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Three Levels of Learning

I’m preparing a lesson on reflection for my students right now, which has me of course reflecting on learning itself.

Image of a teacup and saucer in front of a stack of books
Image via StockSnap, as usual

There is, of course, Bloom’s taxonomy and its variations, which work very well and have bee the foundations of a lot of good pedagogy, and I won’t try to mess with a good thing in that regard.

But I find myself having trouble remembering it because it’s actually a pretty complex topic and I like frameworks that come in threes. A while ago, while discussing with a student the design of the curriculum, I provided the student a three-part hierarchy of learning that is sort of a synthesis of what I’ve learned about learning and pedagogy from various sources.

Image of a woman writing in a planner
Via StockSnap

The three parts to this learning process are:

  • Recognizing
  • Doing
  • Analyzing

Recognizing can be characterized as anything from “I have seen this before; this is familiar” to “I can name this thing and associated things.” If we imagine, for instance, teaching someone how to paint with watercolors (my ready example because I’ve watched my mother teach this so often), the recognizing is the stage where the student learns to name the tools they will use: round brushes, flat brushes, canvas versus paper, paint, palette, clean water, rinse water, etc.

Recognizing also includes being able to tell the difference between a watercolor painting and other kinds of painting. (This recognition process is also what happens when I take my mom to an art museum: she scours the museum counting the ratio of watercolor to oil paintings and grumbling about how watercolor is a very fine art indeed and there’s a good deal too much focus on oil painting in the art world. It’s really a hoot).

Recognition, of course, never stops. But it’s definitely the first thing necessary to learn. This is where the student builds up the necessary categories, vocabulary, patterns, etc to be able to make meaning in the other steps. It’s foundational. You can’t learn to do or use what you can’t recognize as even existing.

Doing, then, is characterized when the learner says “I have not only seen this before, but I can imitate it.” This requires recognizing the processes involved, but also then being able to implement them. There are a lot of things I can look at and say “I know how that was done” but cannot imitate (I know, for instance, how knitting works, and can knit some stitches, but I cannot produce a sweater because I’m only at the recognizing level of learning for all but the most basic knitting skills). Doing builds directly on recognition. It’s translating the recognition into action.

Our painting student, having learned her brushes and other tools and having learned to recognize the difference between a wet-on-wet wash and a wet-on-dry stroke now practices making washes. She can reliably make a wash that fills a delineated space. She can make creative variations on her washes by changing colors. She can do this.

But what our painting student can’t do yet is understand exactly what happened when something goes wrong for her. She can’t analyze a problem and respond to it yet. She also can’t really teach someone else how to do a wash yet either, because she is still processing the concept in the doing. Nor can she fully explain to someone how a wash is different from other techniques she might do, and she probably can’t innovate beyond a few expected variables in the process.

But as she gets better at washes, and solves through some problems when something doesn’t work right, she will reach the analyzing stage.

Analyzing is characterized when the learner says “I know this, I can do this, and I can talk about what I’m doing. I can solve problems in this domain as well.” At this stage, the skill is fully learned (although of course it can always be improved), and the learner is able to solve problems, apply the skill in new situations, and teach others.

Our painting student at this stage knows how to fix her wash without assistance when something goes wrong. She can plan new painting ideas rather than relying on her instructor to suggest uses for the wash technique. She can look at her classmate who is lagging behind and offer assistance, because she’s able to not only do the skill, but explain it clearly in her own words as she does it.

Image of sewing supplies
Image via StockSnap

We all have varying skills at each level of learning. I can recognize when something is wrong with my car by the way it sounds or smells or looks, but I can’t fix it, and I can’t explain it, so I’m at the first level with the mechanics of my car.

I can spin wool in a variety of ways, but I lack the ability to fully explain what I’m doing when I do it, because my level of knowledge of spinning is fairly stuck at the doing phase and has not entered the analyzing phase. Part of what is lacking is some of the recognition foundation, actually; because I started doing so young, I missed some of the vocabulary necessary to move forward with this skill. But even with that vocabulary, I would need to solve more problems with the skill to truly analyze other people’s spinning and be able to apply my doing knowledge into analysis.

Writing, however, I’m very much in the analysis phase. I can not only identify writing when I see it (that is, I can read), as well as do writing, I can also analyze my own and other people’s writing to solve problems, generate patterns, etc.

What are some skills you have at each level?

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