“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” – Albert Einstein.
Today we’re going to talk about how you learn new things and how you can take those things and put them into action. A few years ago, I decided I wanted to know how to paddleboard and what I did is I went to YouTube and watched a bunch of videos of people paddleboarding. Went to bed the next morning, got up, rented a paddleboard, and tried it out. You know what it actually worked. I was pretty iffy at first, but I started getting the hang of it. And I remembered all the lessons of how to change positions. How to get up and sit down. I was able to actually get pretty far. You can learn many different things and put them into action so that you could have new experiences in life and try new things.
The first book that we’ll talk about today is called Learn, Improve Master by Nick Velasquez. He talks about how you can learn new items and gives you several techniques to learn things quickly. He says that learning is a bit like hiking trails through grassy fields. You can see the pathways that other people took before you. And as soon as these neural connections are made, the links become faster to make, it becomes faster to learn. And you’re able to pick things up quicker than you were before. Learning actually changes our brains’ physical structures and enables us to remember more to learn more and do more.
The first thing he talks about is making associations with things. That means that when you try to pull out memory if they’re associated with a particular event or associated with a specific skill that you need to do, you want to make those connections to whatever it is that you’re learning to multiple things. For those of you who remember libraries with card catalogs, you had a card catalog that showed you all the authors. You had another series of boxes that were organized by book title. The categories were this book, a psychology book history book, and the more areas that book hit, the more cards were in the card catalog for that particular book. So if it were a travel log that also talked about Greece’s history, you would get a card for Greece, history, travel. That way, it made it easier to find that particular book. That’s a bit of how memories work for us. If we can have many various entry points to find that memory, we remember it better.
They also talk about chunking. And chunking is where you’re putting groups of things together. You’re not trying to remember this big, long string of things. We’ve seen that before, where we’ve been attempting to break things up into smaller groups. For phone numbers, for example, you can see that it’s the area code dash, the region code dash, the last four digits of the number. They chunk them up in such away. So it makes it easier for us to remember. We do learn and memorize things better when they’re grouped up into smaller categories.
The book also talks about learning styles. And that’s become a big trend. People call it VARK. Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic or movement. Classrooms in children’s education, but also adult education, tried to go with these different styles. Some people learn things because they’re better at listening to something. Some people know things because they have to see them. Other people are just better at reading it in books. But it’s not always strictly true. Most people learn in each of those ways. He talks about that it’s not an either/or. You’re just not an auditory learner. You can be many different types of learners that are here. He talks about some myths when it comes to learning. And he brought in the learning styles. But he said that there’s basically very little evidence that we learn better if the material is presented in one way or another.
- Myth 1 – He also says that another myth, the old quote, “old dogs can’t learn new tricks.” It used to be thought that way. And I think it was just a way for someone more senior to get someone who’s younger to go away. No, I don’t want to learn how to fly a kite. You can’t teach old dogs new tricks. Totally not true. You know throughout your entire life. It might be a little bit easier. It might be a little bit different based on your age. But it’s not something that ever goes away.
- Myth 2 – Learning should be fun. And sure, it’s nice when you can do those types of things. Having fun is better than not having fun. But that doesn’t mean that if you don’t enjoy something, you can’t learn it.
- Myth 3 – The other myth that he talks about is that you can either learn new things or don’t. And I hear people talk about this a lot. Oh, I’m just not good at learning new things. It’s not true. It has more to do with Angela Duckworth and what she calls “grit.” Are you willing to stick to something? Are you ready to do hard things? That’s what actually matters more to learning than even whether You’re skilled at it or you’re talented at it. t
- Myth 4 – Then there’s the myth of the 10,000-hour rule. They talk about how if you practice something for 10,000 hours, you’ll become a master of it. And the author did not intend to create this sort of mastery deadline. He just tried to say that practicing, deliberate practice, and not only any method but aim to practice at the right things at the right time will help you to learn something. That’s all it means. And you always want to make sure that that thing is challenging you.
How do we start to learn? How can we go about doing that? So he talks, first of all, that you have to learn how to do something, that’s where you gather this information, but then there’s doing it. If you know something and actually don’t put it into practice, it becomes dead to you. As a kid, I used to build snow forts based on things that I learned in math class because I thought that was fun. And because of that, math became very easy for me. So doing something is absolutely important to do.
He then talks about Exploration and how important it is for us to explore these new ideas. We want to research to find out exactly how to deconstruct the concept, break it down into smaller steps, and learn what it means to be good at something. And as we explore, and we start to get it, we start asking better questions.
