ticket could result in something more than a simple fine. He looks in his rear-view mirror and is relieved to see no sign of a police car. Again, all this cognition is a mass of conceptual-conceptual and conceptual-perceptual associations prompted by, (associated with) the perceptual input of his "rolling stop". While driving he thinks of the next day. Another chain of conceptual-conceptual associations lead to a chain of actions. He is traveling tomorrow, leaving at six in the morning. He thinks of filling the gas tank and looks down at the gas gauge. The motor actions of looking down are a complex of associations, primarily conceptual-motor. More conceptual-conceptual associations lead him to decide to stop for gas tonight instead of waiting for tomorrow. When he punches the button on his garage door opener transmitter he remembers that the garage door stalls when the weather gets cold. That reminds him that the washing machine has been making funny noises lately. He tries to imagines the machinery of the washing machine and what problem could account for the funny noises it has been making. Again this is a matter of conceptual-perceptual associations. Such complexes of vast numbers of associations of all combinations continue throughout our everyday lives.

     Daydreaming is a chain of free associations. One thing leads to another. One association elicits another. Daydreaming grades into directed thought. We call it "daydreaming" if we exercise very little control over it. We call it "work" when it must be carefully directed.

     Sometimes we want to explore associations we have. "Brainstorming" relies on this. In brainstorming a small group of people working on a problem get together and throw out ideas. The general rule is that any idea is expressed immediately without hesitation. Most ideas, of course, will be irrelevant or useless and dismissed. But a few ideas may not be irrelevant and useless. An idea that is dismissed by its originator might be pounced on by another person, simply because that other person has a little different perspective. I don't know if brainstorming like this works or not. I have never been in a situation where it was seriously tried. The point here is that is based on exploring and exploiting associations.

     Another way in which we explore our associations is in projective techniques. The Rorschach ink blot technique is an example of this. A person is shown a set of ink blots on paper and asked to relate what he sees in them. He may expose associations that the therapist would not have suspected and that may prove beneficial in overcoming his problems.

     The idea of association seems appropriate to many types of learning, but not at all appropriate to other types. To learn practically any subject we must firmly establish many associations. But that is not all there is to it. For instance it does not do much to explain how one figures out a problem in algebra or geometry. It does not explain problem solving in general. It does not explain how one learns a subject with a structure of implication (as discussed in Chapter Five). To explore how these subjects are learned I will go into the idea of skill.