What is Learning?

Learning is a lifelong, life-altering skill. What builds and shapes our intellect is entirely within our control. Understanding and enthusiastically accepting this simple principle enables us to see effort and failure as a badge of courage and a source of immeasurably useful information. Mastering the ability to learn is the only way we can win the game of life.

I have been an adult educator my entire adult life. I was trained to be one, led two major university departments dedicated to adult learning, embraced the role and evolved my thinking over the past fifty years on how best to do this. My preference is not to teach by telling but rather to enable learning by asking. I agree with Socrates who said “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” That has become my classroom credo.

A great deal of what we think we know about learning is based on faith, intuition or a blind acceptance of what we were taught during early childhood about how to succeed in school. You could not get good grades without saying precisely what your teachers wanted to hear. The education model is broken – what kids learn in school today will be irrelevant by the time they’re 30, if not sooner. They receive no formal training in how to apply critical thinking, how to effectively collaborate with others, how to become emotionally engaged with things of interest or how to listen effectively – skills that will last them to the end of their days. Persistent, wrong-headed illusions about what it takes to learn still lead us to labour with unproductive strategies and habits around acquiring knowledge. Lifelong learning and repeated re-invention is now the way of the world.

There is no known limit to how much you can learn. Every time you learn something new, you change the brain. Building on what you already know and then expressing it in your own words generates new neural pathways and fresh meanings. The more you can explain how your new learning relates to your existing knowledge, the stronger will be your grasp of the subject and the deeper your ability to recall and execute it.

All learning is based on a foundation of knowledge – you can’t fly, let alone soar, without first learning how to get off the ground. Those who build better thinking models or maps (mental representations of reality) are better able to internalize their learning. These models are how we make sense of the world. What distinguishes good learners from poor learners is the accuracy of their maps, how quickly they revise them when they fail to point the way, and whether they are aware of how their biases distort their thinking.

My Smart Leaders program is about raising awareness of how our subconscious proclivities and decisions lead us astray and to enable the attendees to build a better toolbox for coming up with novel solutions to vexing personal and professional challenges. The bigger our cognitive toolbox, the smarter we are. Eliminating self-inflicted stupidity is a lot easier than seeking brilliance. The paradox of knowledge is that, the more we know the less predictable the future becomes, which is what most smart leaders seek to do and how they inspire their followers. We use our “smarts” primarily to change our behaviours and that’s what changes our future.

What is bogus when it comes to learning strategies? For one thing, the idea that we learn better when taught via our preferred “learning style” (visually, orally or by doing) is not supported by hard evidence. The notion remains hugely popular simply because we erroneously think our preferred modality enables us to retain more information, even though we don’t. We might be convinced that we learn through dogged repetition and single-minded focus, but scientists call this acquisition phase a “momentary strength” and distinguish it from the need to build “underlying habit strength.”

Ever wonder why you can’t remember what you learned in school? “Cramming,” a method employed by school-aged learners, leads to higher scores on tests but results in faster forgetting afterwards. Cramming is the same as binge-and-purge eating. Can you remember a single fact from the last exam you crammed for? Can you even recall the subject of the test? Spacing out study and practising in installments arrests forgetting and produces longer retention, makes memory stronger by building “habit strength” and is essential for remembering what you don’t want to forget.

Over 80% of university students say rereading is their number one learning strategy. The idea is to “burn” new information into the hippocampus (the seat of our memory). Research says it doesn’t; you can’t embed something into your memory simply by repeating it over and over. Reading something several times means you’re practising reading, not acquiring the ability to recall what you read. Mastering words is not the same as understanding the ideas behind them. Though it can create the illusion of learning, the amount of study time is not a measure of same.

The brain doesn’t “memorize.” It can think, recall and imagine but it’s not built to automatically remember. The amygdala tells the hippocampus what to keep and what to forget by translating emotions into chemicals which are capable of creating new synaptic connections – this is the neurological concept known as plasticity. The brain holds on to what it thinks is important and tosses the rest. Learning happens when the abstract is made concrete and the connection in your mind becomes relevant, pertinent and personal.

Like many skills, the most effective learning strategies are counterintuitive. A simple quiz is far superior to reviewing lecture notes. Testing calibrates our judgement of what we’ve learned and increases retention by up to 50%. The practice of periodically retrieving information trumps rereading it. This approach transforms and integrates learning into mental models that enable us to locate and recall what we know when we need it. The closest thing to memorizing is by practising recall, thereby strengthening and expanding neural pathways throughout the brain.

Learn different things at the same time. Look for new meanings and applications, list the questions that come to mind as you explore these ideas, and use metaphors and images to amplify the foundational principles. Trying to think through a problem before being told the solution, even though errors may be made in the effort, leads to deeper understanding. When you master the underlying principles or “rules,” you’re more successful in finding the right solutions to unfamiliar problems. The life of the mind is about triage: it’s purpose is to sort the valuable (or useful) from the less valuable.

You control your life so take charge of it by learning how to learn. Start by accepting that durable learning requires effort. There is no get-smart-quick plan; acquiring wisdom is hard work. What is easily acquired is superficial and quickly forgotten. Like writing in sand, it is washed away by the tides of time.

Begin by seeking simplicity. You’ve learned something when you can explain it to a toddler. Clear the clutter and expose what is really important. Be brutally honest about what you know and don’t know. Let go of preconceived notions and embrace mistakes – they highlight the holes in your understanding, show you which way to turn next and invite good questions. Having the wrong questions is a waste of precious time. The right questions open the doors to what you don’t know.

We learn when we wrestle with our problems. Good learners have self-discipline and grit – they put in the effort required and persist until successful. If you are prepared to do that, you can become an expert in whatever field you choose and accomplish something that could make a significant and tangible difference in the lives of others. Making mistakes and conscientiously learning from them builds the bridge to freedom and prosperity.