Learning To Learn: What I Know As a Learning Scientist

Learning To Learn: What I Know As a Learning Scientist

Think about one of your favorite teachers. Why was he or she your favorite? Did you learn a lot? Were the lectures inspiring and entertaining? This is what I’ve learned through my process of becoming a life-long student and researcher of how we learn.

Learning and Education are not the same thing

Most of us see teaching and learning as two sides of the same coin. I know I did when I was a student (and later a teacher), but education and learning are two distinct entities. Education (at least in the US) is a formally organized and pre-established structure designed to distribute knowledge, while learning is a natural biological function required for survival and in the case of humans, personal development. Ideally, education leads to significant and specific learning outcomes. However, a classroom, a teacher, and a group of students are not required for learning to occur, whereas they are the image we commonly think of when we hear the word “education.”

What you need to know about learning

After working in education for over a decade, I began to study the science of learning. While doing so I had three epiphanies, each one triggering for me both chagrin and delight. Since we, as entrepreneurs, are life-long learners by nature, I feel these epiphanies are worth your consideration. While for me personally, sharing them is necessary as I attempt to merge research in the learning sciences with the creation of entrepreneurial education programs. So here they are: the three things you need to know about “learning” and why it’s distinct from “education.”

1) We are always learning

We never stop learning. It’s one of our human features that’s “always on.” And what you learn is not always under your control. For example, when you learned to speak your primary language, you picked it up through observing others speaking, attempting to speak with them, and getting feedback on whether you were successfully communicating or not. The conversations you observe are rarely under your control at this early age, but the ones you choose to participate in usually are, especially as you get older and choose who you hang out with. New vocabulary, the phrasing of new beliefs, the tone and rhythm of your speech, all come from this balance between observation and participation. But through it all, you are continuously learning how to speak and what to say. English education (including spelling, grammar, writing, etc.) may also facilitate your learning, but only in so much as it supplies you with opportunities for language observation and participation.

Meanwhile, the average American child spends 12.5% of their time in school and less than one-third of that is spent in language education classes. Which means the amount of language learning that takes place outside of the classroom is significantly greater than that which takes place in the classroom. And language is not the only thing you’re always learning. How to use new technologies, how to communicate with colleagues, how to raise your kids or build a lasting relationship with your partner, these are just a few examples of life long lessons.

2) Learning is identity

Who we are is the collection of everything we’ve learned. All our beliefs and behaviors emerge from our interpretations of the beliefs and behaviors of others as well as the feedback we get from our environment and its contexts. In other words, our perspectives and our actions are learned. Therefore, our lives and our experiences are continuously shaped by what we learn.

If you think back to when you learned math, did you take to it quickly or did you struggle? When I was teaching high schoolers to do algebra, I found that my biggest obstacle was not the curriculum nor was it getting my students to understand it. My toughest barrier to reaching any student was often that student’s impression of themselves as “just not a math person.” How we identify, both alone and in a group, shapes what and how we learn. If you think you’re not good at something, you’ll find (or create) evidence to support that belief. If you think you excel at something, you will often find yourself practicing that craft and becoming even better at it. Quite simply: we are what we learn and we learn to be who we think we are.

3) There are 3 ways in which we learn

So how do we break the cycle and direct ourselves toward the lives and the careers that we want? Every entrepreneur asks him or herself this question at least once in a while. The best ones ask it daily. In order to direct our lives and our businesses, it helps to know a little bit about how we learn and how our identity takes shape. Basically, according to theorists like Dewey, Vygotsky, and Bruner, and researchers like Piaget, Bandura, and Papert, we learn continuously through basic mechanisms. The following three mechanisms are my simplification of these thought leaders’ efforts.

We learn from what we build, make, or do. In the literature this may be referred to as constructivism or deliberate practice. If you don’t throw a ball, you’ll never learn to hit. If you don’t run a business, you’ll never learn how to maintain one. If you don’t write often, you’re not likely to become a published author. What we do shapes what we learn and who we are.

We learn from who we hang out with. Have you ever picked up a bad habit while hanging out with a friend? Have you ever watched someone do something amazing and find yourself craving their ability? Without realizing how much influence others have on us, we are constantly learning from them, as well as determining what we want to learn in the future from watching them.

We learn from reshaping what we know. Our brains do not work like computers. We do not store information very well, and contrary to popular belief we do not learn very well from reading books or listening to lectures. However, while our brains are not hard drives, they do give us an extraordinary skill that computers have yet to mimic. We can make connections like no software on this planet can. We can even draw associations and identify patterns from information where no logical relationship exists. But to do this, we must constantly harness what we know and apply it to what we don’t. I call this reshaping our knowledge, and it is essential to cultivating our identities. It’s what you’re doing every time you think of an analogy or contextualize information by placing it in a story.

Why this is so important

If we are always learning and if what we learn shapes who we are, then our greatest potential for growth lies in our ability to be deliberate about what we do, who we hang out with, and how we apply what we know to what we don’t. This is the fundamental human power to direct one’s own life. This is an entrepreneurs greatest tool. Use it wisely and often. Then find some people to share in what you’ve learned along the way. Feel free to get in touch and share your learning curve with me.

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