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Holistic learning?

  • #1

Main Question or Discussion Point

I have a question about learners who study via a holistic method. I typically, want to understand the 'big picture' of some subject and then from there fill in the gaps in my understanding of specifics. I've come to realize that this is a cumbersome approach, but, that's just how I study things or how I best internalize the information presented to me.

Does anyone else study in a similar manner or likes to get the big picture first of some subject and then fill in the gaps in understanding? If so, how have you adopted this method of studying in college settings or elsewhere where, studying is done via filling in the gaps and then getting the big picture?

Thanks for any advice or tips on how to implement this method to the best possible outcome.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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10
Not sure what your experience in Economics, etc. has been. These are just my thoughts; hopefully you will get more feedback to complement these:

The big picture approach is emotionally appealing; it's certainly my preference. It's the way many of us were taught through secondary school. But for study areas like Engineering, Physics et al., I found it difficult to reliably implement as a learning tool:
  • Many times the material appears complex, intimidating and less straightforward than what one has been accustomed to.... I think this often makes the holistic approach problematic. Unless one tends to "just get things", and/or has a terrific memory, it is difficult to grasp the "whole" at once, until one develops some feel for the parts. One's mind needs time to remember and smush around the pieces a bit, in order to make sense of them. As one plays with them, the distinct ideas start to come together to make the whole. (One teacher told us it would take 17 years before a subject really sunk in so we'd understand it.) This requires accepting the lack of (overall) understanding, so one isn't inhibited from learning the basics. That is, the overall understanding is sometimes postponed.
  • Complexity, I would argue, is not only an issue for the students. It is difficult for those teaching (or writing textbooks) to simplify concepts in a way that captures things as a whole... in a manner that one can easily follow. For them to do this, they need to be able to recall what it was like to not "get it." That's difficult. Even just the vocabulary... once people get accustomed to it, they use it in preference to what they'd used before. [As an aside, consider how many times you have seen/heard people use the words "fraught" and "optics"--since they became fashionable over the last few years!] I can recall my frustration with that infamous phrase: "it may easily be shown that...." But with all the currently available alternative resources available, this may be less of an issue now.
  • Also, I think this depends somewhat on one's own style. As an analogy, some computer programmers prefer to see "the code", rather than see an explanation. For sciences, some students prefer to "see the math" in preference to an explanation. [And trying to assimilate both at the same time can be confusing.]
  • Have you taken courses like political philosopy? I would think you would recognize some of the same issues there.
 
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  • #3
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Learning a course is a lot like traversing a circle where each time you come back to something learned earlier with a deeper appreciation of the topic. The more loopbacks the deeper your understanding gets.
 
  • #4
Not sure what your experience in Economics, etc.
Economics is quite interesting due to being divided into microeconomics and macroeconomics. Meaning, some whole picture is missing or at least a divide is ever present. Once (if it ever comes to be) that divide is filled in, then I would think it can be rightfully called a science.

Other subjects, like history or political science, seem to approach the issue from this perspective of starting with a big picture and then filling in the gaps. I don't know why this is, but, would be interested in hearing feedback as to why this might be, as opposed to something like physics or other sciences.

The big picture approach is emotionally appealing; it's certainly my preference. It's the way many of us were taught through secondary school.
Yes, I found the secondary school and primary school to be a breeze in implementing this approach to various subjects. However, in college, I don't think it's feasible or of benefit to utilizing this method of learning due to the complexity and sheer amount of ideas and thoughts present during the learning phase. Would you agree with that assessment?

Many times the material appears complex, intimidating and less straightforward than what one has been accustomed to.... I think this often makes the holistic approach problematic. Unless one tends to "just get things", and/or has a terrific memory, it is difficult to grasp the "whole" at once, until one develops some feel for the parts.
Yeah, many times I berate myself for having not as good a memory as I would hope to have to better utilize this approach. Everything has a certain place it should be in, much like filling in a puzzle, and then from there, something can be seen as a whole.

This requires accepting the lack of (overall) understanding, so one isn't inhibited from learning the basics. That is, the overall understanding is sometimes postponed.
Indeed, I find it very hard to learn by putting one piece of the puzzle at a time. Instead, I like to reason through an argument or proposition and see how it interacts with other pieces of the puzzle.

Complexity, I would argue, is not only an issue for the students. It is difficult for those teaching (or writing textbooks) to simplify concepts in a way that captures things as a whole... in a manner that one can easily follow. For them to do this, they need to be able to recall what it was like to not "get it." That's difficult.
Yes, I figure there's only so much that can be personalized to a student or individuated.

But with all the currently available alternative resources available, this may be less of an issue now.
One particular problem with this approach to learning is getting lost in a sea of information that any subject entails. I find it difficult to arrange pieces of information in the correct manner when I try and see the forest for the trees.

Have you taken courses like political philosopy? I would think you would recognize some of the same issues there.
I have, and it's a subject, as I've mentioned, that is much easier to understand due to presenting the information in a holistic manner rather than as individualized atomic constitutents working in some manner or form.
 
  • #5
Learning a course is a lot like traversing a circle where each time you come back to something learned earlier with a deeper appreciation of the topic. The more loopbacks the deeper your understanding gets.
Yeah, but, I find it easy to get stuck in such a loop and not know how to get out of it. Hence, the need for guidance?
 
  • #6
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How about learning in the order that the teacher chooses? I've been a teacher and I spent a lot of time thinking about the proper order to present stuff to make it easiest for the students. Sometimes that means starting at the big end, and other times starting at the little end.
 
