Thursday, 12 November 2009

Learning slowly according to Manfred Spitzer

Gary Woodwill reviewed a book about learning, thinking and acting. The title grabbed my attention "The Importance of Learning Slowly". The book is by Manfred Spitzer, The Mind within the Net: models of learning, thinking, and acting.One of the comments Woodwill makes about the book is that:
While a single event can have an impact, it usually takes many events to have a relatively permanent change in the brain (aka “learning”) and to extract general features and generate rules from experience ... and according to Spitzer "It must learn quickly for obvious reasons, but it must learn slowly in order to generalize in a way that will produce the optimal solution without oscillating around it or forgetting it because of some other stimulus.”
(p. 53)

Woodwill continues

We often find our models of understanding the world in the latest technologies available to us. Piaget developed his multi-stage theories of learning from observing his own children, and then applying the dominant mechanical metaphors of his day. In the 19th century, Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian astronomer, coined the term “the average man” based on the pendulum (Piaget’s “equilibrium”), while Herbert Spencer wrote a psychology of adaptation using the newly created thermostat as his model (Piaget’s “adaptation and assimilation” within set limits).

In the second half of the twentieth century, two models of computing competed for dominance. One model was artificial intelligence, based on a model of inputs, storage, processing, and outputs - in other words, a factory metaphor. The other model was that of neural networks, modeled on what was then known about the functioning of brains in humans and other animals. In the 1950s, AI became the darling of computer science, leaving neural network development far behind in terms of funding and attention.

Manfred Spitzer’s The Mind within the Net is one of the best non-technical narratives on how minds work using the neural network model. Some of these explanations are startling, while others reinforce positions of strong advocates of individual freedom and the power of informal learning, such as Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Jay Cross.

Spitzer also believes that children can and need to learn more quickly than adults. Children need a rough and ready view of the world while adults want to increase their depth of understanding. Spitzer relates this to the pace of change in today’s society. “The old master violin building makes better violins than the young student of the trade. If, however, all of a sudden the customers want music synthesizers, student will adapt to change more readily.”

The importance of feedback is apparent in both brains and neural networks. Neural networks have a technique called backpropagation of errors that simulates feedback loops in the brain that slowly change the hidden layers between input and output. This means that learning is much more to do with practice and observation than being told what to do. “Children learn from examples,” says Spitzer. The brain stores its learning in “self organizing feature maps.”

Spitzer is a psychiatrist in Germany, so it is not surprising that he has a chapter entitled “The Disordered Mind” in which he discusses autism and oppression. Most of his conclusions are on the best way to raise children, making this book less applicable to the adult learning. However, there are so many insights going through it that I highly recommend it to everyone in education and training.

I’m looking forward to reading it.

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