The Power Of Associative Learning

whack whack whack whack whack whack whack…”

“My gosh that wookpecker sounds like someone is hitting a tree with a baseball bat!” my wife exclaimed, “I wonder how they do that…any idea Mr. Biology teacher?”

I…I don’t know…” I stammered as I furrowed my brow.

I looked abstractly off to the side as my deep in thought wheels began to spin.

Whatcha thinkin?” my wife innocently said after what, in retrospect, seemed like an eternity.

“I’m thinking… about World War I… actually…”

“World War I?  What happened to the woodpecker?  I’ll tell you what, sometimes I don’t know where you come from” she said with a loving smile.

"Well..." I began explaining “I began thinking about the woodpecker, and that hitting its head repeatedly must hurt.  But then again it wouldn’t peck at wood if it was harmful, so they must have a mechanism to avoid brain injury, like concussion prevention.  Then I thought about my wreslters and how they deal with head injuries-concussions, that my first step is to visit our athletic trainer.   I also go to the trainer when they get a busted nose that I can’t stop from bleeding, and that she uses this tube of gel that helps the blood clot.  Which made me think of hemophilia, and Prince Alexi Romanov from Russia, and how Rasputin was involved in helping the boy, but gave bad advice to his father about running the army which is thought to have contributed to the revolution in Russia during World War I.  See, it’s not that strange of a thought process” I said as I smiled back.

“Yes Chris, it is.  To associate a woodpecker and WWI is a strange association…”

I have to agree, but also state that the mind is an incredible thing.

Call it educational serendipity, but that night I picked up Talks to Teachers on Psychology And to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals by William James and flipped to a section called “The Association of Ideas.”

Who better to help us understand the flow of thought than William James.  His insight has helped us to deal with difficult students and how to keep a positive habit.  This article is about his classic theory on the association of ideas and its implications on learning.

He claims that consciousness “is an ever flowing stream of objects, feelings, and impulsive tendencies.”  Being alive, and realizing that you are a thinking organism involves a continuous river of thought, one idea after another.

James continues to say that the flow of ideas are not inserted into your awareness by chance.  Each wave of thought is connected to its predecessor.  In other words, one thoughts leads to another.  But how?

The Law of Contiguity “tells us that objects thought of in the coming wave are such as in some previous experience were next to the objects represented in the wave that is passing away. The vanishing objects were once formerly their neighbors in the mind.”

Subsequent waves of thought reside next to each other in the mental machinery of the mind.

James uses the alphabet as an example.  “A” is stored next to the letter “B” in the brain because they were learned together. Their proximity to each other explains them passing through consciousness together.

But in my extended thought process, I did not learn that wookpeckers avoid concussions etc. so there must be another association mechanism at work.

The Law of Similarity says that, “when contiguity fails to describe what happens, the coming objects will prove to resemble the going objects, even though the two were never experienced together before.”

Resemble implies shared characteristics.  Hitting your head on a wrestling mat and hitting your head on a tree are similar and are therefore associated.

To summarize to this point: consciousness, or a train of though may be retrospectively explained by saying that the objects in thought were learned together (stored in close proximity) or have shared characteristics.

That makes sense.

However, the narrative between my wife and I didn’t end with her calling my woodpecker-WWI association crazy.

“What were you thinking?”  I asked back.

“Well, I was thinking about the time we went to the opera and I somehow was bit by a tick… and I won’t bore you with the thought process of getting there…” she replied.

I associated a woodpecker with WWI and my wife the same woodpecker with a tick bite at an opera.

There is no predicting where a mind will take two different individuals when given the same initial stimuli.  An extended passage from James:

“Suppose I say ‘blue,’ for example: some of you may think of the blue sky and hot weather from which we now are suffering, then go off on thoughts of summer clothing, or possibly of meteorology at large; others may think of the spectrum and the physiology of color-vision, and glide into X-rays and recent physical speculations; others may think of blue ribbons, or of the blue flowers on a friend’s hat, and proceed on lines of personal reminiscence.  To others, again, etymology and linguistic thoughts may be suggested; or blue may be ‘apperceived’ as a synonym for melancholy, and a train of associates connected with morbid psychology may proceed to unroll themselves.”

Again, this makes sense.  What makes humans such incredible thinkers is our own unpredictable path of consciousness.

Never leaving a lecture without pragmatic advice to educators, James leaves us with this:

“To break up bad associations or wrong ones, to build others in, to guide the associative tendencies into the most fruitful channels, is the educators principal task.”

Essentially, the teachers task to encourage and facilitate associations.  If consciousness and productive thought are derived from connections that are meaningful, it is our goal to highlight and facilitate the process of developing those relationships. 

Education is hard work.  According to James, we are teaching our students to be productive thinkers.

How do you facilitate associative connections?  Connect with The Pragmatic TV Teacher and share your ideas. 

Thanks for reading.

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