Brian Collins
Blue 1647 Community
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Brian Collins
Blue 1647 Community
0 537
The Importance of Capacity, Strategies, Knowledge, and Metacognition
A traditional view of learning and development was that young children know and can do little, but with age (maturation) and experience (of any kind) they become increasingly competent. From this view, learning is development and development is learning. There is no need to postulate special forms of learning nor for learners to be particularly active (see Bijou and Baer, 1961; Skinner, 1950). Yet even in privileged domains, as described above, this passive view does not fully apply.

In addition, research in another major area began to show how learners process information, remember, and solve problems in nonprivileged domains. Known as information processing (Simon, 1972; Newell and Simon, 1972), this branch of psychology was quickly adopted to explain developments in children’s learning. All human learners have limitations to their

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Suggested Citation: "4 How Children Learn." National Research Council. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2000. doi:10.17226/9853 ×

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short-term memory for remembering and for solving problems. Simon (1972) and others (e.g., Chi, 1978; Siegler, 1978; Klahr and Wallace, 1973) argued that development means overcoming information-processing constraints, such as limited short-term memory capacity. The crucial argument for developmental psychologists is whether young learners are particularly hampered by memory limitations and whether, compared with adults, they are less able to overcome general limitations through the clever use of strategies or by lack of relevant knowledge factors.

One view of learning in children is that they have a less memory capacity than adults. While there is no doubt that, in general, children’s learning and memory abilities increase with age, controversy surrounds the mechanisms that affect these changes. One view is that children’s short-term memory capacity, or the amount of mental space they have (M-space), increases as children mature (Pascual-Leone, 1988). With more mental space, they can retain more information and perform more complex mental operations. A complementary view is that the mental operations of older children are more rapid, enabling them to make use of their limited capacity more effectively (Case, 1992). If one holds either of these positions, one would expect relatively uniform improvement in performance across domains of learning (Case, 1992; Piaget, 1970).

A second view is that children and adults have roughly the same mental capacity, but that with development children acquire knowledge and develop effective activities to use their minds well. Such activities are often called strategies. There are a variety of well-known strategies that increase remembering, such as rehearsal (repeating items over and over), which tends to improve rote recall (Belmont and Butterfield, 1971); elaboration (Reder and Anderson, 1980), which improves retention of more meaningful units such as sentences; and summarization (Brown and Day, 1984), which increases retention and comprehension. These are just three of many strategies.

Perhaps the most pervasive strategy used to improve memory performance is clustering: organizing disparate pieces of information into meaningful units. Clustering is a strategy that depends on organizing knowledge. In a classic paper, Miller (1956) described the persistence of a phenomenon he called the “magical number 7 ± 2” in human mental processing. Given a list of numbers to remember, sounds (phonemes) to distinguish from one another, or a set of unrelated facts to recall, there is a critical change in performance at around seven items. Up to seven items (between five and nine, actually, hence Miller’s title), people can readily handle a variety of tasks; with more than seven, they simply cannot process them handily. People have developed ways around this memory constraint by organizing information, such as grouping together or “chunking” disparate elements into sets of letters, numbers, or pictures that make sense to them.

Known as the chunking effect, this memory strategy improves the per-

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Suggested Citation: "4 How Children Learn." National Research Council. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2000. doi:10.17226/9853 ×

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formance of children, as well as adults. A prototype experiment would involve, for example, presenting 4- to 10-year-olds with long lists of pictures to remember, far more than they could if they simply tried to remember them individually. Such a list might consist of pictures of a cat, rose, train, hat, airplane, horse, tulip, boat, coat, etc. Given a 20-item list, older children remember more than younger children, but the factor responsible for better recall is not age per se, but whether the child notices that the list consists of four categories (animals, plants, means of transportation, and articles of clothing). If the categories are noticed, young children often recall the entire list. In the absence of category recognition, performance is poorer and shows the age effect. Younger children employ categorization strategies less often than older ones. However, the skill is knowledge related, not age related; the more complex the categories, the older the child is before noticing the structure. One has to know a structure before one can use it.

These varying views of children’s learning have different implications for what one expects from children. If one believes that learning differences are determined by gradual increases in capacity or speed of processing, one would expect relatively uniform increases in learning across most domains. But if one believes that strategies and knowledge are important, one would expect different levels of learning, depending on the children’s conceptual knowledge and their control over strategies that organize that knowledge for learning. For example, in a comparison of college students’ and third graders’ abilities to recall 30 items that included the names of Saturday morning television shows, children’s cartoon characters, etc., the third graders clustered more and subsequently recalled more (Linberg, 1980). Similarly, a group of 8- to 12-year-old “slow learners” performed much better than “normal” adults on a task of recalling large numbers of pop stars because of a clustering strategy (Brown and Lawton, 1977). An outstanding example of the intertwining of capacity, knowledge, and strategies in children’s chess performance is provided in Box 2.1 (see Chapter 2).

Metacognition is another important aspect of children’s learning (see Brown, 1978; Flavell and Wellman, 1977). The importance of prior knowledge in determining performance, crucial to adults as well as children, includes knowledge about learning, knowledge of their own learning strengths and weaknesses, and the demands of the learning task at hand. Metacognition also includes self-regulation—the ability to orchestrate one’s learning: to plan, monitor success, and correct errors when appropriate—all necessary for effective intentional learning (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1989).

Metacognition also refers to the ability to reflect on one’s own performance. Whereas self-regulation may appear quite early, reflection appears to be late developing. If children lack insight to their own learning abilities, they can hardly be expected to plan or self-regulate efficiently. But metacognition does not emerge full-blown in late childhood in some “now

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Suggested Citation: "4 How Children Learn." National Research Council. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2000. doi:10.17226/9853 ×

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you have it, now you don’t” manner. The evidence suggests that, like other forms of learning, metacognition develops gradually and is as dependent on knowledge as experience. It is difficult to engage in self-regulation and reflection in areas that one does not understand. However, on topics that children know, primitive forms of self-regulation and reflection appear early (Brown and DeLoache, 1978).

Attempts at deliberate remembering in preschool children provide glimpses of the early emergence of the ability to plan, orchestrate, and apply strategies. In a famous example, 3- and 4-year-old children were asked to watch while a small toy dog was hidden under one of three cups. The children were instructed to remember where the dog was. The children were anything but passive as they waited alone during a delay interval (Wellman et al., 1975). Some children displayed various behaviors that resemble well-known mnemonic strategies, including clear attempts at retrieval practice, such as looking at the target cup and nodding yes, looking at the non-target cups and nodding no, and retrieval cueing, such as marking the correct cup by resting a hand on it or moving it to a salient position. Both of these strategies are precursors to more mature rehearsal activities. These efforts were rewarded: children who prepared actively for retrieval in these ways more often remembered the location of the hidden dog. Box 4.3 shows a glimmer of even earlier emergence of “rehearsal.”

These attempts to aid remembering involve a dawning awareness of metacognition—that without some effort, forgetting would occur. And the strategies involved resemble the more mature forms of strategic intervention, such as rehearsal, used by older school-aged children. Between 5 and 10 years of age, children’s understanding of the need to use strategic effort in order to learn becomes increasingly sophisticated, and their ability to talk about and reflect on learning continues to grow throughout the school years (Brown et al., 1983). By recognizing this dawning understanding in children, one can begin to design learning activities in the early school years that build on and strengthen their understanding of what it means to learn and remember.
DISCUSSION