Learning to learn

Ever heard of the 10,000 hour rule? The rule which Malcolm Gladwell says anyone can master a skill with around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice?

Turns out that this myth has been debunked by psychologists and researchers, including K. Anders Ericsson himself, whose work Gladwell cited for the claim. You can read about their arguments in plenty of articles, which essentially say that the absolute number of hours practiced plays a much less significant role for mastery than has been argued. The other factors that are oft cited are things like genes, age at which a person starts an activity, socioeconomics, I.Q and coaching.

Surprisingly, no mention was made about how a person learns. The factors mentioned above are all outside our control; surely there must be something we can do to improve our learning capability?

But first, what does it mean to learn?

There are plenty of ideas of what it means to learn, and here are a few which you’re probably familiar with:

  • it’s about learning to fail
  • it’s about asking questions
  • it’s about practice

All of these concepts are pretty close, but they’re not quite there. The closest is actually the third point, which implies learning by doing. Yet, in itself it’s insufficient - it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Mindful practice

Suppose you put two people of the same calibre to the same task of learning to code — with each of them having the same amount of passion, intelligence, talent, prior knowledge and everything else — but practice differently (one being more reflective, and the other just going through the motion), it is highly unlikely that both of them would end up equally good at programming after some time.

Then, the adagial advice to “just practice” is inadequate for effective learning. According to Dr. Koa Kageyama, a performance psychologist, mindless practice is a waste of time.

In other words, we need mindful practice.

Enter the Learning Loop

50 first dates - Tom Cruise Style

The idea of a learning loop is not new. David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model (ELM) describes a four-stage cycle of learning:

  1. Active Experimentation
  2. Concrete Experience
  3. Reflective Observation
  4. Abstract Conceptualization

Think about the time when you were learning to ride a bicycle. You probably didn’t start off with a theory lesson — even though you could — you just got on the bike and started pedaling. In any case, you either began with zero knowledge, or with some existing knowledge by looking at how others ride.

And so, you got on. With a gentle kick, you moved forward, put your feet on the pedals, and wobbled violently before falling to the ground. No problemo. You brushed the dirt off your shirt and picked yourself up; briefly wondered why you fell; tried again, and fell again.

Eventually you realized that you had to try something different. Perhaps you had to grip the handles a little harder to prevent the bicycle from toppling over to one side. Or perhaps you had to kick a little harder so you can sustain the momentum more easily. Anyhow, you tried again and again. Until suddenly that magical moment happened where you cruised in a perfectly straight line for a few seconds.

“Woooaaah”

Stunned and amazed, you asked yourself, “how did I do that?”. And thus, the cycle repeated itself over and over again until you finally got the hang of it and learned to ride a bicycle.

Identifying the Loop

See how this experience fits into the ELM:

  1. Cyclical pattern of trying over and over again
    (Active Experimentation)
  2. Physical experience of riding the bicycle
    (Concrete Experience)
  3. Consider what is working or failing
    (Reflective Observation)
  4. Think about ways to improve on the next attempt
    (Abstract Conceptualization)

The pattern described above is evident in many learning experiences, especially in acquiring psychomotor skills such as learning to play a musical instrument or a new sport.

You could say that this form of learning is instinctive - it occurs pretty naturally to us without having to learn how to learn, just like walking our first steps as a baby.

Replicating the Loop

In the Learning Loop, both Reflective Observation and Abstract Conceptualization are critical steps which we often perform without realizing. If we want to replicate the loop to learn other stuff, we have to use activities which force us to be more conscious of these two steps.

“we have to use activities which force us to be more conscious of these two steps.”

The difference between riding a bicycle and writing is that one of these two activities produces something tangible. That’s right, the writing that you end up with is a physical manifestation of your learning.

Activities like drawing, writing a song or shooting a video are considered creative because we create things. What’s also common among creative activities is that we need material to work with - and that material is knowledge. As you continue to work through a creative process, your knowledge also grows.

How I do it

Ever since I started blogging and writing articles, I realized that my understanding of the topics I wrote about deepened. It reminded me of a particular method called “learning by teaching”. After reflecting on my own writing process, it dawned upon me that the loop was in action:

  1. Writing and rewriting my draft, discarding paragraphs, reordering points, and switching out words
    (Active Experimentation)
  2. Capturing my thoughts on scraps of paper and in my phone, and typing the article on my computer
    (Concrete Experience)
  3. Reading my draft verbally and in my head, over and over again
    (Reflective Observation)
  4. Think about ways to communicate my thoughts more clearly
    (Abstract Conceptualization)

See the elements of the ELM in this process? That’s the loop right there. BAM. By the way, that means “Be Amazing, Man”.

On top of that, it’s fast. Consider how quickly I move from one step to another within a very short amount of time. This time-compressed activity is what gives us more effective learning, rapidly forming neural networks and strengthening synaptic connections between our neurons in one sitting. I call this Rapid Looping. Sweet!

Also, there’s a side effect to writing. A good one. While writing, I’m constantly going through my material — knowledge — repeatedly. That really helps to hammer it into my memory.

Putting it into practice

“But Edison, I can’t write!”.

Actually, you really meant that you can’t write well, and that’s perfectly fine. The advantage of writing is rapid looping of the ELM. Even if the outcome is terrible (I’m sorry), you would have learned your topic better through the process. If not, other people’s criticisms of your writing will help you to learn from your mistakes.

Still hesitating? Here are all the goodies you get for writing:

  • you hone your writing skills
  • you hone your thinking skills
  • you learn better of whatever you’re writing about

Closing the Loop

In conclusion, we looked at the Learning Loop and how it is actually natural and instinctive to us. We identified the critical components of the loop — Reflective Observation and Abstract Conceptualization — and how to replicate them using activities that help us to be more conscious of those components. Finally, I shared with you my personal experience of how writing fits exactly into the ELM, and introduced a little concept called Rapid Looping.

There are a lot more creative activities you can leverage to give you a leg up in learning whatever your heart desires. You can try illustrating a cartoon about something you’ve learned, or write a song about it. Most importantly, do what you’re most comfortable with, and be patient.

All the best!


Addendum: Insights of a Designer

Do you know why the “Home” button exists on so many phones and apps?

I believe that it makes the user interface more intuitive by encouraging learning without the need of a manual. We can easily reset if we mess up and try from scratch (home) again, allowing us to tap on every button or UI element without fear. See the loop in action here?

Furthermore, it helps users to bridge the “knowledge gap” easily. You can read more about this in the “What makes a design seem intuitive” article written by Jared Spool, also listed in the links below.

Also, notice how patterns of the learning loop are a recurrent theme in Design Thinking and UXD methodologies. Prototyping is a good example of rapid looping, where UX practitioners transform the insights gathered from research and testing into wireframes and prototypes.

If you have any thoughts about this article, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter!

Further reading: