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By Heather Morton
Senior Editor, MindEdge Learning
When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, I was unexpectedly asked to teach English as a Second Language, a task that required me to teach the English present tenses. Because I knew nothing about English verb tenses, was in a jungle without grammar books, and spoke English perfectly, I tried to figure out my native language by calling to mind correct and incorrect instances of present tense usage (“I am speaking English” vs. “I speak English” and “he is believing in God” vs. “he believes in God”), and then trying to figure out the rule behind the verb tense choices I made as a native speaker. As you might guess, it was a fairly disastrous method for learning (and teaching) grammar, with plenty of room for wrongly intuiting a rule or even forgetting an entire tense (“I do think” never came to mind).
According to Michael Ullman, who has done extensive work on procedural and declarative learning, native speakers learn grammar largely through procedural memory. Procedural learning, the lesser-known of the two learning systems, is inaccessible to conscious thought. This is how we learn grammatical rules when we are immersed in a language—how we learn to walk—and how we learn to ride a bike.
In the procedural system, we acquire knowledge and skills slowly over time, as we repeatedly get feedback about our actions. Shift your weight the wrong way and you’ll tumble—that’s the feedback—but you’ll likely need to tumble many times before you can successfully walk or ride a bike.
Declarative learning, by contrast, is what most of us think of as “learning”: someone showing or telling us how to do something. Declarative learning requires focus and attention (procedural learning doesn’t), but it’s faster. Most of us can remember an interesting fact after being told only once. If I had learned present tense verbs in English declaratively, I would have been equipped to teach them declaratively to my students. Having learned them procedurally, my own knowledge of grammar was inaccessible to me.
But it’s not clear how we can better tap into the procedural system. All the examples I’ve given above are speculative; no one is completely certain how or why we learn certain things in certain ways. Officially, declarative and procedural learning are defined by the parts of the brain that are involved in acquiring the knowledge, not by the content learned. So without fancy brain-scanning equipment, we can only guess which system we’re using at any given moment.
Ullman identified grammar-through-immersion as a procedural “subject” after researching the brain. That identification came partially from examining which parts of the brain light up when people hear wrong grammar (“she talk to her teacher”), which are different from the parts of the brain that light up when people hear wrong words (“I drove a desk to work.”)
One key point Ullman makes is that both systems support most kinds of learning. After all, lots of people have successfully learned grammar through the declarative system. As researchers discover more about the two systems, teachers will want to activate both of them to support their students’ learning.
Declarative learning is faster, so a teacher might first teach multiplication facts and ask students to learn them through recall. But because procedural learning is faster at getting us back the information we need, that teacher might then promote procedural learning to help students attain greater fluency. Research suggests that fast feedback induces the procedural system. Perhaps after students have learned their multiplication facts, a video game that provides vivid and immediate (but not detailed) feedback would help students learn to multiply the same way they can stand up from a chair: instantly and without thinking.
As we learn more about the procedural system, it will become more common to design courses with both systems in mind. Given the differing strengths of the systems, we’ll likely design certain activities that promote declarative learning first, followed up with activities that help students cement their knowledge in the procedural system. Meanwhile, it’s helpful to remember that students with a weakness in one system can generally use the other system to compensate. Accessibility and inclusivity require learning more about both systems.
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