He talks about something that Chip and Dan Heath called “ooching,” that you’re trying to get a taste of something. You’re dipping your toe in it, So you could just kind of see this is something I like. Is it something I’m good at? Is it something that I might enjoy? It will give you a better sense to see what the day-to-day practice looks like. And that might mean that you’re really interested in cooking, and you take an introductory cooking class, or you spend a day with a friend who’s really good at cooking. You might be able to dip your toe into it a little bit and see if you’re actually really like it if you have good skills with it. And if it’s something that you would enjoy. I learned how to surf; I took surfing lessons. When I was in Hawaii, I had a tough two hours. I loved it; it was fantastic. I don’t think I ever really want to do it. Again, it was a great experience for me. But it was just a one-off experience. I dipped my toe in the water. And I learned a lot about surfing and whether or not I wish to pursue it.
So then, he talks about the Input Modes. And the input modes are something about how you can get the information into your brain. First of all, you can observe it and just watch someone do the thing that they’re trying to do. Or maybe you imitate it, which means you’re following along and doing it while someone is doing it. Explanation – That means that you’re reading or listening to someone as they break down the subject. Or experimentation, trying to just figure it out on your own, play with it a little bit, see how it goes. So depending on the situation, learning through these various methods – each of them might be more useful in other ways. You get better at sports by watching someone do a sport. Maybe initially that first day or something like that. But it isn’t until you actually start imitating it or experimenting with it and playing the sport where you even can get good at it.
He says that we learn better than when we know the context of what we’re studying. And then, he talks about schemas and previous knowledge. A schema is a conceptual framework of prior knowledge and experience that helps us process new information. So if you never saw something before, and then someone was to explain it to you, it would be alien to you. You wouldn’t understand what in the world they were talking about. But if you already knew something related to it, then it starts making sense. His example that he gave was trying to explain to someone about a leopard. Well, if you had just heard the explanation of a leopard, it might be confusing to you at first. But if you understand how a cat is built, then the context helps you understand this new concept of what a leopard is and how it’s different from a cat. So these constructs help us to understand and make progress.
And then he said progression. Learning anything is easier if we study it progressively and in the correct order. That means we have to understand the basics before we can do the advanced stuff. And we learn, and we build upon it.
So the first strategy he gives us, he says, breaks down the information into smaller bits. He talks about notetaking, which helps people understand and learn what they’re trying to do. He mentioned self-explanation. And that means that you try this point of explaining to yourself how this works. He talks about the word ruminate, which is kind of chewing it up in your brain and letting it synthesize, and you think about it, and you’re trying to process that information. And then, the next step is concept maps. These are visual ways that you can draw something out. Often, In my work, we draw out Visio charts and other types of Mind Mapping charts so we can see the progress of the beginning to the end. That helps us learn things, making them relevant if something is necessary and appropriate to us. And we’re not asking why I am learning this, then it will help us understand when we know why it is that we’re trying to do it. And what the big picture is. When I go into training classes, As a trainer, I’m always trying to explain to people exactly why we’re doing this, how it’s going to help them, and how this helps their organizations do better. Trying to give them context will make them motivated to learn something and more excited to pay attention.
And then questioning, he calls it Elaborative Questioning. And that’s where you’re trying to deduce the logic behind what it is you’re trying to learn. Why are we doing it this way when we’re trying to do that? Anything that you’re trying to do, if you understand the whys, then it will help you understand the context behind it, And you will learn it in a much deeper way.
Connecting the information that you learned to what you already know. So if you think about learning a new piece of software, you say, Oh, this works a little bit like office works. If you can tie it to something that you already understand, then it’ll make sense.
So the next step that it talks about learning comes from a different book called How We Learn; When, Where and Why It Matters by Benedict Carey. This is a little bit more of a biological view when it comes to learning. Forgetting is actually a critical part of our brain because it makes other information available to us more readily. Because we used to know something, we don’t need that information anymore. So our brain forgets it so that those new memories can become more upfront and more available to us. Continuing to test yourself will help you make sure that you really learn something compared to just memorizing something and then forgetting it shortly after.
He mentions a few things that talk about how we can help ourselves to learn things better. And the first thing he says is that you want to make sure that you study something in various environments. That will help you learn things. For example, if you’re sometimes studying in a coffee shop, sometimes in a library, sometimes in a recliner, at your own house, sometimes at work at your own desk. That variety of different places that you have will help you to learn it. When I was in college, they suggested that we go to places that emulated the area that we’re going to take our final exam. Maybe even go into that same room and learn it there. Because when you’re in that familiar situation, it will be easier to retrieve what you learned. However, that’s not learning it for real. Because when we actually go out into the real world and start using our education, we’re going to be in noisy malls. We’re going to be in busy coffee shops. We’re going to be talking in loud meetings. And that doesn’t help us if we only have these experiences in a specific location, break up the situations you’re in, and alter the medium. Sometimes it’s a book, sometimes it’s a computer, sometimes you’re watching a video of it. Learning through these various steps will help you understand it better.
He then talks about what he calls spacing out. And that just means learning some information and then taking a break, learning some info, and then taking a different break. And that way, you can increase the amount of data that you actually learn because you’re taking it in more slowly,
He mentions that cramming can work. That’s where you’re just studying hard, and you’re looking at its hour after hour after hour. However, you may not learn it very well in the long term. So he said you want to make sure you take advantage of the spacing effect. And that means that you spend 10 minutes learning something, and then you break up the time. So if you plan on adding, in this example, three hours to studying something, it’s better to learn it for 30 or 60 minutes over a few days than three hours at an entire chunk of time.
