A mountain of research gives us information about how the brain takes in, processes, connects, and stores information. There are more than 50 learning theories that drive our current educational strategies and teaching methods. Two decades of neuroscience and computer science are coming together to model human intelligence to develop artificial intelligence (AI) systems. Still, to date, no one can reliably explain how we know a tuna fish sandwich is a tuna fish sandwich and that the biceps brachii can flex the arm.
We do know that knowledge has a structure, and understanding this structure can improve our teaching and curriculum design. AI scientists assert that knowledge is segmented, sequential, pattern sensitive, “nested,” and hierarchal. As you’ll see, these structural features are interdependent and overlapping.
Knowledge is Segmented
Humans learn and store information in segments or chunks. Notice that you can sing your favorite song from any random starting point, but you won’t start in the middle of a verse or a chorus. Instead, you’ll start at the beginning of a verse or the beginning of a chorus. When your brain first hears a song it likes, it immediately recognizes these sections of the music and stores the song in memory according to these chunks of information.
KNOWLEDGE IS SEGMENTED: Humans learn and store information in chunks. We can “eat” one chunk at a time. If we have too many chunks coming at us simultaneously, we can’t process information effectively for knowledge storage.
Knowledge is Sequential
Humans learn and store information in sequences. Think of learning dance steps. If the choreographer changes their mind about a step, your brain will keep defaulting to the previously learned movement until you practice enough to replace the old sequence with the new steps.
Need more proof? Try to recite your social security number backward, and you probably won’t be able to do it. You learned it in a sequence, and it will stay in that sequence for the rest of your life.
Now, remember back to your first date, and your brain will show you a series of mental representations that give you a big-picture overview of the date’s events. It’s unlikely your brain will jump to the end of the date first (unless it was a particularly memorable kiss!). Instead, your brain will show you images in the proper order.
Finally, think about your massage routine. Unless a client requests something unique or you actively strive to “mix things up,” you probably follow the same procedure and apply massage in a consistent series of techniques.
KNOWLEDGE IS SEQUENTIAL: Humans learn and store information in sequences, so we’ll always want to plan lessons to build knowledge step-by-step. When it comes to protocols and procedures, drill and practice like you are learning dance steps.
Knowledge is Pattern Sensitive
Humans look for patterns and readily sort and categorized information. When we learn something new, we compare the latest data to known data. This process gives us clues towards the attitude we should adopt to the new thing, how the new thing is likely to behave, why the new thing might be significant, and where we should save it in memory.
For example, once we know how one doorknob works, we can figure out how to open lots of doors, even if they have funky doorknobs or confusing designs. We easily differentiate between bones and muscles. Our brains instantly recognize that these structures have different “patterns” and places them into different groups.
Stories follow a pattern in their telling. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. If we miss any part of the story, we’re confused, and we probably won’t remember much about it.
KNOWLEDGE IS PATTERN SENSITIVE: When we learn something new, we compare the new information to previously learned information. Once we know how one doorknob works, we can figure out how to open many different doors.
Knowledge is Nested
Humans learn and store information in “nests.” A “nest” is a mental representation of information composed of a collection of words, images, facts, examples, beliefs, attitudes, physical sensations, emotions, and experiences.
Think about trees. Notice the flood of images, facts, beliefs, attitudes, physical sensations, sounds, emotions, and memories that the word, tree, inspired. Our brains use the pattern sensitivity we just discussed to gather related data, place the data together in a “nest,” and then give the nest a label (in this case, tree). Every new experience we have with a tree or every piece of information we learn in the future about trees will get placed, along with the old data, in our nest for tree.
A concept is an idea of what something is and how something works. A nest (mental representation) underlies all concepts. When our students learn concepts like Swedish massage, client intake, draping, or pathology, they are grouping data in a nest and giving the nest a label. The number of items in the nest determines the level of understanding they demonstrate for a concept. A student with many items in their nest has a high level of conceptual understanding, while a student with few items in their nest will have a low level of conceptual understanding.
KNOWLEDGE IS NESTED: A “nest” is a mental representation of information composed of a collection of words, images, facts, examples, beliefs, attitudes, physical sensations, emotions, and experiences. The more eggs in a nest, the more you know about something.
Knowledge is Hierarchal
Humans learn and store information in hierarchies. With your strong concept of tree, you can break “tree” down into its parts. You can break a tree into “roots,” “branches,” “leaves,” and “trunk.” You can break these parts into parts. You can break the trunk down into bark, sap, heartwood, and so forth. You can also take your concept of tree and apply it in new knowledge hierarchies. You can take your concept of trees and use it to inform your understanding of forest ecology, nature walks, the logging industry, or camping.
Everything we know and understand has this kind of hierarchy. The more we know about a subject, the richer, more dynamic, broader, and more complex the hierarchy becomes. Think, for example, how deep and intricate your concept of massage therapy is compared to the depth and complexity of your students’ idea of massage therapy.
KNOWLEDGE IS HIERARCHAL: We learn and store information in hierarchies. You can break a tree down into its parts (branch, root, leaf) or apply it in new hierarchies (conservation, camping).
Why Do We Care?
We now know that knowledge is segmented, sequential, pattern sensitive, nested, and hierarchal. Why do we care?
We care because content that is organized in segments and thoughtfully sequenced is easier to learn. We care because content organized to capitalize on the brain’s pattern sensitivity, nesting process, and construction of knowledge hierarchies is easier to remember.
Explore Your Lessons:
- Examine your syllabus and lesson plans. Look for the chunks of information and outline these chunks on a separate piece of paper.
- Are you missing any crucial chunks? Are you teaching anything unimportant or off-topic? Are you trying to introduce too many things at the same time? Add or subtract the appropriate pieces the next time you start a unit or course.
- Now, look at the sequencing of chunks. Is the sequence logical? Does knowledge build? Can learners use what they learned in a previous lesson to anchor their learning in today’s class? Reorganize your chunks into the most fluid and logical sequence possible.
- Is information sorted, typed, or categorized? For example, if you are teaching benefits and contraindications, you would want to group all benefits and all contraindications together in a lesson or segment. You wouldn’t want to jump back and forth because it will make it more difficult for learners to place content in memory in an organized fashion.
- Your chunks of information will directly relate to the concepts you teach. Make a list of every important concept you teach. Create a vocabulary list of the terms related to these concepts with formal definitions and include it in your syllabus. Let students know that these terms are essential and will show up on exams. Begin every class with a terminology review by having students try to explain terms in their own words to each other.
- From that same list of concepts, identify an image that goes with each concept. An illustration might be representative and not an actual picture of the concept. For example, if the concept is ethics, you might use a picture of a statue of the goddess Justice holding the balanced scales. Every time you bring up the idea of ethics, show the image of Justice. You’re helping students create fully-formed “nests” of concepts.
- Make an effort to show the hierarchy of concepts. For example, you might make a PowerPoint slide with a mind map of contraindications. When learners view the mind map, they see absolute contraindications, times to use caution, times when an area is a local contraindication, etc. They get a visual representation of the knowledge hierarchy of contraindications.
If you use the digital textbooks at Massage Mastery Online as the foundation for your courses and classes, you’ll find that this work has been done for you when you follow the textbook structure. You’ll be able to rely on the textbook to create lessons that are segmented, sequential, pattern sensitive, nested, and hierarchal. You’ll find it easier to develop efficient, effective, and enjoyable learning experiences.