Take to the Road! – The Low and High Road to Learning

The practice in the Medieval University was for the instructor to read from an original source to a class of students who took notes on the lecture. The reading from original sources evolved into the reading transparencies of the original and then more generally to lecture notes. Throughout much of history, the diffusion of knowledge via handwritten lecture notes was an essential element of academic life. Even in the twentieth century the lecture notes taken by students, or prepared by a scholar for a lecture, have sometimes achieved wide circulation.

The manner in which material is conveyed or taught can have a strong influence on the learning strategies adopted by students (McKeachie 1995). If material is conveyed as a litany of dates or facts then students will be encouraged (perhaps implicitly) to concentrate on memorising those facts, especially if the assessment focuses on the ability to recall them quickly and accurately. On the other hand, if a subject is taught in a more discursive or analytical way, and this is mirrored in the assessment, students will focus more on understanding. While learning style is very much a personal attribute of a learner, a teacher can exercise some influence (Machiavelli 1925) over the learners activities.

If people are to learn to reason, plan and make good decisions, which is a significant aim of higher education, they must be able to generalise what they have learned in the past to new learning and be able to apply and extend their learning to a range of situations (Haskell 2001). It is suggested (Salomon 1989; Pascual-Leone 1994) that there are two ways in which this transfer occurs. One is low-read learning involving low cognitive functions and referring to concrete, experimental or infralogical learning. The other is high-road learning involving high cognitive function and referring to abstract, conceptual or logo logical learning.

Low-Road Learning

In low-road learning, previously learned knowledge or practices can be evoked and successfully applied in a different situation. This comes about because the succession of contexts, for which particular knowledge or particular practice is appropriate, are closely similar, but also require slight adaptation of the knowledge/practice, thereby providing sufficient opportunity to allow the flexible and repeated use of knowledge or practices to an automatic level. As the knowledge or practices are already developed to a level where they are both highly flexible and categorised/in a routine within the individuals repertoire, they can be applied to the new situation. However, the new situation must be perceived by the individual to have characteristics sufficiently similar to those in the earlier situation(s), to trigger the appropriate knowledge or practices. The critical feature of low-road learning is its automatic extension into situations that appear to be somewhat different, but which can be enacted through essentially existing knowledge or practices. Low-road learning explains where one’s behaviour might have been based on modelling or driven by reinforcement, and results in implicit or unintentional overt performance (Salomon 1989).

High-Road Learning

Larkin pointed out the frequent application of old knowledge to new situations is the popular understanding of transfer (Larkin 1989). A more elaborate understanding invokes the requirements to learn new knowledge, because the context for application is sufficient dissimilar that extant knowledge will not, of itself, suffice. This is what is meant by high-road learning. In high-road learning, there is no automatic transfer or knowledge/practices from one situation to another. Rather, transfer is through mindful abstraction (Salomon 1989). This means extracting the generic attributes from some material, situation or behaviour, and creating a mental representation of this attributes. The representation (such as a sign, picture or linguistic expression) is the individuals own construction, and may also include other knowledge and beliefs that the individual imputes into the representation.

Salomon illustrates high-road learning with the conscious decisions, either because the strategies seem to pop up on relevant occasions, or because we deliberately search for/retrieve previously learned strategies for potential application to the new situation (Salomon 1989). Mindful abstraction would appear to be what (Bereitter 1989) mean by intentional learning, which they characterise as the deliberate, conscious effort which is involved in not only completing some assigned task, but also as the effort of monitoring and progressing one’s own understanding of the phenomenon underpinning the assigned task.

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