Feedback Loops and Learning

Feedback Loops and Learning

Psychologists and other scientists, especially neuroscientists, have described “feedback loops”(FLs) as the mental and physical process that accounts for our consciousness. In fact, one even suggested that certain parts of the brain in which feedback loops were found to be frequent might be the site of the “soul.” Physicists, too, have used the idea to describe human consciousness.
Michio Kaku, in The Future of the Mind ((Anchor Books, NY: 2014), says, “Consciousness is the process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters (e.g. in temperature, space, time and its relation to others), in order to accomplish a goal (e.g. find mates, food, shelter).” (p. 43)

Wikipedia has numerous definitions. Here is one: In psychology, the body receives a stimulus from the environment or internally that causes the release of hormones. Release of hormones then may cause more of those hormones to be released, causing a positive feedback loop. This cycle is also found in certain behaviour. For example, “shame loops” occur in people who blush easily. When they realize that they are blushing, they become even more embarrassed, which leads to further blushing, and so on. Scheff, Thomas (2009-09-02).  The Emotional/Relational World. Psychology Today.

These two descriptions illustrate different ways to describe “feedback loop.” Kaku calls his the “space-time theory of consciousness,” tha,t for humans, is the way their minds “create a model of the world, both forward and backward.”

How to use “feedback loops” effectively in teaching and learning means to be able to identify the process in one’s self or one’s students and to help create the “models” that Kaku says causes the retention of the ideas in the “feedback loop.” So much for theory. Most of us are more interested in how to learn to develop and use “feedback.”
We use our senses, our emotions and our consciousness to learn. But we may not realize that we already use “feedback loops” (FLs) all the time. The “essence” of “having learned” something, is to be able to (1) recall it when we want to, (2) apply it to whatever we are dealing with, and (3) accomplish what we intend to. The simplest “feedback loops”(FLs) involve survival. Here is one. We need food, we know where it is, we go there, we find it, and we eat it. How did our “internal” FL help us do that?

First, we had a feeling, an emotional and/or physical one, that we recognized. Why? Because we had it before. Next, we had a purpose, an in-tention, to DO something. Then, we paid at-tention to our feeling. Finally, the “feedback loop” in our minds re-called the “model,” that is, the memory of how we got food. Then, we “decided” to (or not to) DO something–(usually what we have done before) to satisfy the “feeling\idea” we re-cognized (imagined again), that we had satisfied before. Of course, the more often we do it, the less we have to “stop and think.”

Why is it important to know that Fls exist in our minds, and that they have identifiers or labels or names? Our minds need an efficient filing system to help us do things more effectively. Imagine that you couldn’t remember how to get to work or school, that is, overnight you always forget it and have to look it up on your GPS, or ask someone for directions.
Then suppose you had to consult a list to know what to do every morning on waking up. Wash, brush your teeth, get dressed, find the kitchen, decide what to select, find where it was kept, etc. It would take a long time. You do these things now “without much thought.”

That’s what basic “feedback loops” are. The simplest ones are called “habits.” You have a lot of Fls already, ones that developed from the day you were born. Your “autonomous” nervous system—that makes you “feel” some things without thinking at all—hunger, thirst, warm, cold, etc.-are all a source of Fls.
Then there are the Fls you have for “emotions.” Happy, sad, confident, fearful, anxious, joyful, amused, alert, content, etc. These feelings are almost-automatic reactions to things you do (or do not) recognize. For example, recognizing danger is learned only when you in some way “experience,” or “imagine something like the experience” of being afraid of “something.”
In fact, a wise teacher of young children in New Zealand, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, many years ago described how some of her very young students—those who could NOT “name” what they were afraid of—were ALWAYS afraid; Others, who could name their fears were able to overcome them. That is how important it is to be able to “name” our “feedback loops” (the “names or labels” of what we know that we have learned).

Efficient learning—to learn how to learn independently–makes our daily lives easier to live. FLs, are the simple basis of all learning—how our minds are designed to work. All learning becomes easier when we KNOW that everything we experience becomes part of our memories. Our mental filing systems—habits and names and signs and symbols for the data in our minds—make our lives much easier. That’s what education—learning to learn—is supposed to do. Understanding how to “use our own “feedback loops” and to develop new ones is a lifelong requirement and process. Knowing how it works makes life much easier.
Many teachers already know this; unfortunately, too many of the rest of us don’t quite understand that the most important FLs are developed in the first 100 months of a child’s life, and those habits, if not good ones, can “get in the way” of the many lessons of life that follow.

John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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