The myth and science of learning (part I)

How would you feel if I told you that I can teach you to read? Probably you would think that you don’t need to learn how to read, the proof is that you are reading my stupid question right now, and that you’ve been reading perfectly well without my help for years. And what if I told you that I can teach you to learn? Well, as we’ve all struggled with learning, maybe you’ll listen. But, by default, people aren’t very comfortable with someone teaching them something they’ve been doing for years. This is especially disturbing considering that most of us haven’t been taught how to learn.

Myth and learning

There’s always been a lot of myth around learning, knowledge and wisdom. We tend to admire characters that are especially wise regardless of the way they’ve acquired that knowledge.

Let’s take a look at some examples of learning and knowledge in popular culture, in no special order:

  1. I’ve always liked Norse mythology. They’re very poetic and truly different from the graeco-roman tradition to which Westerners are more familiar with. The 15th verse of the Prose Edda narrates how Odin acquired all the knowledge by drinking from the well of Mimer under the second root of the ash tree Yggdrasil, the greatest of all trees, where the gods celebrated their daily scrum. But instant learning costed Odin one of his eyes.
  2. Someone who knows about many subjects, is usually called a renaissance man or polymath. It is a fairly recent expression “applied to great thinkers living before and after the Renaissance” that conveys the admiration for people that not only are interested in many fields, but who are also proficient or experts in them.
  3. The scene from the movie Matrix when Neo learns kung-fu made millions of people wonder if we could transfer knowledge from a digital source directly to our brain. Well, I don’t know about that, but I sure wondered that myself.
  4. Geeks are usually easy to spot in a classroom by looking for the first ones to finish a math exam. They are supposed to be naturally good at maths, right? This normally is more of a burden for them, because when things get more complicated — and with math it will happen sooner or later — they are not used to make the effort needed to improve. (Dweck, C 2007)
  5. Instead of a knowledge pursuer, many of the most successful students become school hackers whose most developed skill is test-solving. This is changing in many places, but it is still the general case.

We could apocalyptically conclude that you are culturally conditioned to admire talent and avoid effort. To make things worse, nobody at school teaches you how to learn, so the best case scenario is that you end up as a test solver master.

I’ll revert this dreadful vision in the second part, where we will see how science defines learning, and everything you can do to learn more.

Pablo Jimeno is CEO of Spines, a startup building a tool to help you learn more. This article is part of a book about learning we are currently writing.