Overlearning: Physical Skills vs. Facts

Dangerous child training is first about competence. Some children — having achieved competence in one field — will want to achieve competence in other fields. Other children will want to go further beyond competence, toward mastery in a single field. To approach mastery in almost any field of worth requires time and practise. And there often lies the rub.

Overlearning is a pedagogical concept subscribing to the belief that one should practice newly acquired skills well beyond the point of initial mastery, leading to automaticity. _Overlearning

Research studies referenced in the Wikipedia article above, suggest that overlearning may be much more effective for acquiring procedural memory such as learning to play a musical instrument, or learning a skilled form of martial art, than for learning rote facts. In other words, “cramming” for a test — one form of short term overlearning — will not typically yield long term knowledge or understanding of the material. Procedural learning often benefits from subconscious “muscle memory”, but even muscle memory must be reinforced and calibrated by mindful repetition.

Anyone who has learned to play a musical instrument, how to fence, or how to perform surgery, will immediately understand the importance of mindful repetition. To learn an instrument, one repeats scales and other exercises to improve dexterity and to increase the automaticity of certain techniques and musical phrasings. To master fencing, certain exercises and forms must be repeated over and over to improve unconscious technique and speed. A master surgeon first performs techniques and procedures in his mind, on pig’s feet, on cadavers of animals or humans, on live humans under careful supervision, and finally on his own as a journeyman surgeon always approaching mastery.

Procedural memory is created through “procedural learning” or, repeating a complex activity over and over again until all of the relevant neural systems work together to automatically produce the activity. Implicit procedural learning is essential to the development of any motor skill or cognitive activity.

… When needed, procedural memories are automatically retrieved and utilized for the execution of the integrated procedures involved in both cognitive and motor skills, from tying shoes to flying an airplane to reading. Procedural Memory

The methods for the procedural learning of complex concepts is less obvious, but just as important, and involves repetition as well.

Conceptual metaphors are crucial for the mastery of physical skills and for the mastery of cognitive skills. In the martial art of aikido, for example, when one practises the technique of “the unmovable arm,” it can help to imagine a high pressure flow of water moving from the body down through the shoulder, past the elbow, and out through the fingertips — similar to a firehose. Eventually, one can allow the “water pressure” to maintain the shape and strength of the arm, even in a state of deep mental relaxation. This is useful in many of the seemingly effortless techniques of aikido.

When Nobel winning physicist Richard Feynman was learning differential calculus as a boy, he used the metaphor of mechanical gears and ratchets to aid his learning. Albert Einstein used metaphors of observers on locomotives and rocket ships to help shape his theories of relativity. Metaphors of fluid flow are often used when learning electrical theory. And so on.

Children are born with a complement of instincts and instinctive metaphors that are used as scaffolds of learning in infancy. Some of these scaffolds are used, but many are wasted from disuse, and lost in the massive pruning of cells and synapses which takes place before a child is old enough to go to school.

The techniques of overlearning which are used in teaching piano or violin are well known. Scales, exercises, pieces…. And by the time most children are given the opportunity to learn an instrument, the thought of endless hours of tedious practise tends to overwhelm any hopes for mastery and reward. Most older beginning students will give up the violin or piano long before reaching high levels of skill. The desire has to come from inside the student, although outside reinforcement can be timely.

The Dangerous Child Method takes advantage of the plasticity and enthusiasm of early childhood to implant habits of overlearning along with a playful and imaginative approach to practise. Play is necessarily flexible, and so what is learned in TDCM can often be utilised in the learning of multiple skills.

Applying TDCM to very young children is the easy part. Very young children love to learn, love to display what they have learned, and are eager to please by continuing to learn — given appropriate reinforcement, variety of stimuli, time to rest and incorporate knowledge and skills, proper nourishment, and so on.

The more difficult application of TDCM involves training older children, adolescents, and adults. Which is why it is fortunate that useful theories of adult learning have been developed — just in time for the widespread application of MOOCs and college equivalency certification exams (“college GED”).

What The Dangerous Child approach offers to adolescents and adults is independence and self-sufficiency — both of which facilitate a healthy voluntary interdependency.

What The Dangerous Child Method offers to younger children and infants is something on a different level.

Sensitive Developmental Periods

Sensitive Developmental Periods

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