Monday, April 16, 2018

Resilience of skills learning versus content ‘knowledge’

A short sequence of facebook comments with a few of my relatives, triggers my thinking this morning. The topic is piano playing. As a child, I and many of my relatives, were taught to play the piano. We had weekly lessons and worked out way through the various music theory and piano practical grades. My mother’s contention was that music and being able to play the piano, would be a ‘fall back’ if I could not make it into higher education. Music teaching would be a way of earning a living. Pragmatic Asian parents did not articulate or maybe consider the broader consequences of funding music lessons. For me, the music lessons led to a lifelong appreciation of music, through exposure at an early age to the classical Western composers. The benefits for learning how toplan a musical instrument on one’s cognitive function and many other contributions are well-known. Suffice to say that music lessons, provide a myriad of advantages for young brains.

In a busy life, all my relatives now only play the piano occasionally. Yet, the muscle memory and skill connections to the brain are still strong and despite not playing for many years, everyone seems to be able to effortlessly pick up piano playing again.

Skills learning is thus resilient as when compared to ‘learning content’. In particular, if the skill becomes ‘automatic’ or ‘sub-conscious’ or ‘tacit’. The bringing together and overlaying of motor skills with cognitive skills (e.g. thinking and learning), assists the brain to solidify neural networks. Leading to lifelong retention. Piano playing, like riding a bike, skiing, driving a car with manual gear shifts etc. remain etched and embodied into our skills repertoire.

The above attests to the efficacy of experiential learning. If we couple learning of complex knowledge, skills and attributes with ‘learning by doing, learning becomes much more resilient over time. Learning 'content' is but one way to engage our brains. When learning 'content' we are using our cognitive functions and learning to learn is therefore an important asset attained through 'working through content'. It is not so much the content that is important, but the process of learning the content which we need to help our students connect with. How do they learn difficult to understand concepts? Helping learners unravel their metacognitive process assists them to then apply their learning method to other contexts. Like learning how to play a piano, once you learn how to learn effectively and understand how to deploy this across the many occasions one has to learn new skills, knowledge or attributes, should still be a major objective of being educated.

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