BOOK AND SOFTWARE REVIEWS


Haselgrove, Mark. Learning. A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. xiv, 114 p. ISBN 978-0-19-968836-4. 7.99/$11.95.


I was a little disappointed in this short work: I had requested it for review because I've long been interested in the connection between information acquisition and learning. At present the topic is something of a 'black box' in the information science literature and there has been little work on the connection betwee the two areas. Certainly, there have been studies on information acquisition for the purpose of satisfying learning tasks, but how (and, indeed, whether) people learn from the information they discover is something of a mystery.

My disappointment is, perhaps, unjustified, since the author of this text is not concerned with the problem I raise. Rather, he surveys the predominantly behaviouristic research into learning, most of which is conducted, at least initially, with animals other than humans. This is understandable, since it is easier to uncover the fundamentals of the learning process by recording the behaviour of animals, following certain kinds of stimulus, than it is to explore the same phenomena with humans. Such research goes back to the days of Pavlov and his famous experiments with dogs, and since then pigeons, bees and, particularly, rats have proved to be useful laboratory animals.

What then, can we discover from research of this kind, that can be applied to human learning? Well, man (in the general sense) is an animal, subject to a degree to the same kinds of stimuli from the environment as other animals and, very crucially, subject to some very different stimuli that are man-made, such as advertising, politically-biased news, and so on.

One learning phenomenon that is relevant for humans is blocking, a situation that arises when we are familiar with one stimulus (the idea of being aware of a well-known film actor is presented in the book) and 'block' information about an unknown actor appearing in a film with that well-known actor. That is, we learn more about the already known stimulus than about an additional and associated stimulus. In non-human animals, the 'blocking' may be entirely determined by how often the non-blocking stimulus is delivered; in humans we would need to consider factors such as the level of interest a person has in films and film acting. One can see potential here for research that looks at the impact of new information on people who are already expert in the field. Under what circumstances, for example, are they likely to 'block' that information?

A second phenomenon of interest is that of 'surprise', which is defined as the difference between what you expect and what actually happens, which, the author notes, 'is thought to be at the heart of learning'. This has significant implications for information use, and indeed for other aspects of information creation and dissemination. If we learn most from what 'suprises' us then, in the world of academic research, experts in any field must find that they are less and less frequently surprised by the research they read and, therefore, less and less stimulated to new lines of research. This suggests lines of research for information researchers in setting out to discover what surprises the seeker of information and it may have implications for scholarly communication: is there any point in publishing research that fails to surprise anybody? We might also find that papers that fail to be cited also fail to surprise.

Although I have expressed some disappointment in the book, it is evident that it has caused me to think further about the connection between learning and information use, perhaps if this short work stimulates others, we may begin to open the black box.

Professor T.D. Wilson
Editor-in-Chief
September, 2016