Updated: Aug 18, 2019
Structure Building and The Nature of Comprehension
The experience of learning, how it happens, why it happens, and how effectively it happens is a worthy subject of study for many psychologists, neuroscientists, and educators.
In the academic article Structure Building Predicts Grades in College Psychology and Biology (2016), Arnold et al, demonstrate that strong structure builders were more successful learners than weak structure builders who don't do as well. Morton Ann Gernsbacher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in her chapter about The Structure Building Framework divides structure builders into "skilled comprehenders" and "less-skilled comprehenders" (Gernsbacher, 1990, p. 294). Gernsbacher states that less-skilled comprehenders are less able to reject the contextually inappropriate meanings of ambiguous words, less able to reject absent members from nonverbal scenes, and less able to ignore words written on pictures, due to the their having inefficient suppression mechanisms, or the ability to weed out irrelevant information.
In the two examples above the authors clearly believe that structure building as an ability in students is a learning difference (something that sets learners apart and impacts the quality of learning) of significance. In the book Make it Stick, (Brown, 2014) the authors state that our collective understanding of structure building as a cognitive difference is still in it's early stages, in spite of the fact that it was introduced as early as Gernbacher's 1990 article, Investigating differences in general comprehension skill. That means the concept was introduced at least 24 years before the claim that our understanding is in early stages.
If as Brown suggests, scientists do not know absolutely that structure building is a learning difference, and if our understanding is in early stages, I can't establish a belief one way or the other without more evidence.
Whether or not structure building ability is inherent depends upon whether it is a proven cognitive process and a measurable ability in the first place.
If it is indeed a valid and measurable difference that separates people into those who have, and those who don't have, I would guess that ability is both inherent and learned (or honed). Children seem to arrive with inherent strengths and challenges in cognition and I don't see why structure building would be any different. But like many things impacted by our experiences and environment like language and social skills, structure building is probably strengthened or stagnant depending upon opportunities to use and cultivate it.
Considering people I've worked with, I cannot say whether any of them have been high or low structure thinkers. I work in health care and everyone I work with has fairly strong cognitive skills.
There are however big picture thinkers and detail thinkers, the visionaries and the practical-minded, those who love change and those who resist change.
People are categorized by leadership style, communication style, Meyers-Briggs type, personality color, Clifton Strengths, etc. I haven't previously considered whether or not a person I work with is a high or low structure builder and when I do I can't think of anyone I would consider a low-structure builder. I find myself wondering how anyone could make such a call about someone they work with.
I did, since learning about structure building, explain the concept to my son, who is currently learning about banking, due to a new job position. I suggested to him that for concepts he is learning he can attach them to and build upon something he already knows. I used the example of a city with roads as a foundation, and buildings as chunks of knowledge.
I explained that when he learns something from someone else, it then becomes part of his knowledge, and he can use it to build upon existing structures in his internal mind-map or foundation.
He envisioned the building of structures in his knowledge base and the development of models that are foundations for evolving learning. For example one structure might grow to become very complex like a bridge or a skyscraper. He seemed to like the concept and when I asked him later whether or not it made sense he said that yes, it did, and it was very helpful to think about learning in that way.
Perhaps structure building is something that can be cultivated.
I'll check in a few weeks to see if he considers it useful when integrating learning from work. Can you imagine a city or a foundation of knowledge that you build upon adding only those ideas that are relevant to your structure? Are you aware of connecting new things you learn to existing concepts and structures?
Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.