How We Learn
And what to do about it
Draft document [incomplete]
Learning is a natural process that happens pretty much on its own when things are just right. And so the trick to optimal learning is arranging things just right. Then, it becomes a breeze.
You’re not sure about that? Just consider this: by the time you were 5 years old, you had leant about x,000 words; not through studying language, but just naturally, because the conditions were just right. And by the time you are 20, you will know some x,000 words, more or less.
Now, of course, the bright child will learn more and the dull child less. But even the dull child will have learnt an awful lot, all naturally. When the conditions are right, learning happens on its own.
And sometimes learning just doesn’t seem to happen, naturally or not. Why is that, you ask? Simply because then, the conditions are not right. And we have to fix them.
Here’s what’s covered in this document:
How does learning happen?
Problems in learning
How to get it going.
Tricks of the trade.
Before reading on, quickly scan the document to get a feel for what it’s all about. Then jump on in.
The Learning Process
So how does learning happen? Learning is the formation within the brain of memories that represent the world and our interactions with it. These memories might be things like the names of my friends, or where I live and what is around me, or how to solve a math problem, or how to ride a bicycle. All of these things were learnt, all involved new memories formed in the brain.
Of course, there are differences and we will discuss those later. What is common, though, is this: we interact with the world around us and learning arises out of that interaction, with the result that a memory is established in the brain.
Learning is truly a by-product of our interacting with the world. All happening quite naturally. And so, we even learn things that we don’t want to learn. We at times develop memories that we would rather not have, but such is the naturalness of learning that there they are. Sometimes, forgetting is good.
Now, let’s analyze this further. We humans have developed intelligence and that enables us to make better sense of the world around us. We can use reason to solve problems and develop insights of the sort ‘Aha, yes, so that is why such and such…’ and ‘ Yes, of course, that is how that all fits together.’ And all that is stored away in memory. Learning has occurred.
Through this use of reason, we build up an internal model of the world that holds together properly, one that makes sense to us. Thus if I told you that China is 3 million kilometers away, you would say ‘Whoa there, that doesn’t make sense. The Earth is only some 30 odd kilometers around.’ What you know has to hold together sensically and what you learn has to fit into your internal model of the world.
That is why we are called rational animals. We use our reason to make sense out of things and incorporate new things into our internal model. We learn and our model grows. That model is our structured memories. XXX.
Now, some things don’t make any sense to us, like the fact that Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1496. Oh, there is nothing non-sensical about it, it’s perfectly all right. But there is no reason for it either. He could have discovered it in some other year just as well and that would have been fine too. So learning what year old Chris discovered America is not much helped by reason.
So here we are: learning can be assisted by reason when things fit naturally together, but when that is not the case, learning proceeds along other lines. It happens through repetition. If ever you learnt a poem, you know what that is all about: you repeat it until you get the whole thing down pat.
Hold on just a sec, there! Does that mean we have 2 processes of learning, not just one? Yes and no. As the gradual building up of a more and more refined model of the world in the form of structured memories, learning is one process. But there are 2 ways to go about that: use your reason to easily slot things into place (if it is the kind of thing you can make sense out of) or simply repeat your exposure to what is to be learnt (if it is the kind of thing where sense does not apply).
Let’s summarize. Learning happens naturally as we interact with the world. As we repeat certain exposures, a memory of it forms. Our reason fashions all our memories into a sensical model of the world and then helps us incorporate some new elements that seem to fit into that model.
Differences in What We Learn — ??
Using reason to reconstruct solutions. Naturally.
Problems in Learning
Well then, why do I find learning so difficult, if it is so natural, as you say? Quite simply, the situation around you is not quite right for learning. So if you want learning to happen, you got to set things straight around you and then, bingo.
There are 2 situational factors that affect whether you learn, one inside the other: the content you deal with; and your motivation. Content is what you are studying or trying to learn (physics, computer programming, ping pong, and so on). Your motivation is how much or how little you are excited about that content. Dia.
Now, some young people think they are just not bright enough to learn much. Not so! They are just mistaken: they don’t know that it is their situation that counts, not their level of intelligence. And they need to know that they can change their situation so that learning can happen.
This is the main thing to know: You are responsible for fixing your learning situation if it is busted! Others can help, but it is you in the end that must make things happen. And of course, you can, with a bit of problem solving. Let’s see how.
Getting it right: Studying
Studying is interacting with content in various ways: reading, listening, discussing, practicing, and so on. So if learning is not happening while you are studying, you really need to adjust how you interact with content.
And don’t go about moaning about how you are stuck with a certain teacher or how your assignment is incomprehensible or your textbook too dull. That is the attitude of a loser. Instead, take charge of the situation and fix it. Here’s how.
There are tons of information and help resources out there on any content imaginable. Go get some!
Remember, learning happens through repeated exposure to arbitrary information, especially new technical terms, and through your fitting sensical information into your existing knowledge so that it all makes sense. So, if your current teacher is not giving you enough practice or explaining things just right for you, or if your current text chapter is not doing much better, then get outside the box and seek out what information will help. There’s the internet just for that and there are helping hands all around you. More on that later…
One important point: you must identify what information is sensical and what is arbitrary. There is no point in studying something by rote repetition when you can simply fit it into your existing knowledge by understanding it. And there is no point in trying to understand something that is arbitrary; you must rehearse it. So figure that out or seek some help in figuring it out.
In summary, if your current studying is not working, do something about it. Sure, you can’t change teachers, nor your assigned textbooks. But you can seek alternative information until you find what is just right for you. And then, things will click in place and learning will just happen. It’s all up to you.
Getting it right: Motivation
Tricks of the Trade
– seeking help
– reading tactics
Getting it Going