The Best Way To Learn Is By Stealing Knowledge

The ancient indirect path to wisdom

Erik Brown
Sep 3 · 6 min read
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Photo by Jacob Meves on Unsplash

What’s the best way to learn something? It’s a broad but important question for all of us.

You might be tempted to think back to your days in school or college. Gradual learning with direct feedback likely enters your mind. It’s nice to know immediately when you’re off track.

You might also imagine technology making learning easier. Computers, PowerPoint slides, and tablets would make everything better as well. Obviously, like most things, we do a better job with our tools of today than we did in the past.

However, is that really true?

For instance, think back to your time in school. How much do you remember from many of those classes? How often did you learn something one week then forget it by the next? I can personally attest, at least for me, it was a regular occurrence.

Learning is not a new phenomenon. Human beings have been teaching and training others for millennia. Pyramids and cathedrals got built, mathematics and science improved, and just about everything got better. Moreover, they did this without the modern scientific learning techniques we all praise today.

So, are we missing something with our eBooks, wired classrooms, and modern lesson plans? Japan believes so. They have a magic technological wonder they use to greatly improve their schools — it’s called a blackboard.

The Tokyo Broadcasting System in 2015 found 3/4 of Japanese schools use a blackboard as their primary teaching tool. Not computers, PowerPoint, or the internet. Plus, most of the questions their students tackled were conceptual, not procedural where they’d get immediate feedback. In fact, one whole math class in Japan can be dedicated to answering a single question.

They take an indirect path to wisdom. However, this isn’t new. It’s a quite ancient technique as you’ll see.

Struggle Improves Retention

In David Epstein’s book “Range”, he interviews Lindsey Richland, a University of Chicago Professor who studies learning. She explains humans naturally try and do the least amount of work to accomplish a task and this continues into schools. In many modern classrooms questions start out as half procedural and half conceptual.

However, most questions end up becoming procedural when students struggle. A simple method or formula is adopted to solve the problem at the expense of deeper understanding. Epstein calls this a “knowledge mirage” because the understanding vanishes when the next topic begins. He also recounts countless studies that show the more one struggles, the more knowledge they retain.

The education system of Japan is one that encourages struggle and continuous improvement (kaizen) according to Japan Intercultural Consulting. It borrows many elements from their traditional craftsman and apprentice learning procedures. In this system master craftsman don’t necessarily teach their apprentices everything they need to know.

The apprentice must learn indirectly by imitation and experimentation. In the process the student learns to copy the master, but in their own way. They eventually gain a conceptual understanding of the art but make it their own at the same time. The apprentice must “steal” the knowledge from the craftsman over time; it isn’t given with a quick procedural explanation.

Japan Intercultural gives Yoshida Minosuke IV as an example, a traditional Bunraku puppeteer who is considered a living treasure. Minosuke’s teacher never taught him how to manipulate the heads of the puppets. The master’s hands were always covered, so he had to learn his own way of doing it. It forced mastery on Minosuke’s own terms.

However, the Japanese aren’t the only culture to teach their youth in this way.

Answering Questions With Questions

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Photo by Dyaa Eldin on Unsplash

“At age seven, Brown met Grandfather and spent the next ten years learning about animals, the wilderness, and Native American life under the elder’s almost frustrating figure-it-out-for-yourself tutelage, known as the coyote style of teaching.”

— Neil Strauss, “Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life

In Neil Strauss’ book, he describes his time learning from Tom Brown at his tracking school in the New Jersey pine barrens forest. The tracker gained his knowledge from an old Apache scout named Stalking Wolf, who he’d call Grandfather. Brown can see barely visible indentations in the ground and understand them like an average person can read a book.

He gained such an in-depth knowledge of wilderness survival and tracking; he’s often called in by police departments and federal agents to help track criminals hiding in the woods. Moreover, Strauss explains he also has contracts with the government to teach soldiers wilderness survival skills.

The knowledge Brown acquired is not one which can be gained in a book. What’s more, the Apache style of teaching, which they refer to as coyote teaching resembles nothing we’d see in a modern classroom. The coyote teacher doesn’t teach by procedure, they use questions to guide their student to a final answer.

In a method like Socrates, the teacher usually answers questions with questions. The ultimate goal is to have the student solve the problem on their own by reasoning an answer guided by the teacher’s questions. There’s no neat and quick procedure to handle the problem, however, the struggle does birth deep conceptual understanding.

Much like Socrates teaching his students a deeper understanding of philosophies of life, the Apache found a way to pass complex skills of tracking and survival indirectly with questions. It was their way to steal knowledge.

My Own Personal Experience

In my early 20’s I joined a martial arts class. Our teacher had this amazing skill for passing on knowledge. He’d teach you one movement and it solved many problems. Furthermore, he’d do this repeatedly. One entire 2-hour class may just revolve around a few body movements solving multiple problems. Sounds a bit like the Japanese math class doesn’t it?

One day another student and I asked him how he did this magical trick. His response was something like, “What trick? I just do it.” Obviously, at the time we were disappointed with the answer. After 15 years of taking the martial art, I’m not anymore.

We were learning knowledge indirectly in a coyote or Japanese craftsman type way. The ultimate lesson? The system itself is based on simplicity and ease of use. If you broke it down, you could often find one movement was the base for multiple exercises. This saved you from having to pause and think about a response in a life-threatening situation. This is a lesson we never forgot and pass on to our students in the same way.

What’s This Mean For Us

Obviously, this indirect method of teaching will not work for every situation. You wouldn’t want a junior NASA rocket engineer trying to figure out everything on their own. However, it does give us another way to pass on knowledge.

Even if you’re not a teacher, you’re required to learn and pass on information constantly. Instead of the easy path, we’re likely better off going on an indirect route.

  • In our own lives, we can find ways to make learning more of a struggle. We can force ourselves to try and figure out a solution to a frustrating problem instead of asking Google. As David Epstein points out, we’ll likely retain knowledge better that way.
  • In our dealings with others, we can take a more indirect route on teaching a subordinate like Socrates or Stalking Wolf. Instead of just giving them a formula or a procedure, we can point them in a direction and let them figure it out themselves. Make them steal the art.

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Erik Brown

Written by

Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Erik Brown

Written by

Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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