One of the reasons why schools can often contribute to making kids dumber instead of smarter is that they focus on what to learn without helping students develop the skills of how to learn.
Since I’ve set out some fairly ambitious goals for the new year, I’ve decided to invest some time in learning more about… well, learning.
These are some tips on how to enhance your learning abilities and become a Human Learning Machine.
Tip #1 – Learn like a human being: You are not a mind floating in space, nor do you learn new subjects in a vacuum. You’re a human being and all your life areas contribute to how you learn a new subject. Learning isn’t only Intellectual.
Your Spiritual beliefs set the framework for how you make sense of the events in your life, and your values determine the topics you’ll gravitate towards learning more about.
Your Psychological outlook will determine how you see yourself as a learner, and that impression will either restrict or expand your learning ability.
Your Physical well-being (what you eat and what you do) plays an important role in your learning, and neglecting your body can deprive you of the energy needed to develop the concentration you need to absorb new information.
The best way to learn a new subject is holistically, by recognizing the contribution each life area makes to the learning process, and identifying ways you can improve your learning ability in each of the life areas.
The tips below are divided into the seven Life Areas, so that you can harness the power of each life area to create a holistic approach to learning.
Tip #2 – Reality is One: I hate to be the one who has to break this to you, but schools, colleges and universities are Institutes of Deception. You may have been inculcated with the false impression that academic subjects are distinct and mutually exclusive and that biology has nothing to do with chemistry, which has nothing to do with physics, which has nothing to do with history, which has nothing to do with language, and so on. But, in truth, they all exist within the same reality, and they overlap in many ways that you can harness.
Learning about a single subject can help you better understand other subjects. It’s important to identify these connections and to recognize how they all fit together within a single reality.
Tip #3 – The world is knowable: Do you think learning will be easy for you if you believe that the world is made up of random occurrences, and there’s not much we can understand about the world? If you think that the world is essentially unknowable, then there’s little for you to learn, and that belief alone will compromise your learning.
While there is a lot to learn and understand about the world and human nature, and there are many things we have yet to make sense of, it’s important to recognize that the world operates under natural laws, that we – as human beings – can make sense of the world around us (and within us) and that we need to simply invest in thinking with greater breadth and depth about the world.
This will set a solid foundation for all your learning efforts and will spark the curiosity you need to pursue learning, rather than fuel the confusion that will undermine it.
Tip #4 – Recognize the value in what you learn: My students sometimes ask me: “What’s the point of learning about this topic?” If they can’t see the benefit to what they’re learning, it’s only natural to feel demotivated. By reminding yourself of the value in what you learn and the benefits you expect to gain out of your learning, you will remain motivated to continue learning, even when it feels difficult to continue.
Ask yourself: “What’s the point of learning this? Why am I learning it? What do I expect to get out of it? How can this help me in my life? How can I impact the lives of others with what I’m learning? What can I create from the information that I consume?”
Tip #5 – Build the big picture: Before you start learning the intricate details of a subject, familiarize yourself with its general purpose, the key terms used, famous thinkers in the field, etc. When it comes to learning a new language, you can take a casual glance at the language, determine the type of grammar it follows, the way it’s similar to/different than the language you already know, etc.
If you want to learn more about computers, you can learn a bit about their history, the purpose for which they were built, the benefits to using technology, the recent advancements in the field, what key terms such as hardware and software mean, etc.
A great place to start when learning about a new subject is the Wikipedia entry for that subject.
Gloss over the details and try to build a better understanding of the big picture. You want to feel comfortable with the subject, make it feel less intimidating and know where the pieces will fit together.
“The beginning of wisdom is a definition of terms.”
Tip #6 – Identify similarities: One of the key aspects to learning is the ability to identify similarities between different subjects. How can you integrate two seemingly different phenomena? In what ways are they similar?
You can apply this approach in many ways, such as the similarities between geometric shapes, or animals, or even abstract notions such as philosophical views or religious beliefs.
Tip #7 – Identify the differences: The other key aspect is identifying the differences. How can you differentiate between two objects or phenomena? What makes the two different? What makes each one unique?
The ability to both integrate and differentiate will help you build a conceptual arsenal that conveys the complexity that exists in the world, while being able to construct simple models to represent an infinite amount of detail.
