#272: Learning scales

I spent a lot of time at school being force-fed detail in a number of subjects. This was hard work for all concerned. One of the errors which teachers can make is to jump straight to the minutiae, because that reflects their enthusiasm and expertise -often at the expense of the learning process. I realise now what I needed was to be shown the underlying structure or shape of information and only then to attach progressive levels of detail, as required.

Geography is a case in point. It’s not necessary, in my view, to be able to reproduce the exact course of the Thames or the shape of Luxembourg unless you happen to be walking through the landscape. Fractal geometry has taught us that local shape depends on the measurement scale being currently used and a similar thing seems to go on when we try to memorise new information. I studied geography for four years and yet I can’t even picture the relative positions of Hungary and Bulgaria. The big picture needs to be explained first, only then followed by increasing detail, to an appropriate level.


(Imagine each novel on an English course being supplied with a precis which explained what it was all about. When first teaching someone how to program, it might be more useful to start by showing a box diagram of interacting modules, rather than the minutiae of how an ‘if’ statement is handled by a compiler running on a particular CPU. )

In subjects like geography or electronics or taxonomy or even computer programming, where the information to understand can be represented as a 2-D drawing or map, this can be done semi-automatically, by applying filters at a coarseness which decreases as expertise progresses.

Today’s invention is to apply this technique particularly to chunking e-learning material into a hierarchy of diagramatic lessons, elements of which can be expanded to supply further levels of detail by hyperlinking (e-learning is often deliverered via systems with limited bandwidth/ screen resolution where progressive detail representation is essential). This would map on to the kinds of multiscale mental representations people seem to use and allow individuals to drill down for more information only in areas which they found interesting.

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