A Storytelling Serial
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My eighth-grade science teacher taught the scientific method by having her students conduct an experiment from start to finish. As I recall—and this may seem familiar to you, too—the steps were idea, research, hypothesis, design, performance, evaluation, and write-up.
Back then I didn’t understand the learning process. This was just another huge project to get through, one of those busy-work things teachers were always coming up with. But I was a conscientious student, so I got it done.
I chose to test the theory of auditory sleep learning. I can’t remember whether I proposed it works or doesn’t, but I’m guessing I hoped for proof of its effectiveness. Even then I felt the pressure of not enough time to learn all I’m interested in and would have been delighted to discover another eight hours to cram more into my brain.
The idea isn’t modern. In one of my graduate education courses, I learned about a German medieval fable (written by Franz Kaiser), The Nürnberger Trichter, which translates to “The Funnel of Nuremberg.” The story featured a hornlike contraption that fit into the ear and through which knowledge could be poured into the head of a lazy student. The perfect passive-learning tool.
Now I’m amused by the ironic twist of my own learning experience. Although my adolescent research involved looking for a way to imprint knowledge without effort, today I’m comfortable with the research process precisely as a result of the active effort I put into a long-ago science class.
Because my eighth-grade teacher knew a lot more about how to learn than I did, I’m sure she silently—and accurately—predicted my findings before I roped in my research participants, drawn from curious classmates. (Now I’m wondering how I handled consent for human subjects who weren’t yet legal adults; but thankfully, my junior high had no Institutional Review Board to worry about.)
Of course, sleep learning has never worked. It didn’t in Nuremberg; it didn’t in my experiment; and it still doesn’t. Yet in our digital, media-based world, we act as if it does.
A quick look at learning theories can explain why even when we listen to podcasts and watch videos with true enthusiasm and good intention, we often learn nothing. Fortunately, those same theories tell us how to turn words, sound, and images into knowledge.
How We Learn
Nearly two decades ago, James and Adelaide Davis published an engaging, down-to-earth book called Managing Your Own Learning. Classics never become obsolete, and it remains my favorite explanation of how learning takes place.
This accessible guide acknowledges the role of individual personality and learning styles. However, although it’s important to know ourselves, it’s just as important to not use our preferences as limitations.
In today’s world of rapid change and overwhelming information, we all need to practice flexibility, push our comfort levels, and be willing to modify and adapt our approaches to learning.
Rigidity can only get in the way of knowledge acquisition.
The crux is this: we don’t have the luxury of selecting the learning situations that suit us. And if we want to learn, we have to figure out how to make that happen in any circumstance.
Learning Styles vs. Learning Theories
We tend to derail the process, though, by confusing learning styles with learning theories. They’re very different creatures.
Learning styles provide categories for personal and particular characteristics. Are you visual, auditory, kinesthetic—or do you gravitate toward reading and writing? Maybe you think of your style as concrete, abstract, active, reflective, or a combination? Which one or more of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences most heavily support your learning?
On the other hand, learning theories use sound research to explain the general principles of how learning takes place universally.
We can decide what to do with our self-knowledge of individual learning preferences—but we can’t choose to discount the truths of learning that apply to all humans.
Managing Your Own Learning, then, relies on established theories to explain seven foundational ways of learning:
1. Behavioral, necessary for developing skills.
2. Cognitive, used to absorb information.
3. Inquiry, important for critical analysis, reasoning, and creative thinking.
4. Mental models, integral to making decisions and solving problems.
5. Collaborative, required for group functioning and results.
6. Virtual realities, providing a safe environment for practice that improves performance.
7. Holistic, created from experience, reflection, and construction of meaning.
And each way of learning—including the cognitive approach for absorbing information and the behavioral method for developing skills—involves a common thread. Just as my sleep-learning experiment and the Nuremberg funnel revealed, learning always demands effort from the learner.
Information isn’t learning. Instructions aren’t knowledge. In fact, words, sounds, and images—whether visual, auditory, in writing, in person, or from observation—can never take us beyond the point of learning how to start. The real learning happens after we begin, when we take what we’ve been given and use it.
Active vs. Passive Learning
For years I’ve heard the phrase “active vs. passive learning,” which perplexes me. Passive learning is an oxymoron. It doesn’t exist.
Instead, learning requires active doing.
Learning is work.
But what kind of work? Here are ten strategies you can use regardless of the situation you find yourself in or the individual styles you bring to it:
1. Pay attention. Focus on what you want to learn, as well as why you’re learning it. Forget multitasking, an idea as nonsensical as passive learning. (Note to HR departments: please stop including “multitasker” in your job descriptions unless you truly want shoddy work and stressed employees.)
2. Draw connections between new ideas and anything—anything at all—already familiar to you.
3. Make it make sense. Look for context, meaning, patterns, structure.
4. Write it down. Create an outline. Jot notes. Draw a picture. Organize it in your own words or images and, most important, through physical activity.
5. Capture information with memory tricks, such as acronyms, mental pictures, and stories.
6. Retell the information, instructions, concepts, or observations to someone else. Partners, children, and pets are quite useful for this learning activity.
7. Reflect on what you’re seeing and hearing. Pause, step away from external and internal noise, and think about it. Ask yourself questions and look for answers.
8. Fight overwhelm by breaking down information, instructions, or observations into small chunks or steps.
9. Seek accountability in your learning. The problem with much of the lifelong development we choose—again, whether visual, auditory, in writing, in person, or from observation—is that we can give the appearance of sincere intention and enthusiasm while never following through.
It’s easy to show up, look as if we’re listening or watching, skim, nod our heads, pay for the course or the workshop, introduce ourselves, tell others how excited we are about the material, promise to get better at something, talk about the learning, dabble for a minute or an hour or a week, and then slip away quietly, with no one taking much notice of our lack of active participation or concrete results.
This is especially so since many learning options are primarily about the process and don’t require results. Which is probably because—to repeat a crucial theme—the most you can learn from any teacher is how to begin.
True knowledge happens in the doing.
If your situation doesn’t ask accountability of you, try to find someone who will demand action from your learning—even if that someone is you.
And regardless of the impression you give to others, don’t lie to yourself.
10. Once you make sure someone expects concrete activity from you, seek feedback and reinforcement for each stage of your learning process. Adjust your action as necessary.
Again, if no external feedback and reinforcement are available, give them to yourself. Evaluate where you are in your learning, and turn progress into a game of small rewards.
Keep in mind, however, that one person’s reward is another’s punishment. I view social media as a task, and fifteen minutes on Facebook or Twitter is just another part of my to-do list. Anyone who suggests checking social-media posts as a “completion” reward is setting me up for negative reinforcement, procrastination, and passivity.
Know thyself, and create a reward that is actually a perk and not more work.
Specific Ways, Specific Strategies
Managing Your Own Learning provides additional active techniques to turn information into knowledge within each unique way of learning, from behavioral through holistic. I could have included many more suggestions, but these ten will achieve results in multiple settings.
Fair warning, though: skimming, nodding, and not applying these strategies will send them straight to the information deluge that keeps our brains full and our lives unchanged. And if we don’t want true learning, we might as well embrace sleep and the Nuremberg funnel—which would at least save time, energy, and money over all the reading, podcasts, videos, and presentations that somehow don’t stick.
Knowledge is a choice, and it requires us to wake up and make it happen.
Is there something you want to learn? In the Comments section below, we’d love to know about the active strategy you plan to use.