Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Better Thinking Through Science: The Well-Organized Brain

Organizing information is huge part of learning efficiency and effective problem solving, and it does not get the attention it should in formal education.

How we organize affects the amount of information we can take in, the speed with which we can find the right information when we need it, and whether we can think and communicate our ideas effectively. Organization is not just organization, it affects what you can observe, what you can keep in mind, and what you can express to others.

Despite the stereotype of the absent-minded professor, excellent thinkers often have some excellent abilities to organize information - whether it be through analogical thinking, abstraction, perceptual features, or other means. They may be 'disorganized' too, but more in activities that don't directly impact on their eminent activities.

Here's an excerpt from the National Academy of Sciences free online book How People Learn (link below):

"In an example from physics, experts and competent beginners (college students) were asked to describe verbally the approach they would use to solve physics problems. Experts usually mentioned the major principle(s) or law(s) that were applicable to the problem, together with a rationale for why those laws applied to the problem and how one could apply them (Chi et al., 1981). In contrast, competent beginners rarely referred to major principles and laws in physics; instead, they typically described which equations they would use and how those equations would be manipulated (Larkin, 1981, 1983)."

If you acquire only a myriad of unlinked facts, then you cannot use them to extrapolate or solve new types of problems. Categories and fundamental rules help structure the knowledge, and they should emphasized explicitly at all levels of teaching more than they are.

Compare video excerpts of an experienced vs. novice teachers observing a class. The experienced teacher knows how to categorize what she sees and make predictions. The novice teachers sees but makes no predictions.

"Expert 6: On the left monitor, the students' note taking indicates that they have seen sheets like this and have had presentations like this before; it's fairly efficient at this point because they're used to the format they are using."

"Novice 1: . . . I can't tell what they are doing. They're getting ready for class, but I can't tell what they're doing."

Here's what the brain looks like when it's presented with more organized information (if you're curious, "chunked" stimuli were strings of numbers that could be grouped mathematically or spatially):

There was a lot more brain activation seen when auditory verbal or visual information was presented - but this also corresponded to more information being retained and more rapid response times. So if information is presented in a more organized way, more information processing seems to go on.

fMRI and Chunking or Organizing Information
Organization Tips at LD Online
Advantages in "Chunking" for Web Design
]Experts vs. Novices | How People Learn
Cognitive Load and Math Class

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