The Science of Learning: Controlled Automatic Processes

Today I want to look at is the controlled and automatic processes of memory. Although we don’t often think of processes as part of memory, they are. When you are learning to drive a car, you are overwhelmed by the complexity of the skill. There is so much to think about that it is difficult to imagine yourself driving for enjoyment. There are so many things to think about, you can hardly get to where you are going. Over time, as you practice the skill of driving (or reading, or writing etc.) many of the details and procedures that make up driving (or whatever) become automatic. The brain encodes shortcuts that remove much of the conscious thought that is initially required when you are learning something new. All of this is stored in memory.

When an experienced driver gets behind the wheel, they do many things without thinking about it. All of these processes become part of the overall skillset, and over time, become part of what makes an expert for whatever skill is in question. One of the hallmarks of a true expert (among other things) is that many of the processes that they engage in become automatic. The knowledge or skill appears to be just there, all the time. It becomes an automatic process to assess and pass judgment on a situation, and (often) see the solution that a novice would have to labor over to understand.

Automaticity is an important aspect of memory that formal education can help build up. A number of basic skills (basic addition, multiplication, reading etc.) should be learned to a mastery level, where the steps involved are invisible, and the solution or outcome is all a person sees. The problem 2X2 should bring 4 to mind without any (seeming) effort on your part. This brings us to another glaring failure in education – grading. I’ll talk about this in a later article but would ask you to consider the following question. What does a “C” grade given to a child who is learning their multiplication tables mean? The child doesn’t really know how to multiply, but the problem becomes someone else’s.

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