Tip #8 – Express the same information in a variety of ways: Text isn’t the only way to represent information. You can use physical models, drawings, mind maps, stories and a variety of other ways to represent information so you can retain the information better and develop your understanding of the subject matter.
Tip #9 – Be selective: Don’t waste your time reading articles that add nothing to your existing knowledge, or books that only contribute a handful of new information, when you can spend your time learning from a great, information-dense book. Go for the most recognized books in any field (bestseller lists are useful for this), look to the recommendations of those you trust, sample the writings of a number of authors to see whose style and thoughts appeal to you.
If you realize that you’ve made a poor buying decision, you don’t have to continue reading the book. Apologize to yourself and move on. Your time is much more valuable than the money you spend on any single book.
Tip #10 – Admit your ignorance: When it comes to learning, the cup is half empty. If you focus on the cup being half full, then you will miss out on many learning opportunities. You will say to yourself:“I already know this” or “I know enough.” That’s a toxic mindset that will undermine your learning abilities. You don’t have to pretend to others that you already understand a subject when you don’t.
Admit that you don’t, so you can get to learn more about it.
Tip #11 – Question your existing knowledge: In the previous point, you accept that the cup is half empty, which means that you don’t overlook what you already know, but direct your attention to what you don’t. But it’s often helpful to pretend that the cup is empty. That way, you approach a new – or even familiar – subject with fresh eyes.
You don’t rely on previous assumptions you’ve made, but are open to forming a new understanding.
We can easily reject new ideas simply because they’re new and clash with what we think we know. But what if our existing knowledge is flawed? Will we continue to cling onto it despite new evidence?
The ability to question and revise our understanding will help us better understand other points of view, as well as allow our knowledge base to become flexible and open to change.
Tip #12 – Drop your self-image: Have you ever said to yourself: “Oh, I can never make sense of this subject!” That’s your self-image, the impression you have about yourself, which you live by. In many ways your self-image acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, so that you end up experiencing difficulty learning a new subject simply because you’ve said to yourself: “This is going to be difficult for me to learn.”
In most cases, you jump to the conclusion that you won’t be able to learn a new subject without having any experience whatsoever trying to learn it.
The learning process isn’t intended to be a judgment of how good or bad you are at learning. Judging yourself as being smart or dumb will make the learning process feel intimidating, and you would rather avoid learning something new rather than confront the possibility that you will find it difficult and end up concluding that you’re dumb.
Be aware of the labels you place on yourself and the impressions you have about your learning abilities. “I’m dumb”, “I’m a developer, not a designer”, “I don’t have any artistic talent”, “I can’t cook to save my life”, etc.
Don’t judge yourself or assume that your learning ability is somehow a reflection of who you are.
It’s only a reflection of how much you know right now. Identifying with your current abilities will prevent you from developing them into better ones.
Tip #13 – Drop your expectations: You experience frustration when your expectations aren’t met. This can cause you to abandon the learning process, or avoid learning opportunities altogether. If you want to be a great painter and expect that you’ll produce a masterpiece the first time you set paintbrush to canvas, then you may be shocked by the result you get.
“How can this be!? Why isn’t the great artist in me coming out? Who drew this piece of crap?!”
Most people wouldn’t even pick up a paintbrush because they’re too afraid that reality won’t match their expectations, and they’re not ready for such a disappointment.
To pursue learning opportunities with an active mind and an open heart, you have to accept the results you get, without judging yourself. You can then work with what you have and develop your skills with practice.
Tip #14 – Accept mistakes as part of the learning process: If you want to completely avoid making mistakes, then you will most likely avoid learning. If you want to learn something new, then you must accept the chance of making mistakes. Rather than shy away from them, you have to embrace them. You can even consider mistakes as milestones on your learning journey:
More Mistakes = Greater Progress
The key is to stop identifying with your mistakes and falsely concluding that making mistakes means that you’re an idiot.
Mistakes are only natural when you’re learning something new and developing your skills.
Tip #15 – Ask the experts: To better navigate your way through the literature available for any given subject, it might be useful to ask some recognized experts for their own recommendations of books and resources to read, and any specific questions that you may struggle to find answers for.
Experts (the good kind, anyway) don’t just offer information. They offer insights.
