Importance of Learning

Introduction

This post is one of a two part series about how to learn. This part will talk about:

  1. Why we lose natural curiosity and how it stifles our learning.
  2. Knowing vs Understanding, and why they’re drastically different terms.
  3. Types of learning, and the myth/limitation of VARK.
  4. Phases of learning.
  5. Tips/Tools/strategies for learning.
  6. Recommended reading.

The second post will be an extension on this post and talk specifically about learning a new programming language. The language choice is agnostic, and the concepts and tips are the important aspect.

Why We Lose Natural Curiosity

Professional development, and learning, don’t stop after college. Often times, in the business world, I see people who won’t continue to learn and be curious about the world around them. I believe this is due to a few factors:

  1. Time - We’re all busy. Being working professionals, most people likely don’t have the time after work to embark in learning due to other demands on our lives such as family, and other desires.
  2. Energy - Much like #1, energy both before/after work is challenging. Often times it’s much easier to sit in-front of the TV or watch YouTube videos than it is to do professional development.
  3. Interest - Because of what we’re doing at work, it may feel like doing something similar is not desired. Work/life balance and all that. Also want we want to learn may actually not be interesting to us.
  4. Mental - Some may have depression, some may not have a quiet place to study at. Time of day also impacts our mental ability to pick up something new.
  5. Lack of Tools - Being taught one way to learn, and not being effective at learning.

The issue we run into in all this is that we’re all in competition with each other to varying degrees. There aren’t infinite jobs, and it’s not guaranteed that the job we currently hold will be there in the future. Approximately 74% of U.S. employees are in at-will employment [1], and that means that either the employee or employer can terminate the contact at any moment, for nearly any reason.

Meaning, your job is not secure. Very few of ours is secure.

To better put yourself in a position of mobility, professional development can help you. But, it can also help with your current employment as well. It’s a protection for you, and a potential benefit for your employer.

When talking about professional development, we have areas like the M.B.A., a Masters degree, certifications and the like. They can help in certain situation, but what helps more is one’s own self study. This is due to a few factors:

  1. It shows that you’re interested in the material vs an end goal (more money). If you pick what’s interesting and useful, you’re more likely to retain that information. It means something to you, and allows you to be naturally curious.
  2. You can tailor your learning style and needs vs a forced program. A forced program may be necessary for some people, so they can prioritize effectively, but I feel for the vast majority of people this is unnecessary with willpower.

Knowing vs Understanding

There’s some important terms we should distinguish from the start, and that’s:

  1. Knowing - This is the outcome of learning a new skill. In other words, what you can do after.
  2. Understanding - This is the outcome of knowing a skill, and being able to relate it to other skills through concept building. This is the deep thought part of learning.

They’re very different terms [2][3].

When learning new skills, it’s important to try and achieve understanding of that skill. This takes more time, but has a lot of advantages:

  1. We’re less likely to forget what we learned.
  2. We have the ability to relate what we learned to other things we already learned. That relationship allows us to tie things together on a conceptual basis, and is a better pool to pull from.

Types of learning, and the myth/limitation of VARK

VARK [4] stands for:

  • Visual: Charts/Graphs/Flow Charts/etc.
  • Aural: Learning by hearing (e.g. Audio Books, Lectures)
  • Read/Write: Written material (e.g. Books)
  • Kinesthetic: Experience or practice doing something

Many of us probably aren’t familiar with the term VARK, but have heard of “Learning Styles.” and there is a correlation between one’s major (or destination career)[5], and their learning style. Sites such as PluralSight, Linkedin Learning, and the like exist for that Visual and Aural aspect. Audible is an example of near purely Aural. Class projects, homework, and so on are examples of Kinesthetic learning.

The problem with VARK is that people incorrectly assume that they can only learn by one style. For example, people who prefer Visual may shy away from written work. This is similar to when people say “I’m bad at Math”, then they’re going to be bad at Math. Regardless of effort or other factors because those people already determined that they can’t or won’t learn it.

When it comes to learning, a multi-facet approach is much better [6]. Veritasium [6] has an excellent video talking about this very problem. While I believe he’s a bit more harsh on this topic than I am, I do believe that VARK is limiting.

So tip one, on learning better. Don’t limit yourself to one style of learning. Allow yourself to use multiple styles, and to not be “uncomfortable” with any one style. It’s worth noting that all styles can’t be used in all areas of learning, as a friend of mine correctly pointed out.

Phases of Learning

One of my favorite books, “How to Read a Book” talks about phases of reading. I personally feel those phases are the same for learning, in general. Each phase grows on the other, but in order, they’re:

Elementary Understanding

The elementary phase is described as the ability to read the words themselves and to understand at least what the words mean.

When we look at learning as a whole, the elementary understanding phase is necessary for us to even comprehend the material we’re trying to learn. For example, if we look at a language, then this would be the letters that make up the language, and some simple words.

