Knowledge fluency

September 9, 2013 at 6:11 PM

Knowledge fluency

Marina Vazura QC ‘15 and Jim Stellar


Marina is a Speech Pathology Major and met Jim at an honor society event at Queens College. The resulting conversation began with the general idea of taking knowledge from an internship in a clinically-oriented degree program and progressed to the idea that the words “knowledge fluency” could apply to what was learned in an internship. Obviously, these words are borrowed from language fluency where a student who spends time abroad learns to speak a foreign language in a way that comes naturally, without thinking and without having to go through another language and translate. Marina is a good one to speak from the perspective of language fluency as she speaks four languages, three of them fluently including English.

Let’s take for example a child in second grade that has just started to solve mathematical problems. There are a number of steps that need to be taken by the teacher in order to aid the learning process for the student, which will ultimately lead to knowledge fluency.

Contextual or even visual learning is the first way a new concept or skill is introduced by the teacher in the classroom. The teacher will connect the new material to a life situation (buying an ice-cream, telling time, sharing items), to allow the student to better comprehend the concept by directly applying it to a real life situation. The teacher may even introduce the concept pictorially, by drawing pictures on the board to help students visualize mathematical operations during problem solving. In the learning process, the teacher serves as the student’s moderator in modeling the thought process by “thinking aloud” and asking appropriate questions. By looking, listening and interacting with their classmates, students have all the necessary components to facilitate learning.

How does that tie back to the learning?

As students continue to learn new information, previously acquired knowledge will sync in with the new material and knowledge will coalesce in the form of building blocks. The students will then start to make their thinking public by sharing it with a partner or group and will agree and disagree with the ideas presented by their classmates. The teacher’s role at this point is to ensure fluency by keeping the students engaged and providing opportunities for repeated collaborative experiences with the new material to ensure fluency.

When has the child developed knowledge fluency?

Well, when the child can successfully apply the new skill independently. You probably don’t recall learning that four times two equals eight. This is a fact that we learned at approximately the second or third-grade level. Yet, we are all able to retain that fact in our memory. Why? That’s because this fact has been used for hundreds, maybe thousands of times in our everyday life. Also, the symbols used in the representation of this fact are familiar to us. Most importantly, the solution makes sense. The child is not only capable of applying the mathematical concept without the guidance of the teacher effortlessly, but has also developed confidence in his knowledge and understanding of the skill. This is what I would classify as knowledge fluency.

Now take us back to internships and talk particularly about your internship this summer.

Internships are like the new mathematical concept that is presented to a second-grader. Through internships, the intern is exposed to new material and has to apply previously acquired information and experiences to perform well. The student or intern, in this case, cannot perform well, if the intern does not feel engaged in the process. I remember the first day at my Harvard internship. I was nervous that I would have a difficult time getting oriented with the lab procedures since it was my first time working at a chemistry lab. The lab manager, served as my moderator in the whole learning process by modeling every task and then allowing me to work independently. The Principal Investigator provided me with learning opportunities whether it was shadowing the post-doctoral students or assisting me with finalizing a paper. I began reading literature in the field so that I could become better acquainted with the research and did not hesitate to ask questions for clarification. I attended the lab meetings, watched the presentations of the more experienced lab members and actively participated in the group discussions. I spoke about the findings on a daily basis, oftentimes with colleagues but also, with my family over the phone. I had developed interest and thirst for more knowledge. I couldn’t have felt more engaged.

But you were not working in the speech pathology area. This was a chemistry lab. How did that go?

What I found fascinating is that I was using some of the concepts I had previously learned in my courses and former jobs. For example, when I was shown an fMRI scan, the term “hypothalamus” immediately popped in my head when I had to identify the part of the brain that controls food intake. Oftentimes, I was assigned to interact with some of the participants to review the details of the study. Had I not worked in customer service before, I would not have been able to communicate to those participants with such confidence and ease. Whenever I was having phone conversations with the participants, it felt as if I was working as a receptionist at the doctor’s office, my former job. I often referred to the participants as “patients” since I was used to that terminology. With continuous exposure to the research lab, my vocabulary broadened and certain concepts I had learned in the classroom were reinforced. I came to realize that knowledge obtained through experiential education remains engraved in one’s memory longer than knowledge memorized merely to pass a test.

This is what we mean by knowledge fluency. As MV writes, it was “engraved in one’s memory…” That statement is revealing as the knowledge becomes part of the person and in that way ceases to be like a tool one is using (or at least we do not think of it that way). It becomes the person.

At a recent conference JS attended, a plenary speaker, Lloyd Jacobs, President of the University of Toledo, spoke of how his own medical training ended years ago with him standing at the side of a surgeon in front of an open body. He noted how the familiarity he achieved there with surgical techniques was a different kind of learning than he had gotten from his medical books and classes, and he asked the audience to deconstruct that kind of experiential learning to better understand it. To JS it was a powerful moment.

In this blog, authors often write of conscious cognitive processes vs. unconscious decision making processes and cite books like Eagleman’s Incognito. Another way this process might be discussed is what has come to be known as the default-mode-network, a linked set of frontal and parietal cortex regions that come into activity when one is not on a task but instead is processing internal information. Indeed, this is the period when brain scans reveal that the brain uses the most energy, when it is working the hardest. The idea is that this system is active when learning a new task, such as the child working on the math problem or MV at her summer internship. But after the task is learned, it appears to get stored somewhere else and can be called up and executed without the same effort, e.g. the difficulty of learning to ride a bike vs. the ease of riding one once learned. Maybe this is knowledge fluency.

What is even more interesting is the idea that this process might profit from practice – that we might get better at such thinking on an internship through an interaction of the default-mode-network and the things already learned so that we learn how to learn in that situation. This might be called critical thinking, a cherished goal of higher education. We will come back to that notion.

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Secret computations of the hidden brain 1: How brain reward works and why it matters … in higher education
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