Learning is taking something away

Theorists like to use pictures to describe how learning works. “Not filling a bucket but lighting a flame.” Constructivists are gathering wins in the neuroscience, with their picture of learning as building connections between nodes of ideas.

Adding and connecting ideas? That sounds a lot like the learning I’ve mostly done! You too? Pretty cool stuff.

I don’t know what she’s learning, but she seems very pleased about it. (Creative Commons – From Here)

Today, though, I want to talk about a different picture of learning: Taking something away. The image in my mind is that of the gardener, trimming the dessicated away from the healthy. While it necessarily follows the adding and connecting processes, cutting away nodes is arguably more valuable. To me, the ability to effectively prune mistaken or non-useful concepts sets highly capable critical minds apart from those minds less mature.

What am I talking about? Trimming trees? No! It’s about cutting out mistaken beliefs, misshapen concepts, and false ideas.

Although, if you had mistaken notions about how to trim trees, and then you pruned those ideas from your mind… (CC again, from Here, which is a strangely nice site for an Oregon municipality.) Do NOT cut along C-X.

When I learn, I begin with a set of assumptions. In some few situations, every bit of material is brand new to me; most of the time, I have some background knowledge. If I hear things that fit well with the background knowledge that I had, it is hard to tell what was there before and what was newly added (i.e. learned) from my participation!

However, if I had an idea that new evidence clearly contradicts, and I actually change my mind and how I see the world, THEN I know that I have surely learned. When my old idea is debunked and I see more clearly, I have more power to understand the world around me and predict what will happen.

Where do you find this sort of learning? Yes, you can watch Mythbusters or read popular science myths debunked or what have you. Those give you the instant thrill of changing your mind, if you had actually believed mistakenly and buy into the evidence presented. (Mythbusters is entertaining, sure, but hardly good science.)

In fact, you can learn this way all the time – with the right mindset. Developing a discerning eye means looking critically at your own beliefs. If you could state in sentences what you believe before going into a lecture or reading a chapter, and then explain what changed afterwards, then you are aware of what you learned. I have been trying to practice this, and have found myself frustrated by some classes that do not take anything away, particularly in the social sciences.

Teachers: if you do not find out what your students already know, you might not be adding any new knowledge or taking any misconceptions away.

I find that my mind is sharper when I know what I know and what I don’t, and I learn faster when I am focused on finding and correcting my misconceptions. I hope you can find some of your own false beliefs and learn too!

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Learning Habits

I had excellent teachers throughout my K-12. I remember hearing from several of them, at different points in my young learning career, that what mattered about the schoolwork I was engaging in at the time was not the content itself, but the habits I formed by working diligently as I was assigned. While I have since come to disagree with that justification for assigning otherwise meaningless work, the implicit principle still seems valid.

Habits are the key.

In my first post, I started the idea that learning is the way we become who we are. I won’t waste your time with a bunch of baloney speculation on what exactly makes up our identity as individuals – better writers than I have stabbed at it and come closer than I would. Suffice it to say that habits are some significant fraction of our daily actions, and worth shaping. Learning the meta-skill to develop the habits I want on demand is a top-priority long term learning objective. Some habits I am currently working on (I will try to keep you up to date on the interesting ones, fans, if you want. lemmeknowinthecomments.)

The world (read: internet) is full of advice. Advice animals, thought catalog faux-wisdom, the next thing-you-won’t-believe on buzzfeed or Huffpost or Cracked what have you, or the life-changey wisdom we see on TED or Medium or my blog(hah). Some of the insights seem at first to be crap and turn out to be nothing more, some seem actually inspiring or wise or faking it well, but rarely if ever does any of it actually change the way we act.

Instead of just sharing the things I like and ignoring the things I don’t and staying who I am no matter what I see, I want to build myself an effective wisdom-filter. I want to be on the lookout for things that I can actually use, advice that will change my habits. I am trying to grow my spidey-sense that will warn me of wise-sounding but unhelpful advice and other insight, so I can stop wasting my time feeling good but not changing. There are some things that are worth absorbing for their content – knowledge of interesting subjects is inherently worthwhile. But I’ve only got so much time, and there is a lot of internet out there. The most impactful content empowers me to develop good (useful, powerful, smart, time-saving…) habits.