How to learn?

Give it a try. Google “how to learn.”

I was expecting to see various learning theories from psychology or philosophical discussions of ways that knowledge forms and develops in the mind. Surely something like assimilation or accommodation would be somewhere in the list…?

Google - How to learn

Google provided me with various links to online courses or articles promising to teach you tips and tricks of quickly memorizing information. There were also numerous tutorials and articles focusing on how to study. Lots of videos, too:

The focus of the video above, for example, is primarily improving your study skills or how to acquire new skills quickly. But there were also strategies to improve your ability to retain information.

My general take on Google search result rankings is that they are usually very pragmatic. I am guessing that that arises from the algorithms used to place them in the order they appear in the results, that is, they will be listed in order of usefulness, reasonableness and everydayness. So, let’s try the same search in Google Scholar and let’s use the ‘since 2016’ to get more recent results:

scholar 2016 how to learn

These results are more like what I was expecting the first time but they are still disappointing. I wonder if other’s experiences are similar to mine when I research. I find exciting, general titles applied to studies that actually look at highly specific affordances or phenomena. Take for example the link above Should we teach students how to learn? Interesting title. That encourages me to read the abstract. As it turns out, the abstract is as disappointing to me as the study. This is not to say the study is flawed or incorrect. The disappointment goes deeper than that.

There is a common assumption shared by most of the information found in my Google searches about “how to learn.” Most of the resources I found assume a transmission, delivery model of instruction. So some questions arise in my mind:

  • If one assumes the transmission, delivery model of instruction, how does that influence one’s beliefs about learning?
  • Are there objective facts about learning?
  • What if we place learning quality on a continuum, how do we assess how powerful, useful or long lasting learning is?

It goes the other way, too. Lots of real, peer reviewed research (but not all) has much to say about learning within the assumption of the transmission, delivery model of instruction. Therefore, one might predict that the reader will infer what learning is and means due to the assumption.

When I reflect back on the most powerful, memorable, and exciting learning experiences I have had in my life, none involved me being a receptacle for knowledge being poured or ‘delivered’ into my mind. The most powerful learning experiences (in a formal education setting) involved me being active player in the learning; there was choice; there was designing or making; there was a project; there was time to work through different versions; there was reflection and discussion with others.

Will Richardson, in his 2015 TEDx talk The Surprising Truth About Learning in Schools, highlights the conditions that lead to powerful and memorable learning:


He mentioned in his talk that people identified these traits nearly every time when reflecting on the memorable, powerful learning experience in their lives.

But what does all of this have to do with how to learn? I am using all of this as a preamble to what I think is a profoundly insightful statement about how to learn:


What is fascinating about this idea is that all new learning happens in terms of learning that has already taken place. Assimilation and accommodation of new concepts are not new ideas, of course. A crucial condition in education is that in order for one to learn new things, one must be well aware of what was learned before and how it connects to new experiences. That is, learners are in a constant state of adaptation of their minds. I think it’s an active process and one that involves continuously testing one’s understandings or creating things (concrete or abstract). This is one of the primary reasons constructionism makes so much sense to me.

I think this constant state of mind adaptation is analogous to living in and maintaining your home. Your home is made up of some number of rooms, each has a purpose, or a set of related purposes. Within each room there are things you need for what you do in that room. Those things are organized and positioned in a practical way; they are useful. And, as those things are regularly used, you learn to use them better and better… but sometimes they break, sometimes they are replaced or redesigned, sometimes discarded. Sometimes you add or install new things into your rooms. Learning isn’t like building a library or a toolbox where books or tools are simply added and stored (it can be but those things will probably be forgotten quickly). Learning new ideas and skills must have a context. They need to be connected to a purpose or function. And they need to be personal… or personalized.

In my home analogy, I am thinking that the rooms are like large, overlapping (or interconnected) domains of knowledge and skills; the contents of each room are models and tools that we use to think, figure out, solve problems, be creative, and so on. Some home designs are open-concept which is the idea that rooms are larger due to fewer walls, and they are rich, diverse environments where many kinds of things happen at once in that space. Other homes are more cellular or subdivided; there is an array of  smaller rooms that are more specific in function.

In education, I think a learning environment that is designed to be authentic, contextual and interdisciplinary will result in an open-concept structure in the minds of the learners that make and communicate there. If children are focused on understanding the connections between things that they see, make, and discuss, then I think their developing minds will be less claustrophobic and there will be fewer arbitrary divisions between what they learn in one instance and what they learn the next.

3 thoughts on “How to learn?

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  1. Those search results, sadly, reflect the outdated model of learning that schools have been providing for decades. Learning does not equal memorizing, or studying better, but for many adults, that is what comes to mind. Jack Ma, of Alibaba, spoke at the World Economics Forum a week (or two) ago and said that we have to stop teaching our students what machines can learn. Amen! Thanks for this post.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes, I saw Jack Ma’s speech and liked it but I cannot remember it very well so you have reminded me to have another look at it. School is a VERY powerful / influential place for students and I think the structure of it says a lot to students about what is valued (just as much as what they are studying).

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