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The Case Against Incidental Learning

Brian D. Rude    2004

       The other day I started learning the alphabet. This may sound a bit silly. How can I be writing this if I don’t know the alphabet yet?

       Yes, on the one hand it is silly. I know the alphabet. I learned it at the usual age, and in the usual way. But on the other hand it’s not so silly. Off and on over the years I became aware that I could know it better. Here’s a quiz. You have ten seconds to answer the following ten questions:

       1. What letter comes after K?

       2. What is the 10th letter of the alphabet.

       3. What letter comes immediately before R?

       4. What letter comes before the letter before K?

       5. Is Q an odd or an even letter? (based on numbering the letters.)

       6. Which comes first in the alphabet, T or V?

       7. What letter comes before X in the alphabet?

       8. Is U an odd or an even letter?

       9. What are the two middle letters in the alphabet?

       10. Recite alternate letters from M to U

       I just made up this quiz. When I first started thinking about these things it would probably have taken me several minutes to do it, not ten seconds. I’m not saying anyone should be able to do it in ten seconds, or that I can do it in ten seconds. I use it only to make a point. If incidental learning works, then why can’t we all do this quiz in ten seconds? We are exposed to the alphabet all our lives, in incidental ways. If incidental learning works, then shouldn’t we all know the alphabet pretty well by the time we reach middle age? Some of the questions in the quiz just depend on knowing the sequence of letters. Other questions require relating the letters to numbers, which might be seen as something more than just knowing the alphabet. But if incidental learning works then why don’t we pick up this letter-number correspondence somewhere along the way?

       I have long been aware that until I began this project I didn’t know the alphabet any better than I did at age ten, or at whatever age I was when the teacher no longer tried to teach us anything new about it, perhaps second grade. The standard of “knowing the alphabet” may vary among individuals, but I would say that to most of us the standard is pretty simple. If a child can recite it, we say he knows it. Is there anything more to it than that?

       My first clues that maybe there could be something more came from using the dictionary. I’m not saying I’m really bad at using the dictionary, but many years ago I became aware that I have two problems. One problem is distractibility. While looking up one word, I’ll see a word or picture of interest and waste minutes on that other word or picture. I could overcome this problem by simply resolving not to be distracted, no matter how interesting something that caught my eye might be. If I’m pressed for time I will actually do this. If I’m not pressed for time I’ll just enjoy the distractions. The other problem, and it’s not a big problem, was that I often wouldn’t know whether to go to the right or the left in the dictionary. If I were looking for a “P word” and I opened the dictionary to the “R words” which way should I go? Should I immediately know whether P comes before R, or after? I don’t know if I should automatically know or not, but I was aware that I didn’t, at least not immediately, at least not for all the letters. I would have to recite part of the alphabet in my mind. I would say “M, N, O, P, Q, R . . .” and then, and only then, would I know that P comes before R, so I should turn to the left. This mental recitation was not always necessary. If I were looking for a “C word” and I opened up the dictionary to the “G words” I would automatically know to go to the left. That would be the case for many pairs of letters, but not all, particularly in the second half of the alphabet. Does this mean I really don’t know the alphabet?

       I decided it means I didn’t know the alphabet as well as I could.

       There is another situation concerning the alphabet that would arise every once in a while. If I have seven objects and I wish to label them with letters, what will be the letter of the last object. Actually, with seven objects it’s always been easy for me. The 7th letter is G. It’s easy for me because there are seven notes in the diatonic scale in music, seven keys in each octave on the piano. All that is very familiar to me, so I know the seventh letter in the alphabet is G. But for any other number of objects it is not automatic. If I have ten objects what will be the letter of the last object? It turns out the tenth letter is J, and the 24th letter is X. Situations have arisen in my life where I learned these two. But should I know them all? Haven’t I lived long enough so that all the letters would become associated with numbers incidentally? I probably have. But if so, it didn’t stick with me, other than G is 7, J is 10, and X is 24.

       By incidental learning I simply mean learning that we do not intend to acquire, learning that is a wholly unintentional byproduct of other activities that we do. In contrast to incidental learning, we can use the term “directed learning” to mean things that we intend to learn, and take action to learn, and stick with it until we do learn. Directed learning may be self directed or directed by a teacher. Of course there is a broad and nebulous boundary line between the two, and the two may intermingle. We may learn a bit of information incidental to something we do, and then decide to acquire some related information that would be useful. Or we may gain a lot of knowledge incidental to engaging in directed learning.

