What are these two modes of learning? Hell, what are these concepts? Whether you know it or not, you practice a little bit of both and each of them have their strengths and weakness. However, the latter is taught and applied a little too much in our everyday life that we forget to see the forest for the tress.
Can’t see the forest for the trees. . .
That’s a familiar idiom isn’t it? It means that if you obsess on the details, you miss the big picture. This idiom is also a very useful way of remembering what the two modes of learning are. I will be referring to this idiom frequently throughout the the article. I will start however by tackling the trees; procedural learning.
The Two Kinds of Learning
Procedural learning is “acquisition of a skill through repeated performance and practice.” It is learning a new concept by looking at the details and following a given list or procedure. With our familiar idiom of the trees and the forest, its basically learning about the forest by walking through a pre-existing path in the forest and dryly observing the flora and fauna. You get to know the forest only by focusing on the trees in other words, and you’re following a path that someone else has blazed before. You can recall all the basic facts like, “that’s a tree,” or “that bird is a cardinal.” If you’re a real bird watcher and/or an ardent tree lover, you could probably name off the species of trees and birds you see, and nothing else. Your understanding of the forest is derived from facts and following a set path.
Confused still? Procedural learning is recalling facts and teaching those facts. It definitely has its place with repetitive tasks such as changing a tire, assembling objects, doing taxes, or working on a math drill worksheet to name a few examples. You probably do it all the time when teaching something new to your friends or family because this is exactly how we were taught in our schools and even on the job. It has its place, but procedural learning faces a giant roadblock in that you can’t see the forest for just the trees.
Going back to our hypothetical forest, suppose you’re the adventurous type and you don’t want to go on the path that has been blazed already. You want to blaze your own path, you want to get out there and explore that forest! You want to see what kind of cool things you can find. You want to see all of the forest! So you go out to the wilderness, not a care in the world.
Your little hypothetical foray into the wilderness is an example of conceptual learning. Conceptual learning is “an educational method that centers on big-picture ideas and learning how to organize and categorize information. Unlike more traditional learning models which concentrate on the ability to recall specific facts (such as the dates of an event or the twenty possible causes of a particular illness), conceptual learning focuses on understanding broader principles or ideas (what we call “concepts”) that can later be applied to a variety of specific examples.”
If that’s a mouthful in itself, its basically learning through the big picture first. In your little forest, you at least know that a forest is a place with lots of trees, plants, and cool places to explore. Or if you want a more technical definition, a forest is a type of ecosystem where there is a dense population of trees planted closely together populated by a diverse group of animals and plants. As long as you know what a forest is you can then break it down into the trees. You understand the trees for the forest and the forest for the trees when you learn conceptually. This is what will lead you into your little adventure. You start to get the details as you go along because your own curiosity is driving you.
This is how we humans have learned and made many wonderful technological and scientific advances and continue to do so: we learn conceptually. With these two modes of learning in mind, I will now get to the meat of the matter: when its OK to learn conceptually and when is it OK to learn procedural?
The Problem of Procedural Learning
I mentioned at the beginning that we tend to practice a lot of procedural learning and this can be a huge problem. You can’t always simplify every complex problem into a series of steps. Procedural learning shows up quite frequently in social media where we share and/or write simple little articles about a complex issue such as politics. (In fact it was me participating in such antics that got me to write about learning, more on that later!) We do this because we’re human and our brains literally can’t handle multiple perspectives so thus we will simplify things. Its why we often categorize complex views into a false dichotomy of Us vs. Them. And no matter how good the intention of the poster, we often fall victim to this black and white perspective when we begin to engage in rhetoric and argument over a miscommunication and/or an opposing viewpoint.
Procedural learning fails to capture the complexities of creative problem solving and critical thinking, two skills that employers are seeking in this day and age and something our education system, whether it be K-12 or college is not applying in their classes. Unless you’ve been in a STEAM major (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) or took a class related to those fields, you learned everything in a procedural manner even in college. That’s not to say procedural learning is totally bunk. Remember, it definitely has its place when you want to fix a simple problem like an oil change. But it doesn’t have its place in politics, in science, in analyzing literature, basically any field that requires you to think of multiple perspectives.
Conceptual Learning to the Rescue?
This is where conceptual learning comes into play. Think of it like how a mechanic looks at a car. They first go with what they know about the problem at hand, based on the owners description. Going from there, they utilize their knowledge of how a car works in general and break it down to its specific parts (is it an engine problem? Transmission? Electrical?) as to gain a more accurate understanding of the problem at hand. And believe it or not, that same mechanic is using a combination of books, other mechanics knowledge, and Google to help analyze your problem more accurately . This is a real-world example of conceptual learning: a breakdown of parts. But oh, I did mention something else in that mechanic example that’s integral to conceptual learning: community-based help. Learning doesn’t occur in a vacuum, it occurs when that big idea is broken down and shared among many.
It is discussion and debate that are part of conceptual learning and something that procedural learning cannot accomplish alone. You don’t debate about the steps to change oil with your mechanic (and if you, well prepare to be ripped off massively next time you visit them!) and you certainly don’t want to have a long discussion on how 2 + 2 = 4.
Rather if you are to break down any concept, depending on what you are teaching and to whom, it helps to know how to discuss what you want to teach/what you want to learn. This can be a shortfall in of itself with conceptual learning and this is where procedural learning comes into play.
The Problems of Conceptual Learning
That example of discussing how 2 + 2 = 4 was a bit exaggerated, but it is a real concept being taught in school since the implementation of Common Core teaching standards in schools.Before sounding off about how this is pointless and we should just be teaching our kids damnit, you have to think, when is it important to discuss about math operations? This is where conceptual learning shines: knowing the when and breaking down the steps.
“But that’s not what the sub-heading says!” And you’re right. I bring up that example because when conceptual learning is first introduced to someone (or to an institution) that is used to teaching and learning in a procedural manner, we often think about it in terms of procedural learning. We break it down into steps and processes, but often skip the main idea in our mad fury to tackle on the details first. We begin to focus on the trees and not see the forest at hand. But the problem with conceptual learning stems back to that when I talked about a paragraph ago. That is, when is it appropriate to discuss and debate, and when is it appropriate to tackle on the details first and then learn the big picture?
Consider the mechanic from our previous sub-title. Lets say the hypothetical problem, after much discussion and deliberation, was narrowed down to a simple faulty electrical part giving a bad reading and thus, a poorly running vehicle. Conceptual learning helped our mechanic find your problem. But solving it? Now that takes procedural learning! Your mechanic isn’t going to deliberate and muse about the big issue of your car any further now that they know what’s caused it, they’re going to get straight to work and break down the part of your car systematically. They have to do this and they have to do it carefully, otherwise they’ll cause more problems to fix and thus, a bigger bill on your part. (if they’re shady enough and/or they’re irritated with your incompetence, they will do this deliberately, buyer beware!) That is where procedural learning shines and its what often comes after conceptual learning if done properly. You could say that in order to understand how to properly learn and teach in a conceptual manner, you have to teach procedure last. And that’s exactly what you had to do!
Procedural learning and conceptual learning are the two fundamental styles of teaching and learning that we as humans, regardless of our culture practice daily. Both are based on our own physiological understanding of the world around us and both definitely have their time and place. However if we are to be successful in our endeavors, especially when it comes to learning about and teaching complex ideas, we need to understand the big picture first BEFORE looking at the details, as to truly learn conceptually. It helps to teach in other words, from a top-down perspective first and foremost, as to make it easy for the learner to digest.