Learning how to learn

If you have been following my writings for a little while, you know I don’t have much good to say about the school system. Nothing, really. In previous articles, I have demonstrated how you have forgotten almost everything you were made to study in school and how you most likely picked up a destructive mindset and terrible social skills in the process.

Yet, after hearing all of my arguments, there is one persistent counter that I keep hearing as a last defense of school: “at least I learned how to learn”.

And this is what today’s article is about, because really, nothing could be further from the truth. School does not teach you how to learn. It does the opposite: it makes you forget how to learn.

School-style learning

Let’s analyze for a minute how schools approach learning by looking at how schools actually work. The process of schooling consists of a very simple cycle that keeps repeating:

  1. The teacher selects and presents information that he considers true and important.
  2. The students study the information.
  3. The students have to complete some form of examination (test/paper) in which they reproduce the information.
  4. The teacher grades the test. If the student passes, he gets a stamp of approval and repeats the cycle with new information.

This is how schooling works pretty much everywhere, and this factory-like approach has not changed much since its inception during the industrial revolution in the 19th century.

So what do you really learn in school? You learn how to follow instructions and how to memorize, and accurately repeat information that was fed to you, so that you can pass a standardized test and eventually get the school’s stamp of approval, in the form of a diploma. That’s it. Only a true cynic would call this process learning how to learn.

Memorizing information is not learning.

Real life learning

To see just how different real learning is, outside of the school environment, I would like you to engage in a little experiment.

Think of somebody that is the absolute best at what they do. It doesn’t matter what it is, any area or discipline. Got somebody in mind? Great! Now answer the following question, honestly:

Do you think this person became great by studying and memorizing information?

No matter who you chose, I can guarantee that the answer is no. Because the answer will always be no, every time, no matter who you pick. Whether you picked Mozart or Michael Jordan, Shakespeare or Bruce Lee, Michael Phelps or John Lennon, Rembrandt or Elon Musk, Muhammed Ali or Isaac Newton.

None of these people became great by memorizing information. Even though they likely did study masters that came before them, that in itself is not what made them great. They became great by taking action; they actually practiced their craft, and through that, they kept learning until they mastered it like nobody else.

Learning is growing in skill and understanding.

The learning process is not complete when you can accurately repeat information. Learning happens only when you grow in skill and understanding. And a standardized test can’t determine if that happened.

Schooled minds

Unfortunately, years and years of going through the endless testing cycle in school, conditions people to think that acquiring stamps of approval is the point of learning.

For example: I was recently talking to a young woman that wanted to learn how to code, because she was considering a career switch. I recommended an online course that had been very helpful to me in learning how to code. This course was comprehensive, project-based and at the end, you were able to build a pretty impressive real-life web application, combining lots of different technologies and several different languages.

Unfortunately, she rejected my recommendation, in favor of another course. The course she decided on was more than 200 times as expensive, but it also promised to turn her into a certified developer, and that was the most important thing to her. This is a typical example of a schooled mind.

Of course, nobody ever became a great programmer by memorizing documentation on a programming language. The greatest programmers are not the ones who passed the most exams and got the most certifications.

The greatest programmers are the ones who forgot about exams and actually started coding, developing more and more complicated projects, and learning more in the process than any exam could ever hope to cover.

The schooled mind idolizes accolades and stamps of approval.

The schooled mind idolizes accolades and stamps of approval such as certifications, diplomas and degrees from prestigious institutions. But the reality is that nobody ever became great at anything through school-style learning.

Learning how to learn

So school does not teach us how to learn and become successful in the real world. But how do you learn how to learn? Is it even possible?

If you were wondering about this, I have good news for you: you don’t have to learn how to learn, because humans are born learners.

Over the past three months, I have been able to witness just how true this is from up close, through my firstborn son: Calvin. It has been a real blessing to see him grow through his developmental leaps. Every week, he learns something new that he couldn’t do before.

Just the other day, he taught himself how to roll over from his back to his tummy and vice versa. Of course, nobody prompted him to start trying, there were no instructions on how to do this, there were no examples to follow and no tests to complete. He just figured it out all by himself.

This three month old boy figured out this relatively complex movement, involving lots of different muscles, remarkably quickly, when you think about it. Especially if you compare it to something like artificial intelligence or machine learning, a technology that is all the rage right now.

One of the differences between a human and a machine is that a human can actually think, form theories, hypothesize, try something, and draw conclusions to adjust the theories and hypotheses, in the process of solving a problem.

Teaching a machine how to learn in a similar fashion is still (and will probably forever be) impossible. Even supercomputers still rely on humans for the theorizing and hypothesizing part. It’s only at the trying part where machines truly shine: using their vast amounts of computational power to calculate an almost infinite amount of approaches, in order to eventually find one that solves the problem.

Training a machine to solve problems like this requires incredible skill and intelligence. Creating an abstract environment, setting up the right feedback loops and context to enable the machine to learn from lots of data, is certainly no easy task. This is why Google developers writing an algorithm that taught itself how to walk (sort of) is a very impressive feat, while nobody bats an eye when thousands of toddlers teach themselves the same thing, every day.

I find it quite cool that toddlers and even infants learn better than even the most powerful supercomputers. Yet school teachers still like to tell themselves that they have the most important job in the world, because our society would not be able to exist if they didn’t teach kids how to read and write.

They say things like:

“Teaching is, without question, the most important career there is. Teachers have the capacity to shape the minds and futures of many — and they do so at all kinds of critical life stages.Kindergarten teachers introduce young minds to the wonder of learning — and to the basic tools of learning that students will use their entire lives.” — Glen Geher

The hubris here can almost not be overstated. If a human toddler can beat a Google supercomputer at learning, teaching himself how to walk and talk way before ever setting foot in a school, maybe schools and teachers are not as essential in the learning process as they like to give themselves credit for. Maybe learning comes as natural to humans as physical growth.

Learning comes as natural to us as physical growth

Relearning how to learn

Nobody has to learn how to learn. As a human being, you were born to learn and you do it better than a Google super computer. But you may have to relearn how to learn. Especially if you’ve spent lots of time in a school environment, you may have picked up a schooled mind.

How do you know if you suffer from schooled mind syndrome? Well, if you’re good at following instructions and memorizing information, but you struggle to self-motivate, you can’t set your own learning goals, you can’t figure out your own path to self-improvement and you’ve mostly remained stagnant in your development since leaving your last school environment, I’m going to go ahead and diagnose you with a schooled mind.

You need to deschool yourself.

If that’s you, you need to get out of your schooled mindset and actively deschool yourself.

Stop associating learning with school, forget about curriculum, forget about tests, grades