A Framework for Optimal Learning

As David Brooks’ story in The Social Animal reaches high school, we’re introduced to a process for learning new ideas via fictional high school lit teacher Ms. Taylor. She takes Harold through this “ideal” learning process so he can write his senior paper linking ancient Greek life with high school life – he goes from zero knowledge to writing the paper in four steps.

This process really resonates with me, and I’m sharing it (just as Brooks did) because it applies to learning throughout our lives – not just for papers in school.

This would be the way Harold would build for himself a mind that is not stuck in an inherited rut, but which jumps from vantage point to vantage point, applying different patterns to new situations to see what works and what doesn’t, what will go together and what will not, what is likely to emerge from the confusion of reality and what is not. This would be his path to wisdom and success. 

Step One: Knowledge Acquisition

You’re probably thinking, “duh, you need to gain knowledge to learn!”. I was thinking that, too. It may seem obvious, but the point in this first step is to simply lay down some core knowledge. Ms. Taylor asks Harold to start out by reading five books on Greek life, but she didn’t tell him to learn every minute detail. She just wanted him to get a feel for the subject while sparking enough curiosity to get him wanting more.

Human knowledge is not like data stored in a computer’s memory banks. A computer doesn’t get better at remembering things as its database becomes more crowded. Human knowledge, on the other hand, is hungry and alive. People with knowledge about a topic become faster and better at acquiring more knowledge and remembering what they learn. 

Step Two: “Automatize”

The next step is to make the new knowledge automatic through repetition. This step is crucial, but at first glance it seems even more boring than the first step. I’m supposed to read the books again? Yes, except this time it’s going to be different. This time through the material, the brain will take previously-learned knowledge and send it into the unconscious.

Learning consists of taking things that are strange and unnatural, such as reading and algebra, and absorbing them so steadily that they become automatic. That frees up the conscious mind to work on new things. 

Your brain “internalizes” the stuff you learned the first time, allowing you to see new insights in the text and, most importantly, make connections between the pieces of information.

Before reading this book, I misconceived learning as a linear phenomenon. Not true at all. It’s nonlinear… it’s messy.

Harold was stunned to find that the second time through they were different books. He noticed different points and arguments. Sentences he had highlighted seemed utterly pointless now, whereas sentences he had earlier ignored seemed crucial. The marginalia he had written to himself now seemed embarrassingly simpleminded. Either he had the books had changed. 

What had happened, of course, is that as he had done more reading; he had unconsciously reorganized information in his brain. (…) He had begun to inhabit the knowledge differently and see it in a new way. He had begun to develop expertise. 

What is expertise?

Expertise is about forming internal connections so that little pieces of information turn into bigger networked chunks of information. Learning is not merely about accumulating facts. It is internalizing the relationships between information. 

Charlie Munger calls these mental models.

Step 3: Write about it

The next step is to write a journal about the subject you’re learning. There’s no better way to bring the dormant, unconscious knowledge to the surface. When you write about a new subject, you’re taking the intuitions developed in your powerful unconscious mind and making them useful by turning them into language.

Spread the journaling out over multiple sessions, even a few weeks, to give the mind time to connect things in different ways. Think of this like a fermentation period –  the mind needs time to look at the material in different moods and during different times of the day and week.

(Ms. Taylor) was a firm believer in Jonah Lehrer’s dictum ‘You know more than you know.’ She wanted to give him an exercise that would allow him to wander around the problem in a way that might seem haphazard and wasteful, because the mind is often most productive when it is the most carefree.

Step 4: Make an argument

Harold’s next step was to turn his new knowledge on Greek culture into a 12 page senior paper. This is definitely not one of my goals this weekend… however, step 4 still applies to any type of intellectual endeavor. It’s the step where you grow. Where you begin to see the world around you in a new way. You take the paradigms you held in your mind before your learning and enmesh them with the paradigms of the new world you have just entered. You begin to form your own perspective. Step 4 is why I started writing this blog – to force myself to have a perspective.

Sounds great, but how do you actually do it?

Until now, we’ve followed Ms. Taylor’s process as we “mastered core knowledge” and then let it “marinate playfully” in our unconscious minds. Now it’s time to try and impose order on the new knowledge. You form an argument all your own. Harold writes his argument out in the form of a 12 page paper, but the medium is irrelevant – it could be a blog post, a presentation, a conversation with a friend, or an email to a colleague.

Forming new arguments – deciding how YOU feel about things rather than taking someone else’s position – is tough work. But what’s the point of learning things if you don’t use them? If you don’t grow towards a better version of your self? I’d say the hard work is worth it. Here’s Brooks’ tip for getting through it: when you hit a roadblock, you take a break and return to it over and over until conscious and unconscious processes work together enough to produce a new paradigm – a combination of old and new knowledge.

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