Robert Scoble is an expert when it comes to technology, but his expertise isn’t in telling you the hardware specifications of mobile devices, but how these devices will shape the way we do business, the likely trends that will arise from new advancements in technology, what are the positives and negatives of a given device in relation to its competitors, etc.
Insights make information more meaningful and assist you in becoming an expert yourself.
Tip #16 – To learn more, teach more: Teaching others what you’ve learned is a great way to instill that information in your own mind. As you think of ways to better explain the subject, how to express it in your own words, and how to structure the information, you will develop a deeper understanding that will contribute to your own learning.
Tip #17 – Split your learning into projects: One of the best ways you can go through learning resources is to group them into projects. I want to research the meaning of happiness and share my thoughts on this blog, so I’ve grouped the books I have on happiness under “Happiness Research” for “Personal Growth Map”. You can categorize all your reading by the projects you have and the results you would like to see in your life areas.
For example, you can group all the books you have on online marketing as part of your project to promote and market your online business. This way, you have identified a benefit associated with the learning, actions tied to what you learn, and a meaningful context for that literature.
Tip #18 – Turn your learning into a money-making venture: Would you like to learn more about how social media can be used by small businesses? Great! How about turning that into a business? You can aim to become a consultant to small business owners. That way, your learning ambitions can help you make money, so that you don’t compromise your income while learning new things.
Tip #19 – Play educational games: There are many skills you can learn by playing games that will serve you well in life. Analytical skills, dexterity, communication skills, artistic expression, eye-hand coordination, etc.
Games aren’t a waste of time (provided you approach them mindfully and not as a means of evading other responsibilities), and they can be a great way to advance and accelerate your learning.
Tip #20 – Turn your learning into a game: How can you make learning more fun? Can you create games around the material you’re trying to learn? Can you have a competition with friends about who can read faster? Can you give yourself incentives (badges? trophies? treats?) to learn more?
Be as creative as possible to make learning as enjoyable as possible.
Tip #21 – Don’t overeat: A full stomach means an empty head. Not a healthy state for learning. Make sure you don’t overeat and that you feel comfortable when you’re done eating.
Tip #22 – Drink lots of water: My concentration gets a boost whenever I drink 1 to 2 litres of water a day. I find it easier to get work done and to process information. If your body is dehydrated (which it might very well be if you don’t drink lots of water or eat lots of fruits and veggies), then your body might misinterpret your dehydration as hunger, which will lead to overeating. Not cool.
Tip #23 – Watch your breathing: If your breathing is too shallow, then you’re not supplying your body with enough oxygen, so your brain won’t be able to function at its best.
Don’t breathe from your belly.
Last time I checked, human beings breathe with their lungs and there is no sight of a lung in the belly. That’s just an awkward way of breathing.
Instead, be aware of the fact that your ribs don’t move only in the front of your chest, but around your lungs from every direction. And since your lungs expand like balloons when you breathe, think of releasing your ribs so that they allow the lungs to expand freely to let the air come in effortlessly.
OK, your belly will move forward, but that’s because you’ve released your abdominal muscles, rather than push your belly outward to let air come in (for more info on the Alexander Technique’s way of breathing, check out this video on effortless deep breathing).
Tip #24 – Exercise regularly: Working out can enhance your brain functionality in a number of ways (part of which is psychological, since you’ll feel good about yourself when you exercise). You can even listen to audiobooks while you go for a jog, and can be a great way of processing additional information.
Tip #25 – Get enough sleep and rest: Your ability to focus and absorb new information will decline during a learning session. The solution isn’t to push yourself further and to down Red Bulls. You need to give yourself time to rest. Make sure you get enough sleep at night and that you take regular breaks between learning sessions.
Not only will you feel better about learning, you will also give your brain some time to process the information you’ve acquired.
Bonus Tip – Schedule your learning: You need to dedicate some time to learning and digesting new information. If you don’t schedule time to reading books, writing notes, listening to audio programs, etc. then you can easily fall into the “I’m too busy to learn” excuse. While it’s useful to learn “on the job” and through personal experience, reading and dedicated practice are enormously valuable in helping you gain exposure to new ideas and developing new skills.
How much time can you dedicate to learning a day? How will you go through the material? What are the best times for you to learn?
If you have any tips of your own you’d like to share, then please feel free to share them in the comments section!
Photo credit: One Laptop Per Child