Learning to learn

Do you remember when facts and knowledge were valuable? Maybe I am remembering a society that never existed, which is quite likely, but I always thought that pathological liers were prohibited from significant stakes in society. Looking at politics, this is clearly not the case.

I am coming towards the end of my PhD, and have been writing for months straight now. I am certainly in a rut. The other day, during some routine procrastination, I realised that I haven’t put enough thought into the process of learning. Maybe if I had spent some time figuring out how I learn best, I would have saved myself a lot of time over the years. I do appreciate the irony of only thinking about how to learn mere moments before finishing with formal education, but as they say, the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago and the second-best time is now.

The first thing I did when I realised I should focus on the process of learning is head on over to Google Scholar and searched for research on learning. However, prior to that, I wrote down my opinions on learning, and my thoughts were essentially this.

“The only thing I know that works is committing time to the thing I am trying to learn. Very rarely do I set out to learn something and understand the key principles from the start.”

Learning to code is a good recent example, I have been learning for the last five years, and I am only now understanding key principles that if I had understood them from the start, I would be a much better coder by now. I looked at the key principles, read them and tried to understand them, but I had no domain experience at that time so the ideas didn’t become organised in my mind in a manner that could be useful.

Whilst researching how people learn, one of the most repeated ideas I came across is the idea that the difference between novices and experts is how the information is organised within one’s brain. Novices can remember facts, but experts have ideas organised in such a way that they can relate ideas to other ideas and see patterns where a novice cannot.

Broadly, two things define an expert from what I have learnt, A large body of knowledge within the subject, and crucially, the knowledge is organised around important concepts.

As far As I can tell, time is the most important factor in all of this, and whenever we decide to embark on the discovery of knowledge, we should prime ourselves to understand that it will take a lot of effort to get to where we want to be. Often, I find myself getting frustrated as I don’t pick things up quickly, but the hubris of thinking like this should be more embarrassing than the failure to grasp perceived simple concepts. Why should I be able to learn things quickly? At all other times, the acquisition of knowledge has taken years. What I should do when this situation occurs is reflect on the long-term impact of learning, but this is often hard to do once you’re already annoyed.

The thing I have learnt about learning is that I should try and be mindful whilst engaging in it to try and understand concepts a bit more before moving on, but ultimately know that it is just about putting in effort over a long enough time.

I wish I could make an article saying here are the three tricks experts use to learn things fast. But there are no shortcuts, and there is no single best way to tackle a problem; otherwise, all schools around the world we are exactly the same.

For me personally, I have added some notes to my daily to-do list that remind me to focus on the process more than the outcome. Hopefully, this will stop me from wandering so much.

The best way to become better than someone at something is to have spent more time doing that particular thing than your adversary — that is the secret.

Here are some further reading if you’re interested in the topic.

A book on learning

Points I got from this book:

  1. Pre-existing knowledge: ‘the most general sense, the contemporary view of learning is that people construct new knowledge and understandings based on what they already know and believe’; ‘Research on expertise in areas such as chess,history, science, and mathematics demonstrate that experts’ abilities to think and solve problems depend strongly on a rich body of knowledge about subject matter
  2. Active learning: ‘To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must:(a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.’; ‘But knowledge of a large set of disconnected facts is not sufficient’

And here is a technical post about how memory is formed.

Are there any educators out there that have anything to say on the topic, or anyone that has developed a strategy to learning and progression? Please share your advice.