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Building Knowledge Palaces
Mar 1, 2017

Human life begins with great energy, enthusiasm, and motivation. As soon as the baby enters this world, the action begins. She now is in a brand-new world, totally different from her home for nine months. She starts to explore and discover her surroundings. Even the discovery that the limbs lying next to her are her arms and legs comes after a period of exploration. She soon realizes that she can do things she could not while in her mother’s womb. This is how the lifelong adventure of learning begins.

Imagine the volume of learning that must take place while travelling from a dark and small room of several square inches to a most sophisticated world, which is beyond comprehension for even the most intelligent and educated human beings. But fortunately, she has somehow been granted the capital of enormous motivation allowing her to set out on this journey.

A great deal of learning takes place during the first couple of days or months, and it happens with almost no help from grownups. This initial burst of learning might never be equaled later in her life.

Her motivation and curiosity make such quick learning possible, but she is also aided by the gift of a wondrous computer with an excellent processor and vast memory – the human brain. These are the major resources in place when grownups begin to intervene in (or should we say interfere with?) the child’s learning.

There are two main possibilities for how parents, caretakers, teachers, and other adults might influence a child’s learning. The first is to optimize the use of the two capitals mentioned above, paving the way for continued and meaningful learning that has been going on successfully since birth. The second is to interfere with this natural progress with aimless, and sometimes forceful, attempts to feed the child with information. Parents or caretakers may not realize the enormous impact their approach will have on a child, especially one at the beginning of their journey. Yet the approach they choose significantly influences the habits of a child’s mind.

Let’s illustrate this with an analogy. If we think of every stimulus a child receives as a Lego piece, then the job in front of the child is to connect these pieces in a meaningful way. The goal for the child, then, is to continue to build a magnificent “knowledge palace” made up of these Lego pieces. Naturally, only the Lego formations toward this goal that are meaningful, self-coherent, and inspiring would be helpful and cognitively valuable.

Following the same analogy, it can be said that there are two main functions grownups can meaningfully perform in the child’s progress in building her knowledge palace. The first is to introduce the child to a great variety of Lego pieces, so that the palace does not become a narrow, dull, and uninspiring construction. This can be accomplished through providing the child with the most comprehensive sample of the world she will be experiencing and living in. Such a sample should include objects, phenomena, thoughts, and feelings reflecting as full a picture of our world as possible. The second is to be a role model and help the child connect the Lego pieces so that she learns to always make connections between the stimuli she comes across. By doing this, adults help the child meaningfully connect the Lego pieces, continually expanding and beautifying her knowledge palace. Otherwise, the stimuli will be left unprocessed, unconnected, and meaningless, cluttering the child’s mind.

What is worse is that for the child, piling up meaningless stimuli will become a habit of her mind. Such disorganization of the mind will, in turn, significantly damage the development of holistic and coherent thinking, undermining the child’s reasoning and problem solving skills. A thorough discussion of these extremely undesirable outcomes is beyond the scope of this article.  

Grownups might facilitate the child’s true learning through a successful combination of the two functions mentioned above. Trying to keep the curiosity of the child high while not providing enough Lego pieces will not help. Dumping lots of Lego pieces in front of the child, but not caring about whether they are properly connected by the child, will not mean much, either. Parents, caretakers, teachers, and other adults should try to maintain the child’s motivation and curiosity while guiding her to connect the Lego pieces in a meaningful way. This is only possible through letting the child enjoy learning on her own terms. In other words, grownups should not try to build the knowledge palace for the child. They should not leave the child alone with the Lego pieces, either. Rather, they should serve as role models for learning and allow the child to become the architect of her own knowledge palace.

These guiding principles, though seemingly simple, have huge implications for raising children. Things like how a household is arranged, what toys parents choose for their child, and how to design classroom activities have a meaningful impact on how the child learns. Only two examples will be briefly given here. The child’s room or even the entire household should be a heaven for exploration, with a wide variety of toys or objects serving as a mini replica of what exists and happens in our world. Especially at the beginning of her exploration, the child should be served a full menu of materials, activities, games, hobbies, etc., so that she will have the opportunity to envisage as many different parts of her future knowledge palace as possible.

To present material to be learned while maintaining the curiosity of the child, the grownup should let the child taste the pleasure of learning. In this respect, an ideal setup for learning would be to present most of the material about the topic, while leaving room for the child to do some investigation on her own. Likewise, the child should be guided to do self-reflection after processing material, allowing her to reach her own conclusions and interpretations. This is an effective way for the child to connect the Lego pieces and beautify and expand her knowledge palace.

It should be kept in mind that the child arrives in this world with no prior cognitive preferences or habits. Therefore, continued successful employment of the approach presented above will establish and sustain a sound way of thinking and learning in the child’s mind. Every single effort to use these strategies will create a brilliant mind, always ready for true learning.