Examples of rote learning
A student writing “menagerie lion” while explaining what the equator is.
A student saying “5.cerivisiae” instead of “S.cerevisiae” when answering a question on yeast biology.
My late brother, Tony, singing “Where the streets have no name” by U2 and belting out “I want to feel some lead on my face”
Any Irish person saying the ‘Our Father’ in Irish.
Most Irish people singing the national anthem.
Chemical engineering students of my era solving any number of problems using the graphical techniques that were the go-to methods of the time.
Me solving induction motor problems in the electrical engineering module we had to endure in third year chemical engineering.
Examples of Fixed Learning
Memorising and understanding topics in isolation. Memorisation without understanding is almost impossible which is why most people don’t use random strings of letters and numbers for passwords. ‘Meaning’ is at the heart of successful memorisation and we need to remember if we are to think. Thinking involves using the information in your head to solve problems or to understand a new topic or to make a discovery.
An example of fixed learning might be knowing Jane Austen’s Emma ‘inside-out’ but unable to connect it to the movie, Clueless. Or perhaps knowing lots about the histories of Israel and Northern Ireland but not noticing any parallels.
Only seeing the surface structure of a topic. For example, I teach two closely related subjects: heat transfer and mass transfer. Students can easily understand them separately but rarely see the deep connections between the two, especially the underlying mathematical similarities. This is a great example of students preferring to learn from the specific to the general whereas experts often like to teach from the general to specific because it is a more elegant, and more powerful (in their view), way to do things.
Flexible or Deep Learning
After many years of study or work experience, we see the connections between subjects. We are not distracted by the surface features of problems and ideas – we see the deeper structures; the underlying laws and principles rather than the specific context.