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August 03, 2018 Friday 03:38:00 PM IST


Cover Story

 “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will not come up with anything original...” — Ken Robinson

Archana enjoyed reading her textbooks for hours on end.She would read them aloud over and over again to memorise every word.At the examinations, she would transfer verbatim to the answer sheetevery bit, well almost, ofthe ‘information’ that she had learnt by rote. She would get excellent scores in all the theory papers, but just about average scores in the papers that called forproblem solving and analytical reasoning skills.

Thomas loved solving mathematical equations and analysing problems in his science and mathematics textbooks. He found long hours of reading irksome and ended up scoring high marksin mathematics and science but only managed to barely scrape through the arts and language papers.

Who is the better learner? Well, there is more than one response to this question and the foremost of them being another question. Is it really necessary for one to be better than the other? What is the purpose of education:acquiring useful knowledge or just a grade by passing an examination?

Any talk about learning would be incomplete without a discussion on our education system. Yet for our immediate purpose, let us instead step away and consider two important elements of the knowledge acquisition process: memory and learning.

It is, however, well known that apart from rote and conceptual learning, there are a hostof ways people acquireknowledge through multiple intelligences, be itmusical,visual, spatial, kinaesthetic, or other modes.

It has also been understood that learning is long-term when there is active involvement of the learner in the learning process. After reading a lesson on Akbar’s reign if one were to compare it with that of another ruler from another era, or if one were to analyse anhistorical event in a context far removed from the former, the brain would have often created unusual or serendipitous linkages or connections, which, in turn, help consolidate learning and the learning process. Taking notes on Newton’s Laws of Motion and then applying them to solve problems would improve the learner’s chances of recalling and applying knowledge thus ‘acquired’ on a later date. 

Why do we learn? What is the key driver or motivation?

Is it just the joy of acquiring knowledge? Is it human nature to constantly seek and assimilate new information? Or is it just the pursuit of livelihood and gainful employment that persuades us to acquire a degree or a certification of any sort?

A lot of people acquire knowledge for self-development and growth in their chosen fields.

No matter what the reason, the information thus acquired needs to be stored and retrieved on demand.


How does the brain store and retrieve information?

Many neuroscientists indicate that the hippocampus, located in the temporal lobe, is the knowledge acquiring and indexing unit in the brain, from where episodic (related to events) and semantic (knowledge-related) information istransferred to several areas in the neo cortex and medial temporal lobe. The brain grasps the knowledge that comes in through the senses and files them for later use.

It has also been understood that the brain stores information in images—a kaleidoscopic tapestry of interrelated information that weaves a story in the brain. Knowledge isn’t stored in rolodex form. The more elaborate the imagescreated, the stronger the memory.

An average human brain consists of billions of neuron cells that are connected to each other by axons. Each bit of information is stored in a set of interconnected neurons that can be retrieved by firing them in a set sequence. The brain is like a factory that works non-stop; in fact, the neurons have electric currents coursing through them all the time. The change of charge causes formation and retrieval of memory. The information stored in a specific set of neurons is replicated elsewhere in the brain to provide redundancy in case there is loss of one set of neurons.

All information related to a subject are stored in interconnected sets of neurons.The more the number of interconnections between the neurons, the stronger is the consolidation of memory.Each new bit of information on this subject or any change in information is added to the previous sets of neurons, thus adding to knowledge or memory.

Intelligence is dynamic —it is interactive —where the brain isn’t divided into rigid boxes or compartments. Memory isn’t stored in the brain like books are on a shelf. Knowledge lies scattered in various parts of the brain but is catalogued expertly for recall.

We live in a world where knowledge is available on call. So, do we really need to cram so much information into our brains?

Rote learning had a purpose. For in an era when printing was yet to be invented, theability to ingest vast quantities of text, such as mantras, and quote elaborate textsverbatimwasimportant because knowledge passed from one generation to another by word of mouth alone! It was impossible to create enough copies of important texts by hand. Rote learning was the rule rather than the exception.

Today, teacher-centric learning is giving way to learner-centric learning, more specifically in the case of application sciences and professional courses. The learner acquires knowledge only when needed and many of the knowledge sharing platforms available online use multiple modes of learning and instruction to deliver the course.

Instead of ‘injecting’ knowledge or merely ‘disseminating’ it,what instructors as co-creators of knowledge do is to provide an immersive experience. Knowledge is available in the form of text, videos, and interactive sessions, both with the teacher(s) and fellow students. So, assignments in such courses don’t just test the amount of knowledge acquired but try to assess the ability of the learner to apply it to real-world situations. Such methods ensure learning is comprehensive and long lasting.

Memory thus becomes just one part of learning, albeit an important one, in terms of indexing, classifying, and making knowledge available in context. 

Jayadev Menon

The writer is an independent consultant and heads AKSH People Transformation.

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