Monday, July 18, 2005

Knowledge Structures and Constructivism

Yesterday I "read" a psychology book about memes (Thought Contagion by Aaron Lynch, 1996). Total number of pages 192. Time spent: about an hour.

I did not read every word. First, I had a look at the table of contents. The book contained 7 chapters plus a short epilogue chapter at the end. Each chapter had a number of phrases corresponding to a series of sub-headings (between 10 and 20).

I began reading the first chapter and part of the second when I first sensed the actual structure of the book. I then opened a software package called MindGenius that I use for creating mind maps of content that I am playing with. I quickly had a series of branches for the first chapter and part of the second. At that point I realized that for my purposes, I did not need to read all of the book. Chapters 2 through 6 each consisted of a specific example within different disciplines. The general ideas were encapsulated within the first chapter, chapter 7, and the eplogue. I quickly completed a chart for the entire book that reflected this structure.

Thus the chart that I created is different than the one implicit in the book. Fair enough. A book is not something to be memorized but a resource for the reader to think about. We each have our own personal knowledge structures (this is the core tenant of constuctivism), which are also usually implicit. We rarely try to explicitly construct a map of a topic that reflects our personal understanding of the topic. Yet by constructing such a map one can often be much more efficient in Learning the material. In this case I was able to skim read most of the chapters, focusing on the first and last chapters.

Reading is not "barking at print". Rather it is interpreting print based on one's current knowledge and understanding. By creating explicit diagrams that identify the main ideas and concepts one can continually reflect on the structure and modify it to accommodate new ideas. This is where software packages can make a real difference. It is relatively easy to modify the diagram: adding, deleting, and moving items around until one is satisfied with the result. This process of continually creating and modifying a knowledge structure requires that the reader be an active agent. One must genuinely engage with the material.

I have provided a number of examples of using a structure (e.g. a table) to monitor my Learning of calculus and to facilitate time management. Such tables become a part of my Learning framework and permit me to continually reflect on how well I am doing. Sometimes this acts as a goad to focus on certain activities, and sometimes the table needs modification to reflect changing circumstances.

Thus I use two different types of structural diagrams (tables and node-maps) to guide my Learning and understanding of topics that are of interest to me. By using software packages to create such structures I have an environment that is both easy to use and m perhaps more importantly, easy to modify. Such diagrams are also an excellent way to communicate one's understanding.


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