  • #7
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Other subjects, like history or political science, seem to approach the issue from this perspective of starting with a big picture and then filling in the gaps. I don't know why this is, but, would be interested in hearing feedback as to why this might be, as opposed to something like physics or other sciences.
I think these subjects are more amenable to using to the approach we used in our younger grades. They offer broad themes to bite into, after which the historical details can be examined. The argument was made to me at one point that this learning battle perhaps involves the difference between deductive and inductive learning. For me the latter kind of means you muddle along, and then you go, "Oh, that's what' going on!" For me at least, it's a much harder process than being presented with the general idea up front.

Yes, I found the secondary school and primary school to be a breeze in implementing this approach to various subjects. However, in college, I don't think it's feasible or of benefit to utilizing this method of learning due to the complexity and sheer amount of ideas and thoughts present during the learning phase. Would you agree with that assessment?
Yes, generally. Although I think it's possible to some extent for the 2 exceptions you provided.

Yeah, many times I berate myself for having not as good a memory as I would hope to have to better utilize this approach.
Learning a course is a lot like traversing a circle where each time you come back to something learned earlier with a deeper appreciation of the topic. The more loopbacks the deeper your understanding gets.
It's can be frustrating. I think confidence is really important. I don't have a glib answer on that, but I think it's needed in order to both endure and to be able to employ multiple strategies for learning. Two points that pop up to me from an old educational psychology course:
  • Importance of taking Notes: even if one doesn't understand the material, it puts it up there in the head somewhere in a way that supports later usage.
  • Expertise over time: along the lines of @jedishrfu's point, they pointed out the differences in ability between fresh doctors and those with decades of experience as far as ability to accurately read x-rays. (kind of why AI might be working on this score as well, I suppose).
 
  • #8
How about learning in the order that the teacher chooses?
Ideally, yes. That's the correct way to go about the learning process. It's just that I like to jump to the conclusion first and see how the premises or previous might lead up to the conclusion.

I've been a teacher and I spent a lot of time thinking about the proper order to present stuff to make it easiest for the students. Sometimes that means starting at the big end, and other times starting at the little end.
Well, my whole point is to encourage those all-important 'Aha' or 'Now, I see', moments in the process of education. How one can go about it isn't something I am qualified to point out. Speaking about engineering, I would tend to emphasize understanding the general picture by analyzing the state space for some functional operation. Then, from understanding what's going on with the input-output of a state space, I would proceed to understand the constituents of said state space.
 
  • #9
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Indeed, I find it very hard to learn by putting one piece of the puzzle at a time. Instead, I like to reason through an argument or proposition and see how it interacts with other pieces of the puzzle.
I don't know, but would wager that you're also beating yourself up for not understanding the whole thing yet too.

One particular problem with this approach to learning is getting lost in a sea of information that any subject entails. I find it difficult to arrange pieces of information in the correct manner when I try and see the forest for the trees.
That's a really good point. Things really blend together when the framework isn't obvious. As a suggestion, I'd take extra care when you're reading. I know if I don't understand a topic, I sometimes compound the problem by just reading the text and disregarding the limited framework that is provided (topic headings and sub-headings, etc.). And, as has been well-established, the Internet if full of "information," but what you really want is the most direct path to accurate and relevant knowledge.

A couple of times recently when I didn't fully understand something, I went back to sources that were available when the ideas first came about, and/or tried to find the most basic explanation I could, and then build upon it. Sometimes I discovered that I really had understood most of what was being presented, but had one fundamental flaw because of a misunderstanding.
 
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  • #10
The argument was made to me at one point that this learning battle perhaps involves the difference between deductive and inductive learning. For me the latter kind of means you muddle along, and then you go, "Oh, that's what' going on!" For me at least, it's a much harder process than being presented with the general idea up front.
Yeah, I think that means I'm an inductive learner. My learning is all about those aha moments and trying to fit the pieces together to form a holistic perspective on an issue or matter. Not, that I'm bad at deductive learning, just that I don't excel at it. Topics like evolution or even physics tend to encourage inductive learning. Mathematics, not so much, at least not for the learning phase, I think.
 
  • #11
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I typically find it better to learn with the holistic, "big picture" method on my own, and use a step-by-step approach in school. I get a general idea of the concepts first so that way I see how what I'm learning in class fits in.
 
  • #12
symbolipoint
Homework Helper
Education Advisor
Gold Member
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To try to understand exactly what is this "holistic learning", one may read the wikipedia article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holistic_education
and try to understand what is discussed there. Not much benefit for studying Natural Sciences, Mathematics, nor Computer Science. On the favorable side, much and actually all of what is studied in Natural Sci, etc. has a human and real-world side. Think "laboratory course sections"; and think also about the need to reduce waste as in "reuse, recycle". Studying sciences and technology usually means FOCUS narrowly on concepts, skills, and materials. Making some sense for the real world will either come next or come along with relevant instructional academic exercises. Any real "holistic" stuff could come much later.
 
  • #13
Laroxe
Science Advisor
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I have to admit, I'm with Anorlunda on this one and find a lot of the ideas about different learning styles more of a distraction. I think in order for anyone to think critically about an issue there must be a minimum knowledge base and as the knowledge base increases so will the ability to critically analyse the ideas presented. Most teachers structure the way they present information, not only just to increase the knowledge base but to facilitate understanding, over time they will normally change their approach to allow students to use and explore what they know in more depth. In many ways you need to consider the subject area in relation to both teaching and learning, presenting basic facts is often done in lectures but in learning skills demonstration and practice make far more sense. In terms of remembering information there is lots of information around about study skills and this usually provides all sorts of different methods, methods like problem based learning and the techniques of holistic learning really come into their own when we are consolidating and using information, discussion and presenting information add a new dimension to the information.
People typically have difficulty with specific areas rather than the overall subject, its worth discussing these difficulties with the educator, who might be able to suggest specific strategies, that's their job after all. There are often common points in a subject or program where many people get stuck, its useful to know that and it also makes it more likely the educator can make a useful response.
 

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