How Learning Works
"That reminds me..."
That's all it takes. If one thing makes you think of another thing, you form a connection between them in your mind. The more connections you have, the better access you have to cross-connections. The more things something can remind you of, the more you know about it, or are learning about it.
Flat representations can't show these connections. Neither could an elaborate three-dimensional model, because when you consider what a thing is or what it's like, you not only make connections with other concepts, but experiences and emotions. You will have connections reaching into the past and the future, connections related to sounds, smells, tastes and textures. The more you know about something, the more you can know, because there are more and more hooks to hang more information on—more dots to connect.
I got the idea for this kind of graph from Trust the Children: A Manual and Activity Guide for Homeschooling and Alternative Learning by Anna Kealoha.
Here's a simple mathematical example:
THINKING AND KNOWINGThinking's fancy name is "cognition."
Think and thought are very old English words. Those actions happen in your mind, in the realm of ideas and feelings.
Another old word for that sort of thing is "ken" which survives in a few drinking songs and some phrases in Scottish dialect. It's the root work of "know" and "knowledge." (Now you can tell your kids why they're spelled with a "k"—being forms of "ken," so that the "k" was pronounced in those sword-yielding days of yore.) Knowing is more related to seeing, recognition and perception. Maybe its nearest Latinate equivalent is "awareness"—familiarity with a thing from direct experience—but "knowing" is stronger. It can be muscle deep when you know how to do something physical.
LEARNINGWhere do thinking and knowing turn to learning? Right at the edges, where you think something new, or know something different. Learning comes from connecting something new to what you've already thought or known.
ASSOCIATING ONE THING WITH ANOTHERWhat scents, stories, emotions, visions do you associate with your mother? Your first pet? Your newest car? Ohio? Candy canes?
Each idea, object, concept, person, song, motion—anything you can think of—has personal associations for you. You have an incalculable mass of connections formed in your brain and will make more today, tomorrow, on the way home, and in your sleep.
What you know can be added to, or amended, but rarely deleted. Some things are best not learned, which is why it's so important to be careful what you say and how you say it (and to drive carefully, and all that).
Some people do try to encapsulate ideas or experiences and forget them. Sometimes other memories are shut off along with that. That's a good reason for analyzing traumatic events and sorting through instead of trying to encase them. Too many "do not enter areas" in your mind will slow down connections, and also will inhibit the biochemicals that help make learning fun and easy.
Happiness helps learning. Biochemically, joy is better than dismay. Optimism is better than negativity.
Jen Keefe, March 2020:
I’ve found it fascinating (I don’t use that word lightly) how many different things are connecting for me, as an adult, through learning to unschool well. I didn’t understand how things connected from school. Wars, geography, fractions, the Russian language... it was all individual stuff. I moved dutifully from one stand alone period to the next trying to do the bare minimum work not because I was lazy or stupid but because none of it *made sense*.
Meredith Novak, December 2013:
My daughter and I like to play "hidden picture" games on the computer - they're stories, often mysteries or re-told faerie tales, myths and legends, and the hidden objects are sometimes very antique items as a result. And sometimes the names of items are different than the names we know as Americans. Those sorts of things make good conversation starters, but also just bits of information. We don't necessarily need to talk about all the differences, they swirl into our "general knowledge" fill in unexpected gaps, or linger and make other connections later on.
Excerpt from commentary page following Late Night Learning, Sandra Dodd:
[F]rom my point of view and from my experience, if art and music lead a kid conversation to Italy, and they make this connection at 10:30 at night, my choice is to say "Go to sleep" or to get excited with them, and tell them the Ninja Turtles were named after Renaissance artists, and that all the musical terminology we use, and most of early opera, came from Italy. That maybe the Roman Empire died, but Rome was not through being a center for advanced thought. Or however much of that a child cares about. And some of that will work better with an art book out, and maybe a map of the world. Look! Italy looks like a boot for sure, and look how close it is to Greece, and to the Middle East. Look who their neighbors are to the north and west, and how much seacoast they have. Look at their boats.
Robbie has a new fascination with old cemeteries, old gravestones, etc., and over the last couple days we've gone to see cemeteries with gravestones from as far back as the 1700s (we're hoping to make it out to where I think there are some from the 1600s this evening).
So today he asked why there are so many old gravesites around where we live. I started saying that the Pilgrims landed in New England when they came over this way — and before I could say any more he stopped me and said with great excitement "Wait a minute — NEW England — England — they came from England and now we live in NEW England! HOW did I not match this up before??? How did I miss this??? NEW England — England — of course!!!"
