What’s the best way to learn?
It seems a simple question, right? You learn by being exposed to information and then practice recall until you can recall the information in the right context. That’s learning…isn’t it? I’m not so sure.
Whole fields of psychology, physiology, and other -ologies, are devoted to the study of human learning and for good reason. Our ability to learn is one of our defining traits, and a person’s learning potential influences their life possibly more than any other single aspect or trait. So it becomes not only a fascinating question but a critical one: what’s the best way to learn?
Professionally, I’ve been working on this little problem for a little while now. From helping to teach martial arts to studying language acquisition skills for conventions, understanding how to help people learn is important to me. Even in my personal life and my day job, understanding what’s the best way to learn the anatomy of the body for example is critical. As a cancer registrar, a good chunk of my job is taken up with knowing which lymph nodes and which organs are regional, direct, or distant metastasis. Knowing the difference between the jejunum and the ileum, or between retroperitoneal and supraperitoneal lymph nodes, makes a big difference in the coding (and thus the treatment and prognosis) of the case.
So, back to the question at hand, what’s the best way to learn?
Hell if I know.
I’ve been at this for just under two years now and while I’ve gleaned some tremendous insight, I still couldn’t say with total certainty that ___ is the best method. If anything, I’ve learned the opposite, that there is no BEST method. There are methods that have been demonstratively proven to be more efficient, but efficient and best are not the same thing.
I would assert that the best method is the one that you stick with. That seems placating and perhaps even a bit juvenile, but no matter what the virtues of a different method might be, they are totally moot if it’s an approach that you simply do not like and thus will not stick with. Granted, you might be able to will yourself to adhere to such a method, but only for a short period of time. Invariably, frustration and disdain will take their toll. And why shouldn’t they? Frustration is a sign of inefficiency. The method that is enjoyed is the best method. So long as there is forward progress, no matter how slow or incremental, preference and enjoyment should be the deciding factor.
It’s worth noting that enjoyment and fun are not synonymous. Enjoying a thing does not mean you laugh and have a smile on your face. Some people enjoy a certain type of unpleasantness (just ask any gym rat), especially in the form of challenges and difficulty. Do not mistake a lack of smiles for a lack of enjoyment. The enjoyment is merely manifesting differently.
Another major aspect that lends itself to learning is that of context. If I give you a date, and you can recall that date at the appropriate time, then you have learned that date, correct? Not really. You’ve memorized that date. You’ve memorized and recalled it, that’s it. You’ve learned little, if anything.
Learning is not the memorization and recollection of data but the assigning of context to data. Teaching then becomes all about creating context for the student. The better, more vivid the context, the more clearly the student will understand, interpret, and recall the lesson.
This is seen in education, where role-playing, field trips, educational films, and other tools help to provide an understanding that rote data simply cannot approach. In martial arts, we see this as well. Techniques drilled in isolation are rarely reliable, but when put into the context of sparring and situational drills, the strengths and benefits of those techniques become obvious to the student.
Combine these two aspects of learning – enjoyment and context – and it seems like learning should be less of a chore, one performed through rote memorization-and-recall, and more through enjoyment and what is essentially play.
Succinctly, learning should be fun. If you are attempting to learn a thing and not enjoying it, the problem may not be the subject matter or some inability on your part, but the method you are using. This is where the tyranny of efficiency can be problematic. For an individual, the best method may not be the most efficient method.
So this is what I’m focusing on these days, in my personal learning and in teaching others: is this enjoyable for the student (even if that student is me) and is the context memorable? If the answer is yes to either, then I’m on to something. If the answer is yes to both, then I know I’ve got a winner.
RocKaiju crawls towards release, Rhest for the Wicked 2 has entered development, and the new stories are beginning to coalesce. Likewise is my non-fiction crime stats series. Not sure about an exact date when any of these will see the light of day, but hopefully it will be sooner rather than later.
My next convention is Anime Mid-Atlantic in June, so I’m hoping to have some big news to share at then. In the mean time, be good to yourselves!