What is LEARNING?

In the context of Social Sciences

What is “Learning”? When I finished high school, I was so excited to throw all the text books away, because I’ll never in my life again need any of these books for any exams, and that feels VERY good.


Now, however, one disturbing question comes to me often, how much exactly do I remember from what I’ve learned in the past, for example, in high school? If there’s not much, does that mean that I wasted years in my life studying things that I will eventually forget?

The same for what I am learning now, in the FUTURE, will I remember how did the Syrian Revolt in 1925 happen, or the mechanisms that explained financial crisis in East Asia, Russia and Latin America in the late 1990s? If not, what is the POINT?

A social-phycological experiment has shaped my thought on “ What is Learning?” a lot. A group of professional chess players and a group of normal people are asked to remember where the chess pieces are on the chessboard. Not surprisingly, professional chess players perform better. What is surprising, however, is that when chess pieces are arranged randomly on the board, which means that they are sometimes at a position in which it is impossible to happen in reality, professional chess players are just like normal people in recalling where the chess pieces are.

In other words, professionals are better in remembering the position of chess pieces only when chess pieces are arranged in a way that it might actually appear in real games. Why? Because when they look at the board, they not only see chess pieces, but also the connection between them.

For normal people, chess board is just a chess board, no matter how the pieces are ordered. For experienced chess players, possible position of chess pieces makes them think of real games. For them, it is not only the chess pieces that matter, instead, it is the connection between pieces, the future moves and the strategy to win, and these are what distinguish a professional chess players from others.


In my opinion, learning has a similar logic. Having knowledge is just pieces on the chess board; learning is about make connection between them. True learning is when you see the chess board, you also see the future development.

But how do we make these connections?

One possible strategy: Asking the Right Questions. Good questions help us to perceive the Differences and Similarities between varying situations, Building Up Connections between Knowledges.

Example: Religious and Ethnic Conflicts

It is not to remember the details why and when the Anti-Chinese Riots in Southeast Asia started, because there were just too many and they were all in the past. Instead, it is the capacity to ask pertinent questions that help us to distinguish cases in different countries and understand the current situations that matters!

At the macro view, do people of different ethnicity and religion go to different schools? Do they apply to different companies for different positions because of race and religious belief? Are they treated differently in terms of social welfare, for example scholarships, competing for government jobs, and taxation? Getting to the micro level, are people allowed to marry across different religions and races, is this socially and legally acceptable? If so, how do the society define kids of a mix legally and socially?

Another Example: Price of Real Estate

We need not to know the fluctuations of housing price in the past or the current market situation, because the world is so big and unless you are a trade agent, these are fragmented pieces of knowledge. Instead, we want to develop the ability to ask the right questions that give us a global view about the real estate market no matter where we are now.

What is the rent to price ratio? Housing for who? Families, Students or Working singles? After all, what we care is if there is enough “Affordable Housing for Lower Classes”. What are the limitations placed by governments, in terms of down payment and loan ratio, especially in the case of a developing country when it comes to investment of speculation? Is there encouraging policy for selling off the old house for a switch? This can have significant effect on the second-hand housing market. What is the property tax rate? In other words, is holding multiple housing at the same time expensive? Is commercial zone allowed to be converted to private housing? Is the housing supply elastic in the long run, especially supply of “Affordable Housing”? Further, is there already a lot of empty houses? If so, keep increasing housing supply might not be the solution.


Indeed, Questions are “Criteria” that enable us to do Comparison, thus Connecting Fragmented Knowledges