There seems to be a growing movement oversimplifying how learning actually occurs.  The basic gist is that we learn best by doing things instead of watching.  And we learn best by doing things ourselves.  It seems that not only do we not need others to help us, others actually do more to get in the way.

Sometimes learning is like cooking.

Some epitomizing examples of this that I’ve come across lately include this blog post by the economist Robin Hanson, about how learning best occurs by doing – not observing.  I’ve also recently heard a TED talk from Sugata Mitra who seems to be gaining some attention to his theory that kids best learn from omitting all teachers.  After merely sticking a computer in front of some impoverished Indian children, Mitra returned to discover that these children were able to teach themselves English, computer programming, and molecular biology.  My natural skepticism can’t help but to cause me to feel there’s at least some exaggeration occurring here, but the point is there’s a definite movement afloat to pigeonhole all learning into one type – that which can best be learned through trial and error.  And yes, “doing” something is often a wonderful way to learn.

But no, it’s not the only way.  If you’re lost in a strange city, you’re much better off observing the directions on a map, or asking for them, then you are just trying to find your way on your own. People don’t learn to tie shoes by trial and error.  Nor do we know not to run out into a busy highway by actually doing it.  For some trial and error events, one error is all you get in order for there to be no more trial possibilities.  When some people focus only on one type of learning, and give only one type of example to support their assertion that this type of learning is always the best, they are simply ignoring the complexity of the matter.  And as any teacher can attest, often the best way to learn something is by guided practice.  And guided practice needs guides. 

We learn all sorts of things, with some things relying more on procedural knowledge, some relying more on declarative, some more on observational, and many things being the result of a complicated mish-mash of modes.  I tried to succinctly describe a few of these modes, such as procedural and declarative learning, as I concluded an earlier post in which I wrote about Bloom’s Taxonomy.  It went as follows:

“Other useful classifications which often accompanying the taxonomy include procedural and declarative knowledge, and meta-cognitive knowledge.  Procedural knowledge can be thought of as “know how” knowledge.  An example would be knowing how to tie shoes.  This kind of knowledge, which is greatly helped by actually doing the task, is often seen as the most difficult to teach.  Declarative, or conceptual knowledge, is the “know what” type of knowledge.  This usually involves facts and/or linguistic representations.  This would involve, for example, the verbal instructions of what you do when you tie shoes (First you grab one lace in each hand, then…).  Meta-cognitive knowledge is the “know why,” of knowledge.   Why do we need to learn to tie shoes?  “Meta” knowledge can also be very difficult to teach and to learn.”