The Secret of Learning

My hobby is hobbies. Over the past few years I have been pursuing an experiment that I call the Da Vinci Experiment. The purpose of which is to learn a skill within less than 6 months to the extent that one can be mistaken for a semi-professional.

In the past years the experiment has taken me through learning to sketch, take pictures, drum, learn new programming languages(of course) and compose music.

Learning Portraiture and Pencil Drawing

While it brings with it the bragging rights of being ‘multi-talented’ (though talent has little to do with it), the true purpose of the exercise has been to understand ‘how we learn’, find out ‘why some people learn faster’ and ‘why some teachers teach better’.

In the process I have learnt something about learning which I believe is spoken very little about — The Secret of Learning. The learning hack that massively accelerates the learning process.

Learning is a well studied theme and there are many of the obvious (and not so obvious) methods such as extensive and regular practice, subject matter immersion, watching great performers or pictures and definitely one 0f the most clear guides — the Feymann technique.

Photography is light — great landscape photographers never even get out if the light is bad.

While all of these above are important — they do not necessarily accelerate learning. Rather they make the learning process more robust. The best way to illustrate the secret is to use a couple of personal examples.

Of all the skills I have tried to learn composing music would have been the most difficult (I picked it consciously). The barriers were significant - I do not play any melodic instrument, had no idea of reading notes and ‘learning to compose music’ is not the most obvious of learning tracks.

The ‘learning hack’ that allowed me to start composing relatively complex pieces within weeks was understanding the concept of ‘scales’ i.e. the concept that most melodies are structured within an oft repeated pattern of notes.

Composed on an iPad played live in Garage Band.

When it came to drumming and trying to speed up my drumming — it was learning that in drumming speed comes from using the fingers (as opposed to using the wrists).

Both of the above are examples for “Trade Secrets” which are often rarely taught right at the start, and are not obvious to the beginner. Frankly speaking there is no reason why either of these are not taught from the start neither of these is a technique or concept so advanced that the beginner cannot grasp them immediately.

Dave Grohl on creating a pop song — watch his other interviews, he articulates the ‘science’ of music making very well

In my opinion (and experience) if a student were told that there is something such as harmonic patterns and more or less what they are aiming to do is get a sequence within the ladder they would not be experimenting all over the keyboard to come up with a melody. Same goes with drumming, explain to a beginner how the mechanics (shoulder, elbow, wrist and finger) works and they would practice with a useful frame of reference.

My hypothesis is that

  • Fast learners tend to hone in on the ‘Secrets of a Skill’ and focus on these to either provide frameworks for understanding (as in scales) or technique aids(as in using fingers and rebound for speed drumming).
  • Great teachers make the student conscious of the ‘Secrets’ early in the teaching cycle and break the key teachings into a sets of secrets.
  • There is no ‘single secret of all skills’ but each skill has it’s own set of secrets. It is very important to be aware of the importance of Secrets in learning a new skill.
  • A ‘true’ secret yields immediate results (you at least get a sense of what it can do).
  • Most secrets(if not all) are actually well know — there are no hidden secrets(so you can skip those $1.99/- ebooks).

So, what’s the secret? My approach when learning a new skill boils down to making a list of potential secrets associated with the skill (a simple Google search will do), try a few of them out relatively quickly (the good ones you can tell within minutes or hours) and then practice towards developing using that Secret as a guide — everything else is practice and perseverance.

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