ConceptsThe following is based on my understanding of L. S. Vygotsky's Mind in Society and Thought and Language, as well as Gerald M. Edelman's Neural Darwinism.
A. Concept formationForming a concept is the automatic and mostly unconscious mental act of bringing together what is common to multiple ideas. It is a feature of our brain cells and the way they organize themselves.
A.1. BeforeBefore the concept of "a chair" develops, the various sensory representations we have of a particular chair we have seen or touched or tasted or heard, are not connected to those we have of other chairs.
A.2. How it beginsThe concept begins to form when our mental representations of these separate chairs become linked together, as a result of repeating the same movements to sit on or otherwise handle the various chairs, or as a result of triggering the same groups of cells in the brain when looking at similar features of the chairs.
A.3. RefinementAt this stage, when we think of sitting down or of eating (if that's our main occasion for using a chair) we also think about each of these chairs a little, without any conscious awareness of doing so as this just the way the brain works. Our concept of "a chair" is still simply the total of these various linked representations, it is not separated from the concept of being seated nor from the concept of having dinner, although the link to being seated may be stronger than the link to having dinner. Gradually, with repetition, the representations of those elements that occur together most often become more strongly linked together, which by contrast separates them from other representations. This is how the concept automatically becomes more refined, and no longer includes representations of things that vary from chair to chair, such as their color or their shape or where they are.
A.4. What gets includedFor someone who has only seen wooden chairs, the concept of a chair may include the idea that a chair is made of wood. This is a bad example because the person will also likely have a concept of wood, developed from interacting with multiple kinds of objects made of wood, which would weaken the link between the wood and chair concepts. This person, upon seeing for the first time a chair made of metal, would probably recognize it as a chair. A better example would be the case of someone who has only ever seen people with skin of one color, and then meets a person with a strikingly different skin color. In past centuries and still in some places today, many people probably have a concept of "a person" that includes skin color.
A.5. Effect of languageOnce language is acquired, each concept becomes linked to a name. Sometimes there will be multiple names for the same concept, and often the same name for multiple concepts. Since we each build our concepts from our own particular experience, it is probably seldom the case that 2 persons have the exact same concept for something. Even the concept of "a chair" will probably be slightly different from one person to the next.
B. Communicating conceptsConcepts such as "a chair" cause few problems in communication because their meaning is very similar in each of us. But in the case of abstract concepts, concepts about things that cannot be directly experienced by touching or seeing or hearing them, such as "liberty" or "justice" or "work", there is great potential for mismatch and misunderstanding, which can lead to conflict.
B.1. Concepts based on other conceptsTo avoid these misunderstandings, it is necessary to identify and reach agreement on enough of the sub-concepts that these abstract concepts are based on, and in turn on the sub-concepts of these sub-concepts, down to the level of concepts that are based on directly observable reality. This is not as daunting a task as it seems, because there are only a few levels to cover: for example the concept of work is based on the concept of exchange (amongst others), which is itself based on the concepts of giving and receiving and ownership, and finally these are based on concepts at the root level which concerns concrete objects that can be touched and otherwise experienced in the world. So about 3 intervening levels for the concept of work, only 2 of which have potential for disagreement since most people probably agree enough on concepts about concrete objects.
C. Unexamined conceptsBut the main source of misunderstanding in communication, as far as concepts are concerned, is arguably what can be called "unexamined concepts". And the reason they hamper communication is that they distort thinking.
C.1. New concepts are born all the timeTo appreciate its importance, it is useful to realize how enormously large a capacity we each have in our head, for holding memories and concepts. Like most people you probably find the following tasks easy and effortless: upon seeing someone, you can instantly tell whether you have already seen this person or not; you can remember most of the plot and characters and scenes of a movie from seeing only a few seconds of it, despite having seen many hundreds of movies; recognize a song from just a few notes, amongst hundreds or thousands of songs. We can keep adding to this repertoire for many more years without ever running out of room, because of the huge capacity for memory that each of us is born with. Similarly, each time we hear a new word we automatically store it and start a new concept for it, which includes the place where we heard the word, who was there with us, whether it was day or night, what tone it was pronounced with, how we felt at the time, etc. The new concept is linked to all of this and more, albeit with connections that start out thin and fragile. It can remain in this undeveloped state for a long time before eventually disappearing from lack of reinforcement, since we have so much free capacity. And again, new concepts popping up all the time is an automatic process that takes place without any awareness on our part.
C.2. They can settle in the wrong placeNow imagine that the new word which started the new and as yet undeveloped concept, is encountered a few more times without having its meaning clearly established, without us knowing exactly what it refers to nor taking the time to find out. Instead of going through the process of understanding it in terms of some of our existing concepts, we might put off this task for later, or perhaps even skip it altogether, if at that moment we are feeling rushed or overwhelmed or distracted by some emotion. What happens then is that new concept does not get attached to those existing concepts that are logically most related to it, the part of our mental map of the world that the new concept would augment and extend in a coherent manner if it got attached there. Instead, each time we encounter the new word without examining it, the new concept gets etched deeper and deeper in memory at whatever place it first appeared in by happenstance.
