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!

Learning to listen (part 1)

It’s a noisy world. Listening is hard. Listening means lots of things to lots of people, and everyone recognizes that it is pretty important. I am gonna make this a multi-part post, since there is lots to talk about. This is part 1, and I’ll link to part 2 when it goes up! (Edit: here’s part 2!)

Listening is hard and important, which makes it a good candidate for learning and practice. TED talk:

Julian Treasure does a little bit of unsubstantiated fear mongering with an undertone of luddite Gen-Y bashing, sure. BUT, he has mindfulness exercises for listening, and exercises are wonderful, so it probably balances out.

Even if we aren’t losing our listening, we don’t practice the receiving end of communication nearly as much as the broadcasting end, at least not explicitly.  Listening is a skill we ought to think about and work on.

There are lots of things we listen to. Music, the thumping about of roommates, construction noise when we try to work. All kinds of online ed materials: Podcasts, lectures, TED talks. What does it mean to be good at it? How does one become a ‘good listener’?

Just as we mean different things when we talk about listening, doing it ‘well’ has different meanings. Today, I’ll focus on choosing the things you listen to and developing interpersonal listening skills.

Listen intentionally and choose the things you listen to.

If what we learn is who we become, and we learn through our ears, we should be selective about what we listen to, and how closely we listen to it.  I listen to C-SPAN radio as I drive. If I get stuck listening to C-SPAN callersNPR is often good too. I try to process what I am hearing, especially when there is a good interview or speech. I make connections to what I already know, but also consciously note information that is new or did not fit with my previous understanding. I think of questions that I would ask to clarify or delve further into particular issues. I have gotten good at filtering subtle, meaningful insight from what is not. (I might do another post on learning to recognize and learn from experts rather than others, since most people are mostly wrong about most things.)

You don’t have to listen to C-SPAN. That might not be your scene; that’s totally cool. I am me in part because of what I listen to. Maybe you like Ted talks, maybe you just want your Beyoncé playlist. It’s all good, as long as you know that choosing is part of defining who you are. So, choose!

C-SPAN or no,   discerning bull from not-bull is an awesome skill. If you are mentally engaged with what is being said, you will notice more and, consequently, learn more. Don’t tune out talking heads as background noise like you did when you were five – some of them are actually okay. Others are crappy. Telling one from the other is hard, and takes practice, but I believe in you.

[EDIT: Forgot to mention Night Vale, which is super cool. Got any cool podcasts or things you listen to? lemmeknowinthecomments]

Listen to those around you

Another habit or set of habits has to do with interpersonal listening – one on one and in groups, where your role is both listener and speaker. I’ve had the amazing chance to learn a bunch of good listening skills as a counselor at the Help Center, UMD’s peer counseling and crisis intervention hotline. Still, it takes effort and concentration to actually listen to friends and siblings, especially when I have opinions on the subject under discussion.

Some things to focus on:

  • Actually hear the words they are saying. Seems obvious, but there are times when a few words go unheard and we shrug it off, since we got the gist. Instead,
  • Ask clarifying questions. Even if it is “can you say that again?,” asking for clarification works to help us understand what someone is saying.
  • Don’t judge, jump in, or interrupt. Basically, listen instead of talking. This one is especially tough for the extroverts or those with strong opinions. I’m still no pro at this in some settings, but I’ve found that focusing on how much I should be speaking as a fraction of the number of people in a conversation helps. If I am one of three people, I should have one third of the speaking, or thereabouts. If I am one of twenty, a twentieth, and so on. Of course it is a guideline and there are exceptions, but it helps me shut up more.
  • Use nonverbal or monosyllabic cues. Nodding, saying ‘mhm,’ eye contact, generally using active listening skills. It can feel silly to overdo it, but it’s harder than you would think.
  • Summarize and reflect your understanding of what they said. Don’t worry about sounding dumb. If you don’t understand, it doesn’t mean you or your friend are bad people – communicating well is really hard!

Actually, wikihow has a wonderful post about listening well, with illustrations and generally more time and thought put in than I have. It’s worth actually reading.

Like most actual skills, listening takes time and practice for the benefits to show. It’s worth it. Your relationships get better, you retain more information, and the world sounds better. Pretty neat!

Music for now:

Note: Part 1 was about deciding your listening environment and tips for interpersonal listening. Part 2  includes thoughts about inferential distance and the difficulty of communicating, plus the concept of listening to stakeholder groups as a society, plus classrooms and listening to students. 

Learning to self-regulate

[Edited: Links added]

Disclaimer: I am in the car going to New Brunswick for the World Pond Hockey Championship, posting from a smartphone. This post has no links until I can edit it + it’s hard to proofread etc. If you catch errors, send ’em my way.

Like what seems to be a majority of the population, I am a psychology hobbyist. I try to be a good amateur and learn the right terminology, take a few classes, and get rid of the worst of my misconceptions. If you are a real psychologist, apologies in advance for the mistakes. Let me know where I am mistaken or unclear; I am trying to learn on this blog.

It is a difficult field, even for the pros – analogies compare our current understanding of the mind to physics before Einstein, or, more pessimistic, before Newton. Those sayings don’t capture it, really; brains don’t seem to obey simple, consistent, universal laws that we can derive from lots of observation. People are more complex.

Of course, my interest in psych isn’t some attempt to push the field further and advance the state of human knowledge; it just seems practical! Other trite sayings reference the lack of an owners manual for the brain we get – some elementary neuroscience and psych and development seem as close as we have right now.

In psych, lots of the focus is on ‘outcomes’ of development given particular circumstances and influences. As someone interested in being successful and smart and happy and stuff, I look towards these outcomes as a source of explicit goals for my learning. Why futz around with guesswork if I can try to build up the best environment for myself based on the research, or find a shortcut to the outcome? I agree, no reason at all!

One of the positive outcomes the psych folk look for is self-regulation. The concept covers a wide array of emotional and mental skills – keeping anger in check, focusing on what you want, feeling how you want to feel. Regulating yourself.

I try to work on this. Mindfulness helps – noticing how I am feeling is necessary if I want to consciously change how I feel. Last year I wrote an article for the diamondback about practicing emotions. Basically, the idea was that we learn lots of things in school, but to get to super-saiyan, we’d have to expand our emotional capacity too. Get yourself terribly sad, then enraged, then overjoyed, flush with anticipation, annoyingly proud of yourself, repeat.

While I still think it is a cool idea, recently I haven’t been pushing it so hard. The more I read about the actual goals of the psych folks, the less the sheer emotional capacity seems the actual goal of development. In essence, don’t feel sad/angry/frustrated/lethargic unnecessarily. While I still try to mix my practice up with a range of emotions, I am sticking to the ones that feel good – amusement, self-satisfaction, excitement, hope, security, appreciation, and the like.

A big movement within psychology going on recently and now has been a gradual shift from a focus on pathology, i.e. what’s wrong, to thinking about how even the most stable of us can be happier and more fulfilled. I’ll add links tomorrow with some of the things I’ve been reading about this I added links to this, but for now, sleep!

It’s good for you!

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.