Temposchlucker, whose many contributions to chess learning theory have contributed greatly to my inspiration for the Chunky Rook project, has commented on my previous post and makes an important point that bears repeating:
The danger [of the animated flashcard system] is obvious: it invites to learn on autopilot, which doesn’t work. If we could only find a way to stimulate a more conscious approach and combine it with your charming idea we could make progress. Maybe more text will help since that isn’t procedural and can provide helpful cues.
I couldn’t agree more with the assertion that “learning on autopilot doesn’t work” (although I also disagree with this notion, but I’ll come back to that). In fact, learning on autopilot, i.e. passive learning, is almost a contradiction in terms. Temposchlucker suggests learning needs a “more conscious approach”, and I think he hits the nail on the head. However, we need to pin down precisely what we mean by conscious learning, and to that end I would like to make a couple of suggestions to prompt a debate.
When you hear “conscious” learning, you may think of a learner who’s alert rather than tired, who does things thoughtfully rather than mechanically, whose mind is present rather than absent. This is certainly a crucial, if very basic, requirement to learning: do not let yourself be distracted — focus, concentrate, switch the TV off.
Having said that, conscious learning requires much more than mere attention. In two recent posts (here and here), Temposchlucker suggests that the chief characteristic of conscious learning is what he calls “feedback”. He defines “feedback” as “the correction of errors with consciousness of sufficient intensity”. While I strongly agree that feedback is key to successful learning, I think our definition of feedback must encompass much more than “correction of errors with consciousness”, and I shall argue this point on the basis of the following premise: learning is about achievement and recall, that is to say, learning means acquiring a skill and being able to remember how to use that skill at a later point. Without recall, acquiring a skill is useless, and recall of something other than skill (e.g. “I totally remember this endgame position from Silman, but I don’t remember how to play it) is also useless. With this in mind, let’s see if we can get a better grip on the concept of feedback.
First: how do we achieve the acquisition of skill? The single most important thing is, perhaps, being capable of articulating what the skill is. That’s why teachers are so useful: not because they are good at something, but because they know what exactly they are good at and are able to tell you. (That’s also why grandmasters can be lousy teachers.) Of course, not all skills are equally easy to articulate, especially at a higher level when skill becomes a matter of experience more than anything else. Nonetheless, for successful learning it is paramount that the learner gets a basic idea of what it is he or she is learning, and a simple label (e.g. “I’m learning tactics”, “I’m learning the endgame”) doesn’t suffice. “Idea” is the key word here: learners have to understand how and why people who have already mastered a skill use it in practice, and they have to have that understanding from the start. Having been introduced to a new skill, learners ought to ask themselves, “Do I get the basic idea?”, and if they feel confident in answering yes, they can proceed. If not, they should either return to the initial explanation or try to figure out the idea from the material that’s presented next. But they should not leave an exercise or chapter or game without getting the idea in the mistaken belief they have learned something.
Second: how do we achieve recall? To answer this question, let’s consider the difference between adult learners and infant or adolescent learners. Temposchlucker posits that adult learners must use feedback to compensate for their lack of the “higher consciousness” that’s found in younger learners. I’m no expert on child learning, but I think Temposchlucker is on to something here. Part of the reason why children are better learners, I believe, has to do with the fact that their brains aren’t as cluttered yet with conscious worries about survival and social interaction; they have an intuitive grasp of these things, no doubt, but they are not necessarily aware of them on a conscious level. This frees resources for learning. Secondly, children have no “expert structure” in place to sieve new information. On the one hand, this prevents them from learning more complex and advanced material. But on the other hand, they encounter the material that’s within their reach as genuinely new and genuinely fascinating, and this makes the learning experience much more memorable. In addition, they do not impose an expert structure on the material they are learning; their structure is much more malleable (perhaps right down to the actual plasticity of their brains) and responds much more flexibly and receptively to new learning matter. (Of course, this is mostly speculation on my part. I have no actual research to back this up.)
So to return to our question: how can adult learners achieve and improve recall? A simple answer is: repetition. No matter how you learn something, if you do not use it repeatedly or do not recall it for an extended period of time, chances are you will forget. That’s life. So repetition is key to learning, but it isn’t enough. You have to be able to recall a skill when it is needed. In other words, you need to know when a particular skill is useful. This is why knowing your skill is so important: you have to be able to contextualise it while you’re learning it, otherwise you won’t know when to use it once you’re actually playing a game, or worse, you won’t think of the skill at all during your game because it doesn’t occur to you to use it to begin with.
Also, we should ask ourselves: how can we facilitate recall? I think Temposchlucker’s “correction of errors with consciousness” is one way. However, the problem with merely correcting errors with consciousness is that it itself can become mechanical. As soon as you turn conscious feedback into a mechanic procedure, you are likely to lose your consciousness of the skill you’re trying to learn again because the process loses its uniqueness. In my opinion, conscious feedback, in order to be a successful long-term strategy, has to be coupled with something that anchors the idea you’re learning in a concrete, unique and tactile experience. Anecdotes, for example, are great for that purpose. If you do a post-mortem with a friend and he explains an idea to you, it’s much easier to recall that idea later because, in addition to understanding it, you are able to connect the idea to the social encounter, to your friend’s looks, his demeanour, the way he explained it to you, or to the game you’ve just played. This makes your learning experience unique and much more memorable. Of course, we have to be able to acquire new ideas on our own because our friends are not always willing to come over just so we can gaze at them while we learn a new endgame technique. But there are other ways to achieve the same effect. Temposchlucker suggested that “maybe more text will help since that isn’t procedural and can provide helpful cues”. This is spot on, I believe, not only in regard to explanations, which I think was what he had in mind, but with respect to anecdotal cues integrated into the explanations. I was trying to do something to that end in my previous post when I mentioned Worms and called the smothered mate the “bitch-slap of mates”. I am convinced that this innocuous and seemingly irrelevant comment will help me recall the smothered mate discovery in the future. It ties the idea to an anecdote, and makes the learning experience unique. Needless to say, different learner types respond to different cues, but the basic point remains the same: contextualise the skill and the learning experience to facilitate recall at a a later point.
One last comment on Temposchlucker’s verdict that learning on autopilot doesn’t work: I said in the beginning that I couldn’t agree more. But I couldn’t disagree more, either. I think learning on autopilot is extremely useful once you have learned the idea behind a skill. Once you have absorbed an idea, and once you’ve grasped what the goal of a procedure is, going through it on autopilot can become an effective tool to ingrain the skill in your brain. Your learning at that stage may no longer be fully conscious, you may not give real feedback, but your learning is still active in that you know what you’re learning. When you learn a poem by heart, you first have to learn it consciously, remember the words, remember the sentences; but once you’re past that stage, the act of reciting the poem to yourself no longer happens consciously; you’re acting on autopilot. And yet, the recital is extremely useful as a form of practice, until you reach the final stage, the master stage, at which you have made the poem your own and no longer need to practise it: the moment when you no longer try to do, but simply do.
To conclude and sum up, learning has to be active. This means you need to grasp the idea of the skill you’re learning and what it is you’ll achieve once you’ve mastered the skill. You don’t want to lose a skill you’ve learned, so you need to be able to recall it. This happens through repetition and by making the learning experience unique. Once you’ve achieved this and are able to explain and recall the skill you’ve acquired, learning on autopilot can help you make the skill a part of your unconscious skill set.