       Lots of incidental learning is a part of any person’s life. I know a bit about South Dakota. My wife and I lived there for 25 years, so I know a few things that I didn’t really try to learn. But I didn’t become a historian or geographer from this incidental learning. And in many other ways I learned a lot incidentally. I learned things incidental to buying a replacement car every few years, but it didn’t make me a mechanic. I learned a few things incidental to having a computer, but not nearly as much as I would like. I learned a few things incidental to visiting relatives in Colorado. I learned a lot incidental to doing home repairs, and gardening, and lots of other things.

       Incidental learning certainly occurs everyday, but can we depend on it? Is it a good way to learn important things that we really need to know? This is not an idle or academic question. In fact I wonder if it might be the most important pedagogical question of the twentieth century. In 1918 James Kilpatrick wrote an essay, “The Project Method”. Over the next few decades the “activity method” was very much favored by those who believed in “progressive education.” Basically the idea of either the project method or the activity method is that instead of teaching subjects directly we can choose activities for the students to engage in, and from these activities they will learn whatever it is we want them to know. Actually, some would take the idea so far as to say we should not specify what they should learn. Just provide the activities, act as a facilitator when needed, but mainly get out of the way and let them learn. Wonderful things will happen. This perspective puts incidental learning front and center. And this perspective is alive and well today. I don’t know to what extent the “activity method” is emphasized in schools of education today, but its influence has been evident all of my lifetime in the education trends that come and go. Only recently, to my knowledge, has the term “direct instruction” gained currency, indicating the central idea of the activity method is finally being challenged.

       So the question of incidental learning is very important. I did not learn the alphabet well enough by incidental learning in my lifetime to do very well on the quiz I made up. Of course one may certainly argue that my quiz is trivial. No one needs to know the alphabet in that way. I would not argue that point either way. I decided to learn the alphabet better, and in a moment I will briefly describe how I accomplished this, to at least some extent. I did it simply as an exercise in learning. Whether it’s really worthwhile doing is beside the point for the moment.

       I want to bring in another example that is relevant to incidental learning, or the failure of incidental learning, in my personal experience. Many years ago, for a period of about two years, I had a 40 mile commute to work. This provided some thinking time each morning and evening, and one of the things I thought about during those drives was my route. I should know the road very well, at least after a couple of months, but a bit of introspection and analysis led me to believe I didn’t. “What’s around the next bend in the road?” I would ask myself, and discover I really didn’t know. After going around the bend I would discover another stretch of road that was very familiar, but I had not remembered that it was next. I realized that if I had to make a list of all features of my route that are identifiable and could be labeled, I would be hard pressed to remember them all, and I would not be very good at all at putting them in the right order. An old barn on the route might be very familiar, but between what mile markers was it? A particular crossroad may be very familiar, but what is the county highway number of that road? An old large tree might be very familiar, but was it north or south of the old barn? The more I thought about it the more I realized I could set up no end of similar questions for which I would not know the answer, at least not from incidental learning. I didn’t think in terms of a quiz then, like my alphabet quiz, but it would be very easy to make such a quiz, and I would flunk it flat.

       Just a few years ago, going to graduate school, I had a 75 mile commute three times a week. Vaguely remembering my thinking of my old commute of years ago, I decided right from the start to learn much more about those 75 miles. There were two ways I could organize all the identifiable features on the route. There was a mile road every mile with one numbering system, and there were green mile marker signs posted with another numbering system. I used these two numbering systems as the basic frame work to learn the route. After a few months I could remember every mile road and every mile marker. I not only knew what was around every bend in the road, I also knew what mile markers or mile road I was approaching or had passed. I purposely memorized a lot of details that I would not have done had I not made a special effort.

       Again I wasn’t thinking in terms of a quiz, but I could have been. I could have written out a quiz that I could pass quickly and easily, but I would expect that another person who made the same commute several times a week would not pass. The difference, of course, was incidental learning versus directed learning. I worked at learning the route. A person who drove the same route, but did not work at learning it, would think he knows the route very well, because everything on it is very familiar. But he would flunk my quiz.