It was awesome to see him make the connection in such an energetic and happy way — but my favorite was how he used the phrase "match this up" to describe his connecting-process. He matched it up! And now it's his forever, that little piece of connection-knowledge :-)
More on Robbie, May 8, 2014:
Right now, my son is eating breakfast, and I can hear him explaining to his dad that Celtic round houses had thatched roofs that were made in such a way as to allow smoke from cooking fires to go up through the roof but at the same time to prevent rain from coming in.
Pam Sorooshian reports:
[S]omeone's son had watched a Romeo and Juliet movie, in school, and someone else suggested he might like to watch "West Side Story," too. Earlier, on that same list, we'd been talking about the energy it takes to unschool and whether someone who considers herself sort of a "slug" (her words) could be a good unschooling parent.
So here it is:
Roxana was working on a piece from "West Side Story," recently, for a musical theater techniques class. We've seen Romeo and Juliet performed live, watched the old Zeffirelli film with Olivia Hussey, watched the newer Baz Luhrman movie, watched the wonderful West Side Story movie with Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno. So, listening to Rox singing the piece from West Side Story, over the past couple of months, it occurred to me to listen to some other music I'd find connected to this play, just for fun. So I started googling "Romeo and Juliet" and "West Side Story." First thing was, of course, that the music in WSS is by Leonard Bernstein—so I looked at what he'd written, to see what might be of interest to my kids. Oh YES! He wrote the score to "On the Waterfront," the classic film starring Marlon Brando and directed by Elia Kazan. So - let's rent that movie (kids have never seen it) and, while watching, just be aware that Bernstein (remember WSS) composed the score. Okay! But—there is something else interesting here. We've seen and loved, "The Crucible," by Arthur Miller. Turns out "On the Waterfront" was Kazan's response to Miller's, "The Crucible." So—some interesting discussion possibilities, there.
But, back to the music. I remember the beautiful theme from the Zeffirelli movie, couldn't find any particularly interesting connections related to that, but, while looking, I read somewhere that Olivia Hussey (Juliet) wasn't allowed in to see the movie at a theater she went to - because it was rated R and she was only 16. It was rated R because of a scene in which she, herself, is topless. So—a funny tidbit and maybe something to stir up a discussion about censorship (oh—THERE is a possible connection to "The Crucible," which is ostensibly about the Salem witch trials, but is really about McCarthyism).
My favorite connection to the music, though, is that the love theme part of Tchaikovsky's orchestral piece, "Romeo and Juliet," written in the late 1800's, has been used in all kinds of very modern movies and tv shows—"Wayne's World," "Ren and Stimpy," for example AND—in the game, "The SIMS." Now THAT is a relevant historical connection for my kids - who love "The SIMS."
And on and on—one thing leads to another which leads to another. I've always been the sort of cook who drops ingredients into the pot and stirs and the kid stick in their spoons and try samples. They might love it and take a whole bowl full, or a quick taste might be all they want.
What has happened, though, is that they now cook for themselves and for the rest of us, too—so it isn't just ME coming up with all these connections, anymore, we all do it.
And, of course, the internet provides amazing access to endless amounts of instant information and that is very often, but not always, where we get ideas for our best ingredients.
AND - if you do enough of this kind of thing - some really unexpected coincidences happen. Like this: it is my brother-in-law's birthday and this morning I called my sister and asked her what he might like for a gift. She said, "He's been wanting a Dire Straits CD—'Sultan's of Swing'". Okay—that's great—I go to buy it and guess what, it has a GREAT song on it about you-know-who! Yep, Romeo and Juliet. So, I can't resist, I buy the song off iTunes and listen to it and, in the song, standing on her balcony, Juliet looks down and sings, "Hey-la my boyfriend's back," which makes me laugh out loud and I explain the connection to the song by some girl-group of the early 1960's and pretty soon we're talking about the status of women and how girls were raised and .....okay, I'll stop for now!
Robyn Coburn:So then you can go to that silly movie about the teenage zombie, "My Boyfriend's Back" (aka "Johnnie Zombie")
Pam Sorooshian, then Sandra Dodd on age, ironing, math—connections
I'm old enough to remember my mom ironing while listening to radio shows—Gunsmoke, Suspense, Amos and Andy, Bing Crosby, Dragnet, Fibber McGee and Molly, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Lone Ranger. Some of them became tv shows, later, but even the names bring back the smell of a steam iron, to me.