C.3. They still get put to use, creating problemsThis isn't a problem so far, but problems may arise if other new concepts are in turn attached to a concept that wasn't attached to the sub-concepts that would support its meaning, those it would be attached to if we gave ourselves the time to think about the meaning of the new word and how to fit it in with what we already understand. When this concept is automatically used as a starting point to attach more concepts, despite the fact that it is itself attached in the wrong place, our mental map of the world can become increasingly inaccurate and unnecessarily complicated.
C.4. Inaccurate mental map problemOur mental map of the world is what we depend on to predict the likely consequences of our actions or those of others, so that we can choose between the various outcomes we envision which ones we prefer, and then do the actions that lead towards these desired outcomes. The more our map is distorted, the more this becomes difficult to achieve, leading to all sorts of pain and unhappiness for ourselves and others who are affected by our actions.
C.5. Increasingly difficult to repairRepairs become more difficult as the map grows larger, because more and more concepts need to be examined to find the ones that do not make sense where they are attached. This is compounded by the fact that concepts acquired long ago become so much part of our way of thinking that we forget they are creations of ours that can be changed, we tend to confuse them with the innate background of our mental world. Also, as the distorted parts of the map get etched deeper with use, it takes more time to change them and during this transition from one configuration to another we have to devote much conscious attention to guiding our thought along the new paths, preventing it from falling back into the old patterns.
C.6. The weak concept problemEven when a concept settles at an appropriate place, it can still be a source of trouble if it remains poorly developed, with few connections to supporting concepts, yet serves as the foundation for a critical part of our mental map. If for example our concept of "education" is attached to "learning", "child", "school" and "college" but has little other supporting connections, because it was adopted early on and has since remained unexamined, we might be deceiving ourselves into thinking that we already know all we need to know about education, which would prevent us from learning more about this subject and possibly gaining critical new knowledge.
Learning takes time because it is a process that involves changes in large numbers of cells. Even in young children, who learn so well that they are sometimes thought to possess special learning abilities, many months of daily practice are needed before complex skills are acquired. Learning to stand on two feet usually requires close to 12 months of muscle and balance building. Learning to speak takes much longer, at least 3 years. Adults often forget just how long it takes to learn anything! It seems that effective learning requires:
- Enjoyment! You can't learn something that is boring.
- Small steps. Small enough that each one is easy enough, yet challenging enough to be enjoyable.
- Practice. Practice often enough so the benefits of the previous session are not forgotten. But not too often either, so there is time for learning to sink in between sessions.
- Time. Rushing to get results is counter-productive. Learning works best when it's done in a playful, explorative mood, not when you are pressed for time.
Adults would benefit by also knowing the critical influence of the growth mind-set (knowing one grows, improves and learns through practice and effort) versus the "fixed mind-set" of people who shun learning because they believe they were born with a fixed quantity of smarts that can never change.
The notion that children ought to be sent to school is based on a number of assumptions, such as "schools promote learning". Two of the least examined assumptions appear to be:
- children are not capable of learning on their own.
- children cannot possibly know what they should learn, what will be good for them.
If these assumptions, regardless of their validity, are indeed held by most adults children come into contact with, such as school staff, is it any wonder that schools stifle learning in children? It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: when all the adults around you behave as if you were helpless and clearly expect you to not be able to think straight, when they don't respect your intelligence and they don't take you seriously ("haha, he/she's just a child"), day after day, is it any wonder that after only a few years of this you will, like most children, effectively come to see yourself as hopelessly ignorant and incapable of learning anything on your own?
As to whether there is any merit to the assumptions, it is enough to only begin examining the evidence to find that they are false:
- every child learns to make sense of his/her surroundings on his/her own, every child learns to crawl, stand up, and walk without being taught. Every child learns to understand speech in at least one language, and learns to speak at least one spoken language, without any formal schooling: contrast that with the results of learning a language at school.
Children learn all the time, their very nature as human beings compels them to learn all the time. In fact adults learn all the time too, it's just that for most adults their destructive childhood has resulted in them actively avoiding learning anything not sanctionned by theirs peers, therefore they get stuck in either re-learning the same old things over and over again, or learning useless trivia that they forget almost immediately ("the news", "gossip"), instead of learning anything new and valuable.
- anything that a child wants to learn is good, for the simple reason that it is the child's own choice. How else is it possible to develop the capacity to tell apart what is good for you from what is bad for you, if you cannot find out by actually experimenting with reality? Taking someone else's word for that is only possible once you have accumulated enough experience, once you have built a reasonably good mental model of what may happen if you follow or don't follow their advice. Otherwise believing that person would be relying on blind faith, not actual experience. Preventing a child from choosing what to learn and how to learn it, is depriving that child of the most valuable experiences he/she can have, because it prevents the child from getting better at learning itself.
As with other learning, learning how to learn is automatic and inborn in humans. We just need to let children develop this capability like they develop their other capabilities, without interfering with the process. Again, this does not mean you cannot help children to learn, only that the proper way to help them is to answer their questions and perhaps make suggestions, but never force them to do this or that.
Marc Moini 2013