7. The importance of prior learning

Designing blended solutions
As we’ve discussed above, learning, both formal and informal, literally re-wires the brain. The more a person learns about something – a work task or a subject of interest – the more elaborate become the mental schemas that connect the various underlying concepts and principles. These schemas provide us with an understanding of how all the elements of a domain fit together and, as a result. enable us to solve problems and make decisions. After a while, we become so competent in a particular area that we seem to respond to situations intuitively, in other words without conscious thought.
All learning is a process of establishing patterns and making connections. When we know very little about a subject, we have very little prior knowledge to connect to. Without pre-existing schemas to build on, we need examples, stories, metaphors and similes to help us relate new information to our other life experiences. The novice craves a well-structured and supported programme of learning, which allows them plenty of time to process new information and to make sense of this in the context of practical application. They need reassurance and encouragement to help them through the difficulties they will inevitably encounter. In short, novices appreciate and benefit from good teaching and should, as a result, be the main focus of attention.
The more expert you already are in a particular area, the less structure and support you need to learn something new related to that area. We all have aspects of our life that we understand really well, whether or not we could easily explain what it is we know to someone else. We may be an expert in molecular biology, photography, accounting, office politics, bringing up children or the tactics of football. Because of our understanding, we can pretty well cope with any new information relating to our specialisms. We are very hard to overwhelm or overload, because we can easily relate new information to what we already know, to sort out the credible from the spurious and the important from the trivial. As an expert, we can cope with a long lecture, a densely-written text book, a forum with thousands of postings, or a whole heap of links returned in response to a search query.
These are the extremes. Of course there are many gradations of expertise and only a minority of learners are complete novices or acknowledged experts. But it is easy to see how, if we are not careful, we end up providing an ‘average’ learning experience which satisfies no-one.
We can over-teach those who already have a lot of expertise:

  • We patronise them with over-simplified metaphors, examples and case studies.
  • We frustrate them by holding back important information, which we then proceed to reveal on a careful step-by-step basis.
  • We insult them by forcing them to undergo unnecessary assessments.
  • We waste their time by forcing them to participate in collaborative activities with those who know much less than they do.

And we can under-teach the novices:

  • We bombard them with information that they cannot hope to process, providing nowhere near enough time for consolidation.
  • We provide insufficient examples and case studies to help them relate new information to their past experience.
  • We are not always there when they get stuck or have questions.
  • We do not go far enough in providing practical activities that will help them to turn interesting ideas into usable skills.

It may seem that I am suggesting you double your workload by providing two versions of each learning experience, but it doesn’t work like that. The relative experts need resources not courses and, of the two, resources are much easier to assemble. Many times you can just point the expert at the information and let them get on with it. And by doing this, you’ve reduced the population that requires a more formal learning experience considerably. You can start to give the novices the attention they deserve.
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