The Power of Concepts Over Details
“Most of us are not very good at thinking or remembering details, not because we are stupid, lazy, or have inefficient brains but because our neural systems have not been developed by evolution to emphasize them.” – JW Wilson, Advanced Learning Institute
Once it becomes clear that the most important element of the Learning Code is to select new information by stimulating the Meaning Network (see Elements 13-19), the next question is: By what format is the Meaning Network most easily activated – details or concepts?
Most of us are not very good at thinking or remembering details, not because we are stupid, lazy, or have inefficient brains, but because our neural systems have not been developed by evolution to emphasize isolated facts. Any learning system that emphasizes detail acquisition over concept formation will be one in conflict with how the brain naturally processes and encodes information. As Harvard professor and author Samuel P. Huntington says, “When people think seriously they conjure up simplified pictures of reality called concepts, theories, models and paradigms. Without such intellectual constructs, there is, as William James said, only “a blooming, buzzing, confusion.” As we have all learned from our school experiences, the brain does not automatically place details into long-term memory just because we spend hours memorizing them.
Read on to learn more about the importance of concept networks
Concept Networks Ensure Details Enter Memory
Strong, well-established concept networks, made up of millions of interconnected neurons, provide three major components in assuring that details can be selected into long-term memory:
- The large numbers of neurons that make up concept networks provide a stable landing pad upon which details can attach themselves. If we do not have a conceptual understanding of something in our brain, we lack the neural material upon which details must physically affix themselves. Details cannot float about in the brain like so many loose butterflies but must attach themselves to strong, stable, and previously acquired concept networks in order to be remembered.
- The neurons and connections that make up concept networks supply mass, which then acts like a magnet, attracting the details that resonate with them. This is why the more substantial our concept networks for subjects like computers, math, history or sports, the easier it is to attract and remember important details about those concepts.
- When concept networks are activated, they demand large amounts of glucose and oxygen, which, in turn, provide the fuel necessary to power the neurochemical processes that allow details to be incorporated into long-term memory.
We forget so many of the details that we spent thousands of hours studying in school primarily because, without strong concept networks in place, our brain lacked the mass, the attachments, and neural energy to effectively encode them.
To get a feeling of how having an understanding of big-picture concepts helps us encode details, quickly read the following passage.
With hocked gems financing him, our hero bravely defied all scornful laughter that tried to prevent his scheme. “Your eyes deceive,” he had said. “An egg not a table, correctly typifies this unexplored planet.” Now three sturdy sisters sought proof. Forging along, sometimes through calm vastness, yet more often very turbulent peaks and valleys, days became weeks as many doubters spread fearful rumors about the edge. At last from nowhere welcome winged creatures appeared, signifying momentous success.
Now, if three hours after reading this passage, we asked you what details you remember, you would probably recall very few. Why? Because you were never given the overall concept of this passage. Researchers have found that people who were informed that this passage was about Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the new world remembered so much more than those who were not told.
I think you will be amazed that you can read and understand the following passage that a friend sent to me:
I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mind it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. This is because you brain is always trying to understand concepts before it focuse on details. And you awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!
Why does our brain naturally prefer to think in big-picture concepts rather than minute details? Because our ancestors who thought and focused on the “big-picture” had a better chance of surviving and passing their genes down to us than our ancestors who were overly focused on details. Thinking in concepts allows the brain to take quick survival action in situations that lack a high degree of certainty. A brain that spends too much time amassing details before it takes action does not provide a survival advantage. Our prehistoric cousins who focused on details, like the number of hairs on a charging saber-tooth tiger, did not make it through the sieve of evolution.
As a group, brain-based educators’ understanding of neurological processing prompts them to be concerned about learning systems that continue to follow the “fallacy of the familiar,” that is, heavy emphasis on detail acquisition over concept formation. In your K through 12 years, you were probably asked 10,000 to 50,000 test questions. Of all these questions, how many details do you remember today? Probably very few. Brain-based educators fear we may have made a bargain with the devil. We have used memorization to force detailed information into short-term working memory to pass tests, but because the underlying concepts upon which these details must attach themselves were never effectively put in place, when we try to remember these details later, we find they have never become part of our long-term memory, even though we passed the tests that emphasized them so heavily.
