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Weekly 3: Learning how to learn

Summary: Embrace your inner newbie. Use all your senses. Think in chunks. (~6 min read) Note: Idea #1

Idea Journal Weekly 3

January 6 · Issue #68 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Embrace your inner newbie. Use all your senses. Think in chunks. (~6 min read)
Note: Idea #1 is taken from a previous issue, and we’ve included it here because it fits well with the core theme: learning how to learn.

#1. Increase your odds of success in a rapidly advancing technological environment
Kevin Kelly, author and oracle of digital culture, writes in his book The Inevitable that “technological life in the future will be a series of endless upgrades,” and that the cycle of enhancements will itself continue to increase.
Every person, even the youngest and most technologically-savvy, will be an “endless newbie” because you won’t have time to master the commands and logic of a given tool before it is displaced.
Discussing this trend on the Waking Up podcast, Kelly suggests that learning how to learn will be the most important meta skill in such a dynamic environment. 
As a bonus, if you can understand and optimize how you learn best, then that will be “the superpower you’ll want.”
Kelly admits that getting to this point of self-awareness can take a lifetime, but he cites author and “human guinea pig” Tim Ferriss, as an example of someone who’s successfully pushed himself down this path.
#2. Learn more effectively by using all your senses
The concept of learning styles is a set of theories proposing that each of us has a preferred way of learning, and it groups people into one of the following categories:
  • Auditory learners who learn best by hearing information
  • Kinesthetic learners who learn best through movement and by touching things
  • Visual learners who learn best by seeing the material they want to learn
But as professor and bioengineering researcher Barbara Oakley points out in her online course Mindshift, while scientists agree that people process information differently, there are 2 problems with the idea that each of us has a fixed learning style:
1. Lack of evidence that it works: “There’s no statistically significant difference when it comes to the relationship between learning style preference and instructional method for your ability to comprehend the materials.”
2. It puts you at a disadvantage: Relying on only one of your senses can weaken your ability to learn in other ways. For example, if you think you’re an auditory learner, then you’ll try to learn by listening. But you won’t get as much practice reading, and that will hurt you if, for instance, you have to take a written test.
Oakley writes in her book Learning How to Learn that when you’re learning something, you should take advantage of all your senses.
At deep levels of your brain, you see and hear, you see and smell, you hear and touch: “When your brain creates its impressions of the world, you want as many senses involved as possible.”
#3. Take it a little bit at a time
Author Dan Coyle writes in The Little Book of Talent that for whatever skill you’re learning, the pattern is always the same: “See the whole thing. Break it down into its simplest elements. Put it back together. Repeat.”
As Coyle points out, every skill is built out of smaller pieces – what researchers call chunks.
Chunks are to skill what letters of the alphabet are to language.
Alone, each smaller piece isn’t very useful, but when it’s combined with a slightly bigger chunk (words), and when those chunks are then combined with even bigger ones (paragraphs, sentences), they can create something complex and valuable.
Here are 3 steps you can take to start chunking any skill you want to learn:
1. Engrave the skill on your brain
You can do this by intensely observing someone else performing the skill well. The key to effective engraving is to create a strong connection: “to watch and listen so closely that you can imagine the feeling of performing the skill.”
For physical skills like dancing, imagine yourself inside the performer’s body, and become aware of their movements and rhythm.
For skills that are more mental, you’re trying to recreate the expert’s decision patterns: “Chess players achieve this by replaying classic games, move by move; public speakers do it by re-giving great speeches complete with original inflections; musicians cover their favorite songs; some writers I know achieve this effect by retyping passages verbatim from great works.”
2. Master one chunk
Ask yourself: what is the smallest single element of the skill that you can master?
Coyle recommends using a technique he calls the “smallest achievable perfection.” Pick a single chunk that you can perfect – not just improve at or work on, but get 100 percent consistently correct.
For example, a tennis player might choose to focus on the serve toss, or a salesperson might focus on the twenty-second pitch they’ll make to an important client.
3. Combine the chunks
Once you’ve mastered one chunk, look for other chunks that link to it.
Coyle gives the example of how students at the Meadowmount School of Music learn.
First, they cut apart musical scores with scissors and put the pieces in a hat, and then pull each section out at random. Once they’ve mastered each separate section of music, they start combining them in the right order – like puzzle pieces.
As Skye Carman, one of the school’s violin instructors, puts it: “It works because the students aren’t just playing the music on autopilot – they’re thinking.”
Quote of the Week
“Until now, learning methods have probably been hit-or-miss – frustrating, inconsistent, and inefficient. No one bothered to teach you the most important academic skill: how to learn.”
- Author, educator, and hedge fund advisor Adam Robinson in his book What Smart Students Know
Idea Journal
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