       Presently I again have a 40 mile commute to work everyday. Remembering my grad school route, and the concentration it took to really learn it well, I decided to do the same thing again. However I lacked the concentration needed to do it right this time. After a few months I had memorized a lot of details, then lost interest. Recently I have become painfully aware of how much I forgot. I’ll go under an overpass and realize I don’t know if that’s exit 324 or exit 328. And the bridge I cross, it’s very familiar of course, but does that mean I’m on mile 335 or mile 338? Many of the details I learned a year ago are slipping away. Shall I concentrate on them again and relearn them? Or is it worth the effort? One thing is clear, incidental learning will not do the job. I’ll have to concentrate, work at it, if I want to recover and remember those details.

       Incidental learning didn’t improve my knowledge of the alphabet in the last 50 years, I decided, just as incidental learning didn’t give me a firm grasp of all the details of my commute. But concentration and directed learning can improve my knowledge of the alphabet, so I decided to concentrate on it for awhile. The first thing I did was make a set of cards. On the front of each card I put a letter of the alphabet, and on the back of the card I put the number of that letter. “A” is “1”, “B” is “2”, and so on. Then I began to drill. First I drilled on only the first ten letters of the alphabet, then over a period of days increased the number until I was drilling on the entire set. Usually I would spend perhaps ten or fifteen minutes on this drill. Much of this was simply calling off the number of the letter of each card, then going on to the next card. There were many variations I used to break up the drill. I would lay out the cards in rows of five each. The top row would be the letters A through E, the next row F through J, then K through O, and so on. “Counting by fives” with letters is E, J, O, T, Y. Then I would lay out the cards in rows of four. “Counting by fours” with letters is D, J, L, P, T, X.

       Another exercise using these flash cards is to name the preceding letter for each card, or the subsequent letter. Another is to learn the alphabet backwards. Yet another is to lay down one card, and then immediately lay down the next card either to the right or the left of the first card depending on whether the second card is before or after the first card in the alphabet.

       Drill is not popular in modern education (“modern” being anything in the twentieth century - educational trends at the end of the century seem not to have progressed much from educational trends at the beginning of the century). In fact some critics of “traditional teaching practices” would say that what I have described is mind-numbing, soul-deadening, oppressive, unenlightened, and anything else negative that we can think of. Wouldn’t it be nothing short of cruelty to actually inflict this sort of thing on school children?

       How did we learn our multiplication tables? Actually, the answer to that is not simple. When children are first exposed to the multiplication tables they are also exposed to the idea of multiplication. The idea of multiplication requires a lot of explanation. A lot of this explanation gives incidental practice in remembering the multiplication facts. We also need to learn to apply the idea of multiplication to doing written problems, this also gives incidental practice in remembering the multiplication facts. Teachers may think of many activities that give practice in remembering the multiplication facts. But all this is not enough. Working with flash cards still has a place in the process, an important place. I remember the teacher using flash cards when I was in elementary school. It never occurred to me that I was being subjected to child abuse at that time.

       It is important, I think, to realize that the intensity of mental effort is relatively high when doing flash card drills. This concept, intensity of mental effort, is an important one, and needs to be kept in mind in any part of teaching and learning. I discussed it in terms of texture in Chapter Six1 of my proposed book on the principles of teaching and learning. Anything that requires a high intensity of mental effort should be compensated for by being held to short periods of time.

       The idea that drill is unpleasant for children seems to me to be mainly a figment of the imagination of some educators. Just because it requires a high level of intensity of mental effort does not mean it is unpleasant. Musicians drill intensively and extensively to learn their music. Football players drill intensively and extensively to learn their game. When well managed I think this intensity of mental effort is an appeal of drill

       “Speed drills at the board” were a part of my learning of arithmetic in elementary school. Perhaps this has gone out of style in American education. We are all losers if that is the case. I am referring to the situation in which all students (or maybe only half the class at a time if there is not enough board space) go to the board, the teacher reads off a problem, and the students then race to complete it. “Going to the board” to do arithmetic problems is not always only for drill in speed and accuracy. Sometimes it can be done at a methodical pace to help students figure something out. Either way the situation can contribute to the concentration needed to learn many topics. When well managed students enjoy these activities. There is, to be sure, an element of competition. That is part of its appeal. Competition should always be managed carefully. It has the potential of getting out of hand and becoming a problem, but we don’t reject football on that account. And we shouldn’t reject either football, music, or flash card drills because they require a high intensity of mental effort.

