All learning is relearning

Where did the concept of “elicit, confront, resolve” come from?

We often imagine that ideal learning happens the same way we often imagine ideal teaching*: We enter a room, students are waiting with anticipation of the new topic, the blackboard is clean and we can dive in and start drawing a picture from scratch. The students have no prior knowledge (or only exactly the prior knowledge we want them to have) and it is organized exactly the way we want it to be. The reality is, of course, different. The blackboard is hardly ever clean when we enter the room. And what is worse: Everybody always has a more or less articulate idea on any topic, and those ideas will interfere with any new information or theory that the teacher wants to convey.

Kolb states that a lot of resistance to new ideas stems from their conflict with pre-existing ideas that are inconsistent with the new ideas we are trying to convey. From this, he suggests an education process that has been termed “elicit, confront, resolve” by others later (compare, for example, McDermott’s (1990) Millikan lecture), which Kolb describes as “If the education process begins by bringing out the learner’s beliefs and theories, examining and testing them, and then integrating the new, more refined ideas into the person’s belief system, the learning process will be facilitated”.

The new ideas can enter the learner’s belief system in two ways: By integration or substitution. According to Kolb, integration lets the new ideas become part of a highly stable conception of the world, whereas substitution can lead to a dual theory of the world where both ideas exist in parallel** and where the reversion to earlier understanding is a possibility.

The challenge is now to successfully integrate the new ideas with the pre-existing ideas. While for example Muller et al. (2008) show that explicitly stating misconceptions helps subsequent learning of the correct conceptions, there is still no easy fix that could routinely be used in university teaching (at least that I am aware of). Plenty of work to do still! :-)

*of course, this is not _my_ idea of ideal teaching

**a nice example of two parallel ideas about gravity is shown in Derek Muller’s video on “misconceptions about falling objects” where the interviewees explicitly state what they expect will happen, which is in contrast with what science told them will happen.

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