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Neural paths to understanding
Q: What is the difference between teaching and learning?
Based on research that reveals the connection between emotion and learning, we know that real, durable, meaningful learning is much more complicated. Although the process and experience of learning suggest the impossibility of separating emotion from thinking, it can be useful to explore and discuss cognition separately. Many scientists have done so for several decades, such as Kurt Fischer and his colleagues in the Mind, Brain, and Education Program at Harvard University.
These scientists theorize that learning anything requires that the learner build a new neural network. Understanding the Civil War, for example, requires building new neural networks for the Civil War, not just opening a conduit from the teacher's mouth to the student's memory bag and filling it with facts about the Civil War. This idea that learning skills and concepts involves the (top)
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same process of building neural networks is essential to understand. Teachers have tended to distinguish between skills like writing an essay or solving for x and concepts like the causes of the Civil War—concepts that have traditionally been presented as "facts." Researchers suggest that conceptual understanding is a skill, rather than a thing. We may be able to memorize that osmosis is the passage of water through a semi-permeable membrane or that emotion is the rudder for thinking; but to develop a meaningful understanding of these concepts, an understanding that enables us to use the concepts creatively and in new contexts, requires that we build and rebuild the concepts, as well as build and rebuild understanding.
To develop meaningful, internalized skills, learners must actively build neural networks, a time-consuming process that results from the effort required for repeated trips over the same ground—to lay out the routes, mark them, clear them, create foundations, pave them, roll them several times, connect them, and add the signs, lines, and railings that will guide us when we revisit them. Each time we cover this ground, each time we rethink our way through the Civil War or try to write a paragraph, the network becomes more defined. Sometimes, progress is slowed by obstacles—a new idea or an old idea we thought we understood but didn't, or an inability to focus—but, over time, our understanding or skill deepens and improves. And because we are building these neural paths, these abilities, in our own brain, we must be active and persevere. No one can think or act for us (which further suggests the need for the goal to matter to us—to be emotionally relevant). Being told is not a substitute for learning.