Posts Tagged ‘Qualitative vs Theoretical’

While I was a teacher, I had the opportunity to learn about “The Educational Sciences” as formulated by Joesph Hill in Bloomfield Michigan. (long time ago.)  It changed the way I thought.  Instead of thinking more about teaching, I began to think how students learned and how that should determine how I helped them learn. Simple you say, but I dare say, it is a lot more complex once you think about learning instead of teaching.  In this essay I want to discuss one aspect; the nature of SYMBOLS and how they impact learning.

How do our minds PREFER to acquire information.  In any interaction with an external world, our brains have to interpret stimuli coming in from our senses.  But there are two quite distinct types of stimuli. Lets first consider visual stimuli.  For example, when we visit places like Yellowstone, the views we see represent a qualitative symbol.  By “qualitative symbol” I mean that the visual stimuli presents to our brain the very thing which it is. We might call it an image or a view of nature.   It is still unique to you and to me; we still have different experiences even though we see the same thing because, after all, when the sensory stimulus gets to our brain, it is only a symbolic representation, a set of neural firings and our brains interpret the visual stimuli as a set of neural patterns or symbols in its own unique way.  We see the same visual view, but experience unique neural symbols,  we interpret the view, experience the view differently based on our own unique history.  We call it qualitative because we can not extract it from our brains in such a way that another person can share the experience.  They have to be there, to see it for themselves and even then, their experience will be shared, but different.

In a similar way, viewing a photograph is a qualitative experience.  The pictures in National Geographic present qualitative symbols.  They are symbols in the sense that they are a collection of ink patterns, not the actual view.  They are a visual symbol of the view captured on a camera.  Contrast this with the narrative of the story or picture headings.  While every person, literate or illiterate can “experience” the photographs, only those able to read can “experience” the narrative by visually looking at the words. That is because the words are “Theoretical Symbols.”  The words appear as images on the retina, but they are not the view, just symbols that have to be translated by our brains to some visual or other qualitative experience to which we can relate.  The words represent to our brains something other than what they themselves are.  Seeing a tree and reading the word “tree” are distinct, the first being qualitative and the second being theoretical.  The symbols that make up the word “tree” has to be decoded, translated.  The decoding process calls upon our memory of prior experiences with qualitative symbols to give them meaning.  In National Geographic, this decoding is supplemented by great graphics.  But not all experiences with theoretical symbols are supplemented with good qualitative help. For example a novel with no pictures is just a set of theoretical symbols for which we must supply a mental image.  Our imaginations must provide the “pictures” based on prior experience.

Allow me to offer an example.  What if you see the word “boat?”  Stop a moment and bring up a mental image from all the qualitative experiences you have had of that word, actual boats and pictures of boats you have seen or even drawn.  What I was thinking of was a particular 25 foot sail boat that I used to ride on moonlit nights in Biscayne Bay in Miami.  Unless you have shared that experience, I can almost guarantee that was not your mental image.  So the theoretical symbols that made up the word “boat” evoked different qualitative experiences in each of us.  This should help make the distinction between qualitative and theoretical symbols.

As learners, we show preferences in how we acquire new information.  Think about how you use a visually rich magazine like National Geographic.  Do you prefer the pictures?  Do you tend to look first at the pictures to select what interests you (qualitative symbols)?  Or do you begin with the table of contents(theoretical symbols)?  What about students in a classroom?  Would one approach tend to “speak” equally to all students?  Would it be prudent to think about this distinction when planning a learning exercise?  If you were preparing instructional materials for students that included both styles, they would need to be rich in both types of symbols but not dependent on either one.

This also applies to the brain’s auditory channels.  Hearing the rush of a fast stream is quite different than reading a description of it.  And, unless you had some prior experience with flowing water, you would be hard pressed to conjure up a meaningful interpretation from a description.  This makes the transformation of information most complex.  A lot gets lost in translation.  If you think you are teaching something, you better be aware that the learner’s experiences play a large part in understanding the lesson.

So, how have I done?  Have I accomplished my purpose to get you thinking about the difference between teaching and learning because of the difference between therotical and symbolic symbols. Next blog on this subject I will discuss working with a group of students at one time when some that can see but can’t hear and some that can hear but can’t see. That is what a teacher is faced with each day.