The art of learning

I’ve just begun reading a new book; The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin. I’m only a few chapters in, but already I’m seeing the benefits of the insights the book has to offer. I watched the terrific film, Searching For Bobby Fischer a couple of nights ago, which dramatises Josh’s early life as a chess prodigy. It’s well worth a watch on it’s own but the book is providing great insights into the process of learning in itself. Indeed, it’s a book which discusses how you can learn, to learn.

When I was at High School, I was lucky enough to have some fantastic teachers. One of them was Mr McGuire, who was my year 7-9 maths and science teacher and later my VCE physics teacher. He used to have many little sayings and beliefs that he would impart on us in class, but probably his greatest lessons were around the process of learning. He would often say “Don’t regurgitate” – if he suspected one of us simply reading or reciting the answer that seemed most right from the text book, he would look at you with playful glee and ask a simple question like “why is that so?” or “but how do you know?” – which would instantly bring the facade of our attempted learning down. Afterwards, he would pick us back up again, laboring that this learning we were doing wasn’t to impress him or pass a test, but to be better learners at life.

I approached him in the playground one time in my final year of school, when I was struggling with a fairly complex concept in physics and simply stated that “I would never get it.” He laughed, and then said “well, then, you’re 100% right.” He continued to ask me how long I’d been learning the concept for, before I told him we’d started learning it at the beginning of the week. He simply stated that it’s ridiculous to think a concept could be learned in a week, and suggested that all things take a matter of time to learn, if you’re determined enough to learn it.

As I’ve recently begun working at Yammer, there’s no shortage of things for me to learn and lessons I need to ensure I understand. I’ve found great strength in reflecting on the lessons of Mr McGuire in the past 6 weeks or so and reminding myself that no lesson learns itself. I’m enjoying the process of mastering a new job and learning something new every day.

The book picks up on this sort of thinking, and (early on) highlights the differences between entity and incremental theories of intelligence. From the book:

“Developmental psychologists have done extensive research on the effects of a student’s approach on his or her ability to learn and ultimately master material. Dr. Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of developmental psychology, makes the distinction between entity and incremental theories of intelligence. Children who are “entity theorists” — that is, kids who have been influenced by their parents and teachers to think in this manner — are prone to use language like “I am smart at this” and to attribute their success or failure to an ingrained and unalterable level of ability. They see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain discipline to be a fixed entity, a thing that cannot evolve. Incremental theorists, who have picked up a different modality of learning — let’s call them learning theorists — are more prone to describe their results with sentences like “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder.”

Waitzkin, Josh (2007-05-08). The Art of Learning (p. 30). Free Press. Kindle Edition.”

The books a fantastic read so far and I’m looking forward to considering my own strategies of learning as I continue reading it. It reminds of Amir’s thoughts on annotating the game, which I posted about a few years ago.

4 thoughts on “The art of learning”

      1. I actually did it a couple times in Sydney last year during the Vivid festival. They had a couple just-show-up-and-join-in sessions. I saw the old ladies doing it and thought “it can’t be that hard”. Then I tried it – was I ever wrong. Turns out I’m really bad at Tai chi, and it really is quite hard, and a surprisingly good workout (mental & physical). I felt great afterward.
        Hoping to work it into a routine once I get a little more settled.

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