Introspectional

Introspectional reading is classified as light reading of material. It’s also called skim-reading. Most of our time spent when reading is spent in this area, be that from reading emails to news articles to fiction.

When we look at learning as a whole, this is basic familiarity with a subject. For example, let’s look at a technology solution such as SQL Server. Introspectional level would entail knowing it exists, understanding what SQL is, what a server is, and that it’s a relational database to host information.

Analytical

Analytical reading is where learning starts. This is when we actually read the material “for real”, usually once, and have a very general level of understanding of what we’ve read. This is where most people stop at when learning new material.

When we look at learning as a whole, is is the ability to “do” or “use” what we’ve learned. For example, let’s say you learned a new language. An Analytical level would entail the above levels plus the ability to functionally perform at a “reasonable” level in that language. Another useful term for this is “working knowledge.”

Syntopical

Syntopical reading is a very deep level of reading. This is when we understand the material to the point of being able to relate it to other material we’ve read. For example, reading “How to Read a Book” and relating it to concepts in other books, such as “How We Learn”, and other papers/material out there. It’s a concept-based understanding of what was presented, and the ability to “see the forest from the trees”

When we look at learning as a whole, this is very concept based. For example, let’s take a programming language such as Python. An Analytical level of understanding is the ability to code in Python, whereas a Syntopical level of programming is the ability to tie the concepts from learning Python into what other languages may do, what may be more efficient, and so on.

The Syntopical level of understanding is very deep, and is the best to get to for those skills that matter. I personally feel that too many people stop in the Analytical level, and never progress further.

Tips, Tools, and Strategies for Learning

Tips

  1. Don’t ever say you’re “not good” at something, or “unable” to learn something.
  2. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself into a specific style of learning. If the materials you got from others focus in a specific style of learning, then make up your own methods to allow for other styles to take hold. For example, lets say you got a book on a specific subject. Do videos exist for it too (e.g. YouTube), or can you draw your own graphs/charts?
  3. Take notes, in your own words. Don’t copy direct quotes out a book, and instead, try and re-phase everything you want to note in your own words. Teaching, even yourself, is an effective way to ensure you really know something.
  4. Ensure you fully understand the difference between Knowing and Understanding, and try to approach learning with a goal in mind. How deep of knowledge do you really need. It’s good to still reach some level of Syntopical level of understanding on your core skill needs.
  5. Work at it every day, without exception. This is the largest mistake people, including myself, make. Even 15-20 minutes a day is better than 6 hours on a weekend.

Tools

  1. Anki or Flashcards are a really good option for the first three levels of learning. Flashcards can help with both term memorization, as well as concept building.
  2. Notebook and pen/pencil has been shown as more effective for learning than digital sources for many parts of learning [8][9]. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use a computer for parts of learning, but there’s a connection between handwriting and the brain [10], that’s hard to get with pure digital work.

Strategies

SR-Style of Learning

SR (Spaced Repetition) [11]is a very useful methodology that spans much further than that of flashcards, which is where it’s traditionally thought of when talking about SR(S). The simple idea is that Spaced Repetition means reviewing the material at intervals that get close to, but not over, the point where we forget the material. The idea of spending 15-20 minutes a day, as being better than a block on a weekend, is precisely for this reason. The Leitner system [12] is a practical implementation of this concept.

So, if you don’t have much time in the day, consider breaking up the study time to 3x5 minute blocks. During those blocks, review notes on what you’re trying to learn. Space it out over the day (e.g. 6AM, 3PM, 10PM).

Write

Another useful method of learning is by writing. This doesn’t mean necessarily writing a lot, but to write. Research has shown that writing enhances recall of what you wrote [13][13]. Conceptual notes are even better to have done by paper.

Read Often

The only way to learn is to be willing to absorb knowledge. There are many avenues for this, but the best approach tends to be reading. In my opinion, one of the best reasons for reading is the fact that you can read at various levels and over the same material as many times as necessary to “get it”. There are dedicated strategies surrounding reading, much of which is covered in an excellent book called How to Read a Book. One of the things I greatly appreciate about this book is the “Reading List.” Reading is more than the specific subject you’re interested in. It’s also about knowledge that you need, and to help build wonder and insight into something that may not have expected to learn.

Recommended Reading

There are a number of books I recommend reading on this subject. Many referenced in this article, but they are:

  1. How to Read a Book (by Mortimer Adler) - A fantastic book that talks about strategies for reading and absorbing various types of text, such as Philosophy, History, etc.
  2. How to Take Smart Notes (by Sonke Ahrens) - A book that concentrates on the Zettelkasten method of note taking, but more than that. Starts out about GTD, discusses Literature Notes, Permanent Notes, Slip-box (Zettelkasten), and finally about writing.
  3. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens (by Benedict Carey) - Discusses how we learn, dealing with frustrations, and how to better retain information you’re aiming to learn.

References

David Thole

David Thole
Enterprise Data Architect, Developer, Instructor. Reads/studies a lot and enjoys all things technology

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