Learning Doesn’t Progress the Way You Think It Does

TIME

When we think and talk about learning, the metaphors we use matter. The language we employ when we describe how learning works can illuminate the process, allowing us to make accurate judgments and predictions—or it can lead us astray, setting up false expectations and giving us a misleading impression of what’s going on.

One of the most common analogies we apply to education is that of a staircase. As we learn, this model assumes, we steadily ascend in our knowledge and skills, leaving more elementary approaches behind. A child learning math, for example, will replace a simple strategy like counting on fingers with a more sophisticated strategy like retrieving math facts from memory. Under the long-lasting influence of psychologist Jean Piaget, staircase-like “stage theories” continue to dominate our mental images of how learning operates.

But in important ways, the staircase metaphor fails to capture the way cognitive change actually works…

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