From many of my earlier posts, you might have already figured out atleast one fact about me, that is, I am addicted to productivity and in order to achieve the highest level of productivity, I read a lot about cognitive science. Learning about how our brain and mind work together as a team has become one of my hobbies since many days now.
So this post is about a book that I just finished reading. The title of the book is Why Don’t Students Like School? The author Daniel Willingham is a Harvard educated cognitive scientist who writes books and articles about how to learn and teach better. The book is divided into principles of learning and I highly recommend getting a copy for yourself as Willingham explains many of the details and implications of each of these principles. I wanted to discuss each principle briefly, to share the implications it has for learning better.
Note: The book lists nine principles, but two were more related to teaching, so I omitted them here.
1. Factual knowledge precedes skill
Einstein was wrong. Knowledge is more important than imagination, because knowledge is what allows us to imagine. There is considerable research showing the importance of background knowledge to how well we learn. Without background knowledge, the kinds of insights Einstein praised are impossible.
Careful studies show that having more background knowledge on a topic means we can read faster, understand more when we do and remember more of it later. You cannot teach someone “how” to think, without first teaching them a considerable amount of “what” to think. Thinking well first requires knowing a lot of stuff, and there’s no way around it.
2. Memory is the residue of thought
You remember what you think about. Whatever aspect of what you’re learning your mind dwells on, will be the part that it is likely to be retained. If you, inadvertently, spend your studying time thinking about the wrong aspects of your studies you won’t remember much of use.
The problem with this principle is that knowing about it is not enough. We can’t constantly self-monitor our own cognition, noticing what we’re noticing. So even if you try to pay attention to the right things, it can be easy to accidentally focus on less important details which will take precedence in memory. There are many techniques like taking side notes, highlighting, using analogies that you can follow to avoid this trap.
3. We understand new things in the context of what we already know
Abstract subjects like math, physics, finance or law, can often be hard for people to learn. The reason why is that the we learn things by their relation to other things we already know. Willingham here suggests using many examples to ground a particular abstraction in concrete terms before moving on.
4. Proficiency requires practice
The only way to become good at skills is to practice them. Additionally, some basic skills require thorough practice in order to be successful at more complicated skills.
I cant stress enough on this point. Practice can be the one gap you have to close between yourself and your goals (Choose to close it). It can be the one impediment that can hold you back and leave you wondering why others are so much better at that something for which you pine (Don’t allow it). It can make the difference between good and great, mediocre and magnificent(Go for the latter).
5. Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training
Should you learn science like a scientist, making hypothesis, testing experiments, revising your theory to fit the data? Willingham offers substantial evidence that the answer is no.
I think there’s merit in understanding how scientists perform their work, but it’s also clear that knowledge creation and knowledge acquisition are very different. Because they are different, the learner needs to weigh them against each other. For most disciplines, understanding scientific facts is more important than scientific process, for the simple reason that scientific facts will inform our lives, but few of us will ever do scientific research. The same applies to history, philosophy and nearly any other discipline of knowledge.
6. People are more alike than different in how we learn
Learning styles are bunk. There is no such thing as visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners. This is also true for every serious theory of different cognitive styles for learning.
This suggests that the ways we learn are more similar than different. Some people might be better at learning certain types of things than others, but given a particular subject, science hasn’t different ways of learning it that are consistently better for some people but not others.
7. Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work
This was probably my favorite part of the entire book because it validates much of how I think. Intelligence is partially genetic and partially environmental. Innate differences do matter and some people are born with more talent than others.
However, Willingham argues that intelligence is malleable. Psychologists used to believe that intelligence was mostly genes. Twin studies and other natural experiments seemed to bear that out. Adopted children turn out more like their biological parents than their adoptive parents in many dimensions.
However, now the consensus has turned far more towards nurture, rather than nature. One of the biggest pieces of evidence is the Flynn Effect, which is the observation that people, over the last century, have gotten smarter (and the effect is too large to be from natural selection). Genes may have an important role in intelligence, but most of that role is played out through the environment, not independent of it.
Definitely go and read this book. Its a very easy read, full of scientific data and research and it will answer a lot of questions about learning that you might have. I was happy that most of the principles discussed in the book reflected my own thinking. It’s comforting to see when the experience I’ve gained from my own learning challenges converges on the serious work scientists are doing to understand the brain and how we learn.