Memory, Learning and Experience: New Ways of Crafting Learning Experiences

There is a philosophical justification for learning from experience: That it connects us to real life with all its complexities and detours, and allow us to escape the 'one size fits all' assumptions of grand theory. Learning, at the messy swamp of practice, where human life is really acted out, is real - and therefore, useful. 

However, now, we have further arguments for learning from experience based on new breakthroughs in cognitive sciences.

As our understanding of human brain and memory improves, we are discarding deeply-held assumptions that lie beneath our institutions, approaches and even language. There are many things that we are learning anew, but one aspect in particular - how our memory works! Right now, the breakthroughs in cognitive sciences are altering our idea of the memory: Its ideal, as a retention device that accumulate useful bits of our life to carry forward, is seriously being doubted, and it is now being seen as an active construction device, which makes up the reality by working through available connections. This is fundamental, as it somehow throws into doubt the concept of Objective Truth and all our institutions and ideas that rely on the existence of it. 

This is bad news, in a way. Research is now showing that our memories are malleable and all individuals may be susceptible to false memory. Our recollections of ideas, concepts, people, circumstances and even our own lives are highly variable, and can be manipulated for good and for bad. Some things like Cycling and Swimming may be highly sticky - and this is perhaps as our body as well as our mind engage into it - but we would forget all those unremarkable hours of lectures that we sit through, and even if we remember something remarkable among them, our recollection of them are highly variable and unlikely to be accurate.

However, this starts to clarify how people may learn better, and even provide a toolkit for successful learning intervention. Such insights are almost staring at our face - "It's the learning experience, stupid!" - and all those 'subjective' factors, great teachers, open classrooms, real-life projects, that seemed to have a made a difference and proved real sticky, explain themselves on the grounds of memory science. It is not the text, never the content, but the experience that is retained - and retrieved in context.

Education, for this vantage point, is experience design. It is not just the Powerpoint that we can easily control, but look, feel and smell of the setting that matters. And, we should know that these can distract as well: One can be too clever to use a crafty but unrelated animation and the learners can leave with their heads of full of pictures that had nothing to do with the intended outcome of the engagement. In fact, their whole memory of what happened can eventually be represented (or misrepresented) by that one piece, if that was overwhelming enough! 

Real-life experiential learning, therefore, has an automatic advantage: It is unique moments in time in learners' life, and it is wholesome experience, with its own setting and everything that comes with it. It is simply easier to remember, than those endless arrays of texts that, with passage of time, become blurred in memory and look indistinguishable. 

There is also a cautionary tale hidden in this. As the Cognitive Science highlights the importance of the environment, the whole environment and not just the elements under our direct control, it also explains some of the limitations of online learning that we so enthusiastically embrace as the solution for mass education. We may talk about replicating project experiences remotely, and indeed a number of knowledge workers today work from home, but, as a learning setting, home can be boring, disruptive and unappealing, particularly for a twenty-year old without a private study room. 

This, indeed, serves as a perfect justification for my obsession with learning spaces and my insistence on control of the setting, rather than just hiring out cheap classrooms anywhere. It is a difficult proposition to sell to financial people seeking to create asset-light models of education. And, while some companies tend to create branded learning spaces, their obsession with branding is more than their understanding of learning, and usually this means they tend to make indistinguishable classrooms without little space for originality and individuality. The space, the engagement, the people and the learning are more intimately connected than we think, and thereupon I rest my case of thinking fresh about crafting learning experiences.


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