       Drill of any sort should be managed carefully, but it remains an important part of learning many subjects. It is part of the “isolate and concentrate” mode (as opposed to the “spread and relate” mode)2 of learning. Incidental learning, almost by definition, is not concentrated. But we have to concentrate in order to learn a lot of things. You won’t learn to play the piano without concentration. You won’t learn arithmetic without concentration. You won’t learn about the Civil War without concentration.

       Concentration is not limited to academic subjects. In everyday life we take concentration for granted in many ways. We expect to concentrate on the grocery list before we leave home to go shopping. We expect to concentrate on the road, and the next intersection, when driving. We expect to concentrate on the instructions on how to hook up the new VCR. We expect to concentrate on the directions to a friends house. We expect to concentrate on figuring out the phone bill. We expect to concentrate when choosing paint for a bedroom. Incidental learning is not adequate for many activities of everyday life. We must concentrate. We must direct our efforts toward learning. It’s true that any of these activities may lead to frustration at times, when we concentrate hard on them and they don’t work out. That should be kept in mind whenever we ask students to concentrate on some item of school work. But we don’t give up on life because of occasional frustration. We are capable of concentration, and we want to use that capability, both in everyday life and in school.

       As I mentioned before, the distinction between incidental learning and directed learning can be problematic. The terms are inexact, and often related to context. Is figuring out the phone bill an example of directed learning or incidental learning? We may call it directed learning if it requires considerable concentration. Or we may call it incidental learning because in the big picture it may be considered incidental to keeping the family finances taken care of. Generally what I think of as directed learning is on a much larger scale. Figuring out the phone bill may require minutes of concentration, but not hours. Figuring out the Civil War may take hundreds of hours of concentrated effort.

       I will describe a situation that comes to mind when thinking about these things, and which was instrumental in my thinking about incidental learning. This situation involves several friends, and their incidental learning. Their incidental learning is very substantial, yet painfully short of the learning these friends would like to have. A few years back I was a member of an amateur polka band. In fact I was the driving force behind it. My background in music includes approximately the equivalent of a music major, so I could arrange music to fit our group. My friends in the polka band, most of them at least, were purely amateurs, and they played mostly by ear. Though their knowledge was limited, their enthusiasm and interest were great. Some of these friends took a rather fatalistic attitude toward their lack of musical knowledge. There were somewhat aware of the vast amount that can be learned about music, but their attitude seemed to be that having failed to learn music in their youth, they were in no position to learn it now. They were simply going to enjoy what they could do. But one friend in particular was a little more ambitious. He would take on a few learning goals, and he would make a bit of progress. There were times when I would explain something musical, like what it means to say the mandolin is tuned in fifths, just like the violin, and he would show obvious interest. He wanted to know music to a much greater extent. He looked forward to retirement in a few years when he planned to make music a lot more than just one evening a week. His knowledge of music, however, was mostly the result of incidental learning. Apparently he had never had any lessons He knew a lot, but was still terribly limited in what he knew and could learn. Primarily he played string bass, mainly by playing the root and fifth of each chord on the first and third beat of the measure. But he could also play various chords on guitar, mandolin, banjo, and perhaps a few other instruments. So chords were very meaningful to him, but he did not understand the technical differences among the various types. One day he said something that indicated he would like to understand the technical difference between major and minor chords.

       I don’t think I ever had occasion to try to explain the difference to him, but it got me to thinking. I tried to figure out in my own mind how I could explain it to him. I always came to the same conclusion. I can’t. Really understanding the chords technically depends on a solid knowledge and understanding of scales and intervals, which in turn depends on a solid knowledge and understanding, and a substantial level of fluency, in standard musical notation. This fluency in notation, for those who have it, normally comes from more than just a few years of piano lessons, or from playing an instrument for a number of years in school. Students who plan to major in music in college normally have this, and often quite a bit more. People who play mostly by ear, though they’ve been doing it all their lives, do not. They may have learned a lot of music incidental to this lifetime of playing by ear, but they do not have a foundation that enables them to understand the technical difference between a major and minor chord. That foundation consists primarily of fluency in decoding standard musical notation, and that does not come with incidental learning. It comes from direct instruction, from lots and lots of practice and drill, over an extended period of time. When this foundation is in place, which it usually is for college music majors, then understanding the difference between major and minor chords is quite simple. My friend, I believe, for whom this foundation is not in place, will never have more than a superficial understanding of the difference between major and minor chords. His incidental learning in music is substantial, but still very limiting.