Educational researchers Renate and Geoffrey Caine have done extensive research on conceptualized learning, and they note in their book Making Connections, “Facts and skills that are dealt with in isolation are organized differently by the brain and need much more practice and rehearsal.” They go on to say, “The more separated information and skills are for prior knowledge and actual experience, the more dependence there must be on rote memorization and reputation. … Emphasizing the storage and recall of unconnected facts is an inefficient use of the brain.”
One recent study indicated that 10 of the most prominent science textbooks used from K through 12 are so detail oriented that they failed to help children learn. George Neilson, director of Project 2061, a math and science reform initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says textbooks are so focused on unnecessary details that they preclude the learner from understanding big-picture concepts. He says, “Providing bits of information around transmissions, carburetors, fuel injectors … does not convey a sense of a car as a mode of transportation.” Most of us have spent hundreds of hours studying algebra and calculus in school yet have very little retention of these disciplines today. Why? Because we never fully understood their underlying concepts, and consequently the selection of advanced math details into long-term memory was never completed.
Memory Framework a “Lattice” of Connections
Our memory of concepts is made up of a physical framework represented by a lattice of millions upon millions of interconnected neural connections. Our brains are filled with concept networks for such things as faces, fruits, trees, tools, dogs, cars, airplanes, and computers, each having its own unique configuration of millions of neural connections. When we learn a new specific detail about something, a part of the brain instrumental in converting working memory to long-term memory, called the hippocampus, helps direct specific details to the correct concept network. Therefore, to effectively learn and remember new details about any subject, we must have a conceptual framework of that subject physically in place, or the hippocampus has no place to send this new information, and details have no place to attach themselves.
The research has led brain-based educators to conclude that trying to get people to effectively learn the details of a subject before they understand the concepts is like trying to get someone to quickly put together a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without ever seeing the image on the box. It is very difficult, if not impossible. Researcher R. C. Andersson found that connecting new information to previously learned concepts “is a better predictor of comprehension than is … an intelligent test score!”
In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:
Why the majority of doctoral candidates never gain their advanced degrees.
Why “good” students are often unable to apply their knowledge of “facts” in the real world.
Why students that spend more time on concepts in the classroom during the day need to spend less time on homework at night.
How in New Zealand the “concept first” technique increased scores on national standardized tests by an amazing 40 percent.
Why, because Japanese students focus on concepts over details, they continually outscore their American counterparts on math achievement tests.
Why studies in reading confirm that the more students focus on the details in a passage, the less understanding they have of the passage.
Why one study showed the more education, the less ability a person had to grasp the concepts needed to program a VCR.
Why reports show that between 75 and 85 percent of secondary students dislike math.
Why it will take you only 10 seconds to memorize the following letters and their corresponding geometric shapes when you are given the right conceptual framework.
Why you need to stimulate only 5 percent of the neurons in one of your concept network in order to stimulate the whole network.
Why the ability to conceptualize is one of the “crowning achievements” of the human intellect.
How one neuron in a concept network has the capacity to be part of hundreds, if not thousands, of other memory networks.
How people with neurological disorders, such as savants (who have one dramatically overactive concept network), agnosias (who lose specific concept networks), and synaesthetes (who have interconnected concept networks allowing them to taste colors and see sounds), have helped science understand that the brain prefers to process concepts before details.
How even small amounts of new information can cause one of your concept networks to subdivide into a new concept network.
Why the more neural connections you have in your brain about a concept, the more neural material you have in place to snag new details about that concept.
Why one evaluator of textbooks says that their emphasis on details makes them “a collection of missed opportunities.”
Why your physical memory is less like a container that fills up with miscellaneous details and more like a lattice of hooks.
Why, because there are so many more details in our modern world, your brain is 20 percent heavier than your grandparents’.
Why multitasking diffuses your neural energy, making you less efficient.
Why, in order to build highly efficient learning systems, designers must emphasize meaning first, concepts second, and details last.