On his blog for Wednesday, 27th December 2006 entitled AHA Moments, the Three Rs and Dyslexia, Alexandre Borovik writes about learning to read:
The transition from а non-reading illiterate state to fluent reading happened in me in one click….The principal reason why I am writing my book is that feeling of AHA which I first experienced at age of six, when I suddenly discovered that a parser for processing of typed text got assembled in my brain and was ready for use. It was exactly the same feeling as in doing mathematics, many years later.
If you haven’t read his book then shame on you. But this blog set me thinking about this concept of learning by Gestalt, particularly as learning to read could be interpreted as acquiring a skill rather than knowledge: certainly when I read I feel that I’m exercising a skill rather than applying knowledge.
My pilot instructor’s rating lapsed at the beginning of this month and I’ve more-or-less decided not to renew it. I still teach groundschool (knowledge) but have given up teaching people to fly (skill). I was a flight instructor for about 3 years and only taught 203.6 hours during that time—I have a day job and this was just a weekend pastime. It was extremely hard work and it taught me to differentiate between teaching (and learning) knowledge and skills.
Take teaching someone to land a light aircraft. Once the basic skill of being able to descend at a constant airspeed is learned, landing basically consists in judging where to level off. Do it too high and you’re in a mess: flying perhaps 4 metres above the runway and running out of speed quickly. Do it too low and the aircraft might not be usable again. Into this situation add the illusions caused by wide or narrow runways, upsloping and downsloping runways, brightly or poorly lit runways, etc. and the instructor has a mixture of knowledge (“if the runway is wide you will probably level off too high”) and skill to impart. The knowledge takes perhaps 15 or 20 minutes. The skill takes hours. Demonstration is supposed to be a big part of teaching a skill but I never found it really useful: it simply demonstrated that (1) I know how to land (which I hope was never in doubt) and (2) the student has the knowledge at her finger-tips because she was able to talk me through the landing.
And then the Gestalt moment. The student gets it.
So, is learning to read acquiring a skill or acquiring knowledge? I can’t speak for him but suspect that Borovik might argue for knowledge because what is his “parser” other than knowledge?
To return to my students learning to land. A lot happens in the last few seconds before touchdown and conscious thought is almost certainly too slow to be of much use. Has the successful student built a “landing parser” which can actively absorb direct and peripheral vision and vestibular cues in real time? If so, she has acquired knowledge and can demonstrate a skill.
In a briefing room I talk a student through the landing sequence. The student replays it to me. By this point in her training, she has practised all of the components of a landing—descending at a constant speed, levelling off to reduce speed, etc.—but has not put them together. In Borovik’s example, he had all the letters but had not put them together to make words. The student has an embryonic parser but is terrible at actually landing. The structure (grammar?) of the parser is there but not the identification of the stimuli. The instructor’s job is to sit there and prevent the student from committing suicide while fleshing out the parser.
If this is the case, and perhaps it’s something that all good skill instructors instinctively know, perhaps it would be more economical to spend more time helping the student to build the parser rather than giving lots of practical exercises to add rules to it.
In mathematics, I suspect that this was what the “modern maths” trend in the UK was up to some years ago. Stop teaching by rote, start building mathematical parsers in students. It seems very obvious and I assume that it failed because it demands a lot more of the teachers.