       One might argue that the expertise of some amateurs is evidence of the potential of incidental learning. Probably there are some amateur musicians who have put in the concentration necessary to learn much more than the friends I have described. I’m sure such people exist, but I have not known any among the fair number of amateur musicians that I have made music with. I understand there are amateur astronomers who attain such sophisticated knowledge that they contribute substantially to the field of astronomy. But I would argue that their knowledge is not gained incidentally. Their knowledge is gained by adopting learning goals and then intensively pursuing these goals. They may not have formal instruction in astronomy, but they have still put in the concentration that is needed. They are the people who are highly intelligent and focused to start with. They can concentrate, so their learning is not best described by the term “incidental”. This can also be done by amateur musicians, but in my observation very few do. And most importantly, amateur musicians, amateur astronomers, and any other amateurs who accomplish real learning are very rare.

       Incidental learning can accumulate to impressive size sometimes, but that does not mean that it will usually, or dependably, accumulate to the degree necessary to build on. If everyone learned music only incidentally our world would be very much less musical than it is. Professional musicians, and talented and determined amateurs approach their learning of music seriously and directly. Nothing less will do the job. Incidental learning will not do for math or history or languages anymore than it will do for music.

       Perhaps proponents of the project method and the activity method would argue that they are not depending on incidental learning. Perhaps they would argue that when given a project, students will give serious consideration to the topics they come across that contribute to that project, that they repeatedly set aside the project goals, at least momentarily, to focus their attention to the topics themselves, that they review these topics, that they practice on these topics, with a view to retaining the knowledge, understanding, skills, and perspectives, even after the project is complete and forgotten. If so then they are arguing that they break up the project method in order to serve the needs of learning. This is what I argued in Chapter Eight of my book.3 And they are arguing that practice and concentration are important.

       But everything I have heard or read about the “project method” or the “activity method” or “problem based learning” (PBL), does not talk about breaking up the project method. Such descriptions do not talk about, or even imply, that the students will repeatedly set up momentarily learning goals, set up their own drills and practice, and analyze and review their learning as they go along.. Rather they seem to have no recognition that learning must be managed so carefully. They seem to have no recognition of the concentration needed to accomplish substantial learning.

       It might be argued that incidental learning, or the project method, works for at least some people, that there are plenty of instances in which a person accomplishes a great deal of learning on their own. Obviously this sort of thing does happen, but not for the typical student. It happens for the gifted and talented, for the prodigies, for Socrates and Plato, for Copernicus and Galileo, and even for a lot of lesser people, such as some amateur astronomers.

       I mentioned that amateur musicians and amateur astronomers, and amateur anything else, who are truly accomplished in their field, are vary rare. A moment’s thought on what we might mean by “vary rare” is instructive. Suppose we take the definition of “very rare” as one person in a thousand. By this definition there are such “very rare” people all over the place. A small city of thirty thousand people would have about thirty of them. Those individuals might have some reputation in the community, but it does not mean that they would have a reputation in the larger world. A high school student whose basketball ability is at the level of one in a thousand might seem phenomenal in his local community, but he still has a very small chance of being state champion and a very much smaller chance of being an Olympic or national champion.. The truly exceptional individuals, in any field, are much rarer than one in a thousand.

       The project method, or the activity method, may work for independent learners. And certainly it is a general goal of education to make students into independent learners. But we shouldn’t mistake a goal for a reality. The ability to be an independent learner grows as a person advances, but it is always a mistake to misjudge it. Defining an “independent learner” could be done in different ways, and at the moment I don’t think we need to be too precise. My friends in the polka band were not independent learners in the sense that they could, over time, put together a body of musical skills and knowledge that would at all compare to the musical skills and knowledge of a college music major. But perhaps that is too high a standard. Perhaps more to the point is that they could not put together a body of musical skills and knowledge that would compare to a reasonably talented piano student with eight years of lessons.

