Latent Learning: What It Is and How to Use It in the Classroom
As a teacher, one of the biggest assets you can have is an understanding of all the different ways people gather and retain knowledge. Some of it you learn from experiences — we all know how great it this when kids’ learning performance is propelled by sheer enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge. But it also pays to learn about different concepts from cognitive science and psychology that can come in helpful, such as latent learning.
But what is latent learning? Simply put, it’s the learning that happens without reinforcement but also doesn’t present without an incentive. It contradicts the previously widely held opinion that reinforcement is necessary for learning, and it has a place in the classroom on its own and because of related concepts. But let’s first make sure we understand what latent learning is.
Latent Learning Explained
We owe our understanding of latent learning, just like many other things we know, to an experiment involving rats. This experiment was set up in 1930 by Edward Tolman and Charles Honzik. They used three groups of rats to test their maze-navigating capabilities. One group was rewarded every time they exited the maze. The other group wasn’t, and the third group received the reward for the last week of the experiment.
By the end of the experiment, the group that performed the best was the group that had the delayed reward. And they only started performing drastically better once given reinforcement. These results were proof that the incentives helped rats display knowledge they gained without an incentive.
This finding was at odds with the stimulus-response theories that were popular at the time in behavioral psychology. Tolman was in favor of the rats’ cognitive power and the ability to create cognitive maps of the environment. The stimulus-response proponents still believed the rats needed stimulus from the environment to learn how to behave.
Latent Learning in the Classroom
In the experiments, latent learning happens as a result of active exploration. The rats are not forced to find the exit by some external stimulus. And we don’t use external physical stimulus to teach children. However, we often have little time to encourage students to explore topics on their own. The teaching plan can provide structure and boundaries, but within them, students might benefit from wandering.
Another implication of latent learning is that learning can happen without there being any obvious signs of it, including student progress. While this type of insight might go against every instinct teachers have, in some cases it can be very beneficial. One example is when working with students who appear to have reached a plateau of ability or knowledge. The plateau can be nothing more than a period of latent learning that will be surpassed with proper motivation.
How to Test for Latent Learning
We use tests and papers to measure students’ progress. The grading might present as good incentive to activate what the students learned through latent learning. To some students, grading can act as an incentive not because of the benefits of good grades, but because of the problems that come with bad grades.
Finding a more meaningful way to incentivize students to display latent knowledge might be beyond the scope of some teacher’s means. In that case, putting the emphasis on the rewarding aspect of good grades can often be the best teachers can do.
Another thing you can do is to increase the number of occasions where students have the chance to display their knowledge. Again, there needs to be some kind of incentive if you want the students to present the results of latent learning. It can be privileges, recognitions, or tangible rewards that students get for good performance. Letting the students pick their own rewards might be a good idea, too.
Latent learning is a concept that, to some extent, helps explain the way we take in information for storage. Teachers might want to experiment with preparing lessons, quizzes, or test that facilitate and gauge latent learning. It’s as simple as providing the proper reward to the students at the proper time.