People learn new skills by perceiving, practicing and relating the new skill to previously understood material or abilities. A person’s existing framework of knowledge, also known as their cognitive structure, provides a point of reference for the newly learned skill, improving the brain restructuring that occurs when a new skill is learned.
New information and skills are perceived in a variety of ways, depending upon each person’s individual learning style. Learning styles describe the ways in which a person’s brain operates best, be it auditory, visual, kinesthetic or cognitive. While auditory learners perceive a new skill best when it is presented orally, visual learners gain better results when a skill is presented as a map, image or video. Kinesthetic learners can master a new skill far better with hands-on activities, while logical learners perform better using instructions or faced with a challenge to discover a solution. As the steps to a new skill are perceived, practice can begin.
Practicing a skill creates a neural path in the brain that make retention and performance easier and more automatic. Contrary to popular myth, practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent. If practice is conducted incorrectly, the skill will not be learned properly. As a new skill is perceived and practiced, the brain searches for and makes connections to existing, relevant information, which is why it is so important to provide a context for the newly learned skill.
Many subjects and skills prove difficult for students when they are introduced as fully abstract. Mathematics, for example, is commonly avoided among students who see no reason to learn, lacking the real applications of these skills. By presenting subjects in a context that makes them interesting or valuable to students, new skills can be learned more easily. In addition, helping new learners associate and differentiate the new skill to currently held abilities facilitates learning.
Association and differentiation
Learning a new skill often entails relating it to something already known. Associating a new skill to skills and knowledge already mastered provides a framework for retaining the new skill. Differentiating a new skill from current knowledge works in the same way. It is the association and differentiation aspects of learning that make Venn diagrams powerful teaching tools.
There are two basic schools of thought regarding how people learn. Under Freud’s classical conditioning, learning is seen as a reflexive reaction to neutral, outside stimuli. Many students may care as little about cursive writing as Pavlov’s dogs cared about the ringing of a bell, but the repetition of stimulus and behavioral expectations lead students and dogs to develop a conditioned response or a new skill. Under Skinner’s operant conditioning, learning is more a function of the responses received when an action occurs. Approval is a powerful motivator for many people learning a new skill, whether that approval comes as good grades, a salary increase or improved relationships. Perhaps it is a combination of both classical and operant conditioning that facilitates learning a new skill.
Learning comes naturally. Without it, we cannot survive. The steps to learning a new skill are far more effective when learning style, correct practice and a valid context are considered. Teachers and parents can promote learning new skills by making them relevant, fun and concrete.