       Suppose that on average there is about one student in every class of thirty who is capable of independent learning. If that is the case then there are very many such people. Every teacher with a few years of experience would know many of them. But if 29 out of 30 students in a typical class are not capable of independent learning, then the project method or the activity method can hardly be considered a primary method of instruction.

       Or, to be more accurate, if 29 out of 30 students are not independent learners then the project method as usually described, the project method depending on incidental learning, cannot be a primary method of instruction. The argument could certainly be made that using a project as a unifying theme could still be advantageous. By this perspective the teacher still manages the learning of the students. She breaks up the project in the interest of learning. She sets learning goals along the way, gives homework and grades it, and gives quizzes and tests, and gives guidance throughout the process. But even with this perspective I am not enthusiastic about projects. I would argue, and have done so4, that the nature of the subject matter itself is the best organizing principle of any subject.

       In Chapter Five of my book5 I talked about framework structure and supporting structure. Incidental learning is going on all the time, and can be very valuable as supporting structure. For this reason we say it is important that children read extensively (and be read to before they are old enough to read). But I would argue that incidental learning seldom does much to build framework structure in any subject.

       We may be learning all the time, incidentally or otherwise, but we are also forgetting all the time. I forgot a lot of the details of my present commute over the past six months just because I lost interest. And there is general recognition that we forget very quickly what we learn in a college course. So bits of knowledge that could become framework structure may have been forgotten at the time when they are needed to fit with other ideas. Incidental learning may accumulate as a structure of accretion, but is much less likely to accumulate as a structure of implication.

       What we may call the framework structure of a subject, I would argue, is the structure of knowledge that requires concentration to build. I learned a lot about South Dakota from living there twenty-five years. But so does everyone else. And I forgot a lot that I did learn, as does everyone else. If I were to take a course in South Dakota history I would be expected to accumulate a lot more knowledge and retain it through the final exam than I would do just incidentally. In general I would say that what we think of as a school subject is the amount of knowledge that a reasonably capable student can accumulate under conditions of directed effort and concentration. What we think of as beginning calculus is approximately the concepts that normal college students can learn in a semester. But we are talking about hard core learning, not incidental learning. We are talking about learning by giving careful attention during lectures, putting in hours of study after lectures, and cramming for tests. Incidental learning, except for a few prodigies or under exceptional circumstances, does not accumulate or build to the extent needed to compare favorably to what accumulates by the effort expected, and normally forthcoming, when taking a course. The kind of learning we expect in schools, and normally take for granted, is something more than incidental learning. “Hard core learning” seems an apt expression. Progressive educators in the 1930s and 40’s wanted to get away from hard core learning. They thought it made school a dreary place. I disagree. I think that in the long run it is what makes school an exciting place.

       So incidental learning, though ubiquitous and valuable, is not adequate for serious education. Serious education requires concentration and direction, direction that comes from the subject matter itself. And my knowledge of the alphabet? It hasn’t advanced much. For a week or so I was very conscientious about doing my drills once or twice a day for ten minutes or so. I made some progress, as I knew I would. But I can not do the quiz at the beginning of this article in ten seconds. Critics could therefore argue that all I have said about concentration doesn’t mean much. I tried to concentrate on the alphabet and made little progress. But I would argue that my limited progress simply reinforces what I have said about concentration. I didn’t concentrate enough. The results of a week of intermittent concentrated learning, modest though they may be, far exceed the results of 50 years of incidental learning. And my effort, limited though it may be, leads to the consideration of many consequent ideas, such as the size of a structure of knowledge, how much time is required to learn a given topic under given circumstances, efficiency, and perhaps most importantly, optimal tradeoffs.



       1. Click here for Chapter six in which I discuss intensity of mental effort, among many other things.

       2. I discuss “isolate and concentrate” versus “spread and relate” modes in Chapter Seventeen in my book, which I have not yet put on my website..

       3. Click here for Chapter Eight in which I discuss the project method at some length.

       4. Click here for Chapter Seven which discusses unifying themes, among other things. (Unifying themes, organizing principles, integrating themes, and perhaps other similar phrases are synonymous in my mind.)

       5. Click here for Chapter Five on framework structure and supporting structure.