Intentional, conscious learning is the process by which we deliberately set out to learn something of value that we intend to store in long-term memory for future use.
Note: Unconscious learning, which includes powerful conditioning processes such as classical and operant conditioning, is a vast subject on its own, outside the scope of this discussion.
A full appreciation of how to make the most of your integrated memory system during the learning process can turn poor students and teachers into great students and teachers.
The following example describes the most effective way to use your brain’s memory system to create long-term memories. Let’s pretend that we want to learn how a major triad sounds and feels (“Something New”). Furthermore, suppose that you have already mastered how to form a major triad by combining three notes (“Something you Already Know”).
Step 1. Pay attention to “Something New”.
Pay attention to the sound of a major triad played on the piano. The sound enters your ears and is perceived by your Sensory Register. When you pay attention to it, the sound is automatically loaded into your Working Memory.
Step 2. Relate this “Something New” to “Something You Already Know”.
Realize that you have pre-existing knowledge of the notes that comprise a major triad. This is a very relevant “Something You Already Know”. Storage of “Something” in long-term memory becomes more secure and easier to retrieve when it is anchored to something that is already there.
Step 3. Keep “Something New” and “Something You Already Know” in your field of attention.
Maintain the sound you hear and your knowledge of the notes in a major triad in consciousness at the same time. Do this until you feel something “click”.
When you feel that “click”, this is a sign that you have made a meaningful connection… a connection that has made an impression on your long-term memory. Such learning is likely to be permanent after only a handful of.. and maybe after just one… exposure.
An Interesting Paradox
The simple process of connecting something you want to learn with something you already know is a way to create an endless stream of new and useful long-term memories. These new long-term memories expand the library of things you already know. The more things you already know, the more ways you have to understand and relate to new information. In other words, the more you know, the smarter you are. This leads to a very curious paradox: Unlike a computer memory which can get filled to capacity, every useful thing that you master — every fact, concept, attitude, and skill — makes your brain effectively bigger!!!
Implications for Students and Teachers
- If you want to learn the right things, you have to pay attention to the right things.
- If you want to remember something, (assuming it is worth remembering) you need to relate to it in a way that is memorable.
- If the information loaded into your short-term memory is perceived as meaningless (not related to any patterns you already know), the potential to be stored in your long-term memory is very low.
- If the information loaded into your short term memory is perceived as meaningful (related to patterns you already know)… the potential to be stored in your long-term memory is high.
- It is absolutely essential that you find “Something You Already Know” that is related and meaningful to what you are trying to learn. If the foundational patterns that enable subsequent learning are not yet be in place, learning will be extremely difficult.
- Without meaningful associations between something you are trying to learn and something you already know, all you can do is memorize stuff. Such memories are likely to be temporary and unstable..
- It is absolutely necessary to back up as far as necessary to identify and master the prerequisite patterns that will enable you to catch up. Use the very same learning process of relating new information to something you already know. If you still feel stuck, seek out a great teacher.
- Very complex tasks, such as ear-training or learning a precise physical movement, may require multiple exposures (also known as practice) to become permanently stored in long-term memory.
- There is so much misinformation and mythology and unfounded opinion in the world, that “Something You Already Know” may be wrong. Students and teachers must expose and replace every myth with truth. Never, ever accept second-hand information blindly. Skeptical open-mindedness will serve you well. If your teacher can’t explain why something is so, it’s time to find another teacher.
- A great student is one who can direct his/her own attention and who seeks meaningful associations relentlessly.
- It is not always a simple matter to relate new things to your pre-existing knowledge. A great teacher is one who can direct your attention to the right things and guide you through the process of making these meaningful associations.
- Every lesson needs to be designed with the student’s pre-existing knowledge in mind… Always… No exceptions. It is absolutely crucial to meet the student where they are, not where the teacher is. Such masterful teaching requires an uncommon set of attitudes, experience, and commitment. This is why great teachers are extremely rare.
- If the lesson being taught can be related to patterns the student has already mastered, learning can be fun and efficient! All great teachers use this process to build an ever-expanding repertoire of useful patterns.
- Always strive to make more than one connection to pre-existing knowledge. The more connections, the better. Strive to build rich networks of associations. Mastery is with built upon the rock-solid foundation of such networks.