Learning How to Learn

October 11, 2012

Chris Yonge writes: Learning a new skill is like … writing a blog post. The start is blankness and uncertainty (How long will this take? I don’t know what to do/say. I’m so clueless!) but then as you push forward the emptiness starts being replaced by useful words or knowledge.
Whenever I undertake a new project or commit to learning a new skill I feel a touch of that dark, ancient hesitation. Will it be worth the time and resources required? What if it fails? But it’s the same with projects as it is with life: not so much the stupid things you do that you regret, it’s the (might have been stupid, but then again maybe not) things you don’t. Part of the reward of a creative and committed approach to life is seldom feeling regret over lost opportunities. If you leap off that cliff of doubt enough times your creative wings become stronger and you can soar higher every time.The more you make something from nothing, the more confidence you can have that the necessary words or skills or ideas will appear when needed. One early clue that things are working is that as you proceed you see things which you didn’t expect. Patterns and structure emerge from randomness. You look at what you’ve done and through the marvelous ambiguity and resonance of language or sketching a new idea comes out of the chaos on the screen or the paper. That marvelous pattern recognition capability of the mind kicks in – even when there is no conscious pattern there. The project takes on a life of its own. And then instead of its being an effort, a curiosity to find what’s there starts to pull you in. The excitement and joy of creating takes over.Learning has two dimensions. The X dimension, which is learning the skill you need. A 3D computer modeling program, how to use a potter’s wheel, riding a bicycle, speaking Spanish. But also the Y, which happens at the same time, and is learning about how you learn. Some people never analyze this, missing an opportunity to streamline the process. One person learns by creating a center of certainty, a focus of crystallization, and working outwards from that solid core. Another builds a scattershot web of points of knowledge about a subject and then connects them. A third develops a hazy impression of the whole field that gradually solidifies through practice (I’m one of the hazy learners). Different modes of learning – printed manuals, web videos, tuition, projects – will work better for some learning styles than others. Some kinds of practical projects work better. Some schedules – intensive, occasional, structured – work better. It doesn’t matter which, as long they’re the best for you.A couple of generations ago one could be employed for a lifetime without having to learn more than one had in one’s youth. Experience mattered more than new knowledge. That is no longer the case. Like the cells in one’s body, the technology and the skills one needs completely change every five years. By understanding how we learn, and choosing the means to speed our learning, we can reinvent ourselves rapidly, enjoyably, and effectively.

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