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Learning How to Learn

reviewed by Lyn Corno - 1985

coverTitle: Learning How to Learn
Author(s): Joseph D. Novak, D. Bob Gowin
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0521319269, Pages: 199, Year: 1985
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Learning to learn, or the development of learning ability, has been hailed as a goal of education since antiquity. Indeed, improved learning ability for a certain task is one of the most important outcomes of instruction. Yet, in many American schools, this goal still eludes us. Studies of our public schools have exposed the wide variation that exists with respect to goals closely related to learning to learn, such as academic achievement.1 These studies seem not to have assessed learning to learn as a construct unto itself, however. In their book Learning How to Learn, Novak and Gowin have noted this unfortunate disparity between goals and reality in educational practice, and attempted to change it.

The book presents a mixture of psychological theory and educational philosophy buttressed by relevant research findings and techniques. The psychological theory acknowledges a debt to David Ausubel; the educational philosophy is indebted to John Dewey, Paul Hirst, and Joseph Schwab. The research techniques and practical applications described were developed and tested over a period of years by the authors and their graduate students on school learning projects ranging from elementary to college levels. While the primary audience for the book is “students, teachers, and parents seeking to obtain a better grasp of the educative process” (p. 13), parts of it are directed toward educational researchers as well. The books purpose is to demonstrate how educators might foster learning to learn in students, defined as the ability to “reflect on experience and construct new, more powerful meanings” (p. xi).

From the outset the authors are negative on the present state of American education. They are critical of underlying philosophical assumptions as well as existing research methods and practices. The criticism of method and practice is appropriate. Educational research has moved slowly and been driven by a reductionistic paradigm that often seems to hide as much as it uncovers. Educational practice, in turn, changes too infrequently as a result of research.2 Their position with respect to existing psychological theory, however, seems curiously unfounded, for it fails to acknowledge the fact that the so-called yoke of behaviorism has long been removed from the neck of modern psychology. Indeed, Ausubel himself has been writing about cognitive issues in education since the 1960s. More than twenty years since Ausubel and equally eminent others set the stage for rigorous research on cognition in education, it hardly seems necessary to disclaim behavioral definitions of learning or to treat cognitively oriented views as revolutionary. It is now widely accepted that learning occurs as a result of mental constructions and reconstructions made by the learner in interaction with stimuli, rather than in response to them.3

In addition, research on learning has moved away from the dominant reductionistic paradigm, at least since the 1970s. No longer do investigators readily divide their experimental tasks into categories such as simple association-discrimination and complex reasoning-problem solving tasks. They now recognize that the psychological study of human learning must examine the means by which learners collect basic facts, concepts, and principles and put these together into solving problems of the sort encountered in school. They now emphasize similarities among learning processes rather than differences - discrimination and concept learning, for example, are often treated as much the same thing.4

This reconceptualization of human learning has also connected discipline-specific knowledge structures to the learner’s prior knowledge in much the same way that Novak and Cowin advocate. Effective instruction, in turn, becomes a collection of experiences in which learners are put in positions to construct and reconstruct well-structured knowledge themselves.5 One promising line of work in this area hails from research on artificial intelligence—the development of intelligent computer-assisted instruction (ICAI).6 ICAI builds a computer representation of the learner’s knowledge in a particular subject domain as learning takes place. The growing knowledge model is then used by the computer to direct instruction that fits the present state of the learner (i.e., is adaptive); it provides, for example, appropriate new or remedial instruction and feedback.

We now have detailed process analyses of a variety of intellectual abilities that shed light on key differences in the information-processing styles of more and less able learners.7 These studies highlight differences in the mobility and flexibility of cognitive activity rather than the amount or kind of activity per se. Eventually, structural maps of prior knowledge, such as the concept maps used by Novak and Cowin, and process analyses of intellectual tasks should come together to provide an integrated description of both the knowledge and skill aspects of cognitive aptitude for learning from instruction. This description, in turn, should guide adaptive classroom instruction.8

Perhaps the most valuable contribution Novak and Gowin have made is in the area of new and different tools for use by teachers, curriculum developers, and researchers in representing subject matter knowledge. As the authors point out, the widespread use of standardized achievement tests as the tool for measuring school learning has shaped the behavior of educational practitioners and researchers for too long. New measurement tools that validly objectify student knowledge, and measure reflection and restructuring directly, are sorely needed. Novak and Gowin, commendably, attend to issues such as ease of use by teachers and researchers, and common difficulties involved in applying their tools. The heart of the book provides detailed descriptions for using concept mapping techniques and a heuristic device called “Gowin’s Vee” in several settings, as well as numerous examples taken directly from fieldwork in schools.

These techniques are not only useful for representing or “externalizing” knowledge. As the authors’ research has shown, helping students to construct knowledge maps requires mastery of diagnostic interviewing techniques; information must be obtained from students without shaping their responses. The hypothesis is that when students engage in reflective and restructuring activity across subject domains and intellectual tasks, they will ultimately gain metacognitive knowledge and transfer these critical learning skills to other situations as well, that is, develop learning ability.

Accordingly, the authors’ research shows the expansion and differentiation of declarative knowledge by students over time, as well as how concept mapping and remapping can remove common misconceptions, even without formal instruction. Unfortunately, much of this research is in the form of student masters theses not easily accessible to the general public. Other published research has made use of cognitive mapping procedures for representing subject matter knowledge9 and has approached in somewhat different ways the use of clinical interviews as diagnostic tools for assessing student learning potential.10

Efforts directed at ways to represent the structure of knowledge and how it is used in different kinds of learning are critical to the psychology of instruction, whether delivered by a human teacher or an “intelligent” teaching machine. But philosophers are quick to remind us that such representations are only metaphorical; cognitive and knowledge structures are not spatial entities that, when altered, are physically reconfigured.11 While Novak and Gowin avoid spatial language, the procedures they use for evaluating student subject matter maps use criteria that appear sensible only for spatial arrays—points are given for more propositions, more cross links, and clear hierarchical relationships, for example. How to evaluate the worth of a concept map without resorting to spatial language is a thorny problem for this work.

It will also be important to continue investigations in this area since other studies have suggested that student-generated structuring of verbal material can in some instances produce reductions in knowledge comprehension. This appears to occur when structure is given to irrelevant information (as in some of the student misconceptions Novak and Cowin have identified in their work), and when information is mapped together in illogical ways.12 Students with inadequate knowledge and/or ability to map verbal relations could, then, be expected to show learning decrements rather than increases. The authors’ emphasis on appropriate teacher-learner interaction and support during the mapping process appears well taken in light of these other findings, and should be explored further as a potentially important means for overcoming the knowledge/ skill deficit problem.

This book is both timely and topical. Current interest in the topic of learning to learn and education includes the school psychology community’s investigations of the role of inner self-speech in school performance and transfer; cognitive developmental studies of the emergence of metacognitive awareness and related capabilities; classroom process research on how cognitive and metacognitive strategies can best be taught to less able students and with what effects on resulting school performance; and ICAI development and evaluation, much of which stands to make important contributions to artificial intelligence more generally.

It has been said that real change in education will require the applied expertise of either psychologically sophisticated philosophers or philosophically sophisticated psychologists. In Learning How to Learn, a psychologist and a philosopher have teamed up to give us a book with a title and substance dear to the hearts of both.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 87 Number 1, 1985, p. 129-133
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 705, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 12:07:20 PM

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About the Author
  • Lyn Corno
    Teachers College, Columbia University

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