Wiseheart and Pashler did this experiment in 2008 to find out how much time you take to learn something. And if it was a week, you basically only remembered things for one to two days. If you studied it for over a month, you’d probably remember it pretty well for a week. If you look it over three months, you’ll learn it pretty well over two weeks and still be able to remember it, but you can kind of see that the longer it takes you and this bigger chunking that you do to learn something, the longer it will actually stay with you and then you’ll remember it.
He mentioned that simply repeating facts right after you’ve studied something or learned it will not add to your memory benefit at all. He says that you should try to wait. And then, in your own words, not just repeating what’s out of the book, or wherever it is, you learned it. Try to restate it a little bit later. And so as the brain works on retrieving the information, it’s going to become easier and easier to learn something.
He talks a little bit about when you have the struggle to remember something. It’s like exercising and lifting a heavyweight. The harder it is that you kind of tear those muscles, you build them back up stronger. Harder it is for us to recall something, and then we actually succeed in doing it, that will deepen our effects of storing our memories and making it easier to remember them. He says that there’s something called the Gates Ratio. And that means devoting 30 to 40% of time reading and memorizing when it comes to learning something new and then spending the rest of the time trying to recall it and bring it back up again.
And then he says, even if you’re quizzing yourself and guessing the wrong answer, and then finding out the real solution is, it will teach you in the long term how to actually answer the question correctly or do the right thing. Making mistakes is not a detriment to us learning things. It even helps us.
And he talks about the method of interleaving. That means that you mix up different types of materials in the process of your learning. Maybe you are trying to learn a new sport. So you read a book about the sport, then try some things out and test yourself, then watch some videos, then go out with a friend and your friend shows you how to do it. Trying to intermix these different methods will help you really drive that learning into your brain better.
And then the last step, he talks about sleep, and it’s the REM kind of sleep that helps you retain that information. Naps that last at least for one hour also contain slow-wave deep sleep and REM sleep. So naps work too. What will happen is if you study for an exam, and then you sleep on it and then recall it the next morning, you will be more likely to learn it for good. That sleeping behavior with REM sleep actually helps you deepen the understanding, comprehend it better, and then make it easier to recall. So he even talks about if you really need to understand something or learn something, study right up to your bedtime, go to bed at your regular time. And get up early and do a quick review before you need to share that information. Either because it’s a test, or you actually have to do the thing you’re doing but learn sleep, and then quiz yourself. That’ll help you learn things better than anything.
So those are some steps when it comes to really try to learn something deeply and understand it. When asked if there’s any sort of strategy for trying to learn something in a longer-term way, he says to start early as possible. Give yourself permission to walk away, take a break, have these deliberate interruptions, and then go back to it. But the more time that you can give yourself to learn something, the better you’ll learn it.
So one of the things that I found helpful to me is I had to learn a new piece of software in the last couple of weeks. It was a deep dive into something that I had never done in this particular way before. And when I first went through it, they showed us how to do it. And we actually recorded the sessions. The next time I went through it, I worked with a co-worker, and we worked on it together and figured out how to do it. And we got a successful package done out of that process. But then, the third time I did it, I felt like the first two times were such a struggle. What I did is I went into a deep dive of this, and I started recording each of the steps. So I’d learned something, I would record it into my new training document. And then I would do it. And then, I would look at the next step and record it in my new training manual. And then I would do it. And that drilled it into my brain. I feel like I know it deeply. Now I really learned it. And it’s again. Because I soak some of it in, I recalled some of it out. And then I actually tried it. And those three steps helped me learn something time-consuming and difficult. And now I feel like I really have a down.
- Break things up into small learnable chunks of learning.
- Test yourself after you learn something, give yourself a little bit of break, walk around, do something else for a while, then quiz yourself.
- Vary the media, the learning style, the environment that you’re learning in so that you can learn in all sorts of various areas or that new learning is available to you in every situation
- Make sure you give yourself enough time to learn something so that you can learn it for real and get a deep, comprehensive look at whatever it is you’re trying to learn.
- Get to sleep. Sleep is where our brain takes that information and cleans up the catalogs and stores things in the proper place.
- Try to pick one new thing that you’re going to learn. Start off by giving yourself the correct type of media, figure out how you’re going to learn it. If you’re going to learn it with books and videos. Then, give yourself a way that you can practice it and try it out. Start with something straightforward. You’re gonna try to learn how to knit a scarf.
So our fun movie quote of the day comes from the TV series Westworld?
“How can you learn from your mistakes if you can’t remember them?”
And that’s true, right? When we can learn from our own mistakes, it means we have to remember them first. So understanding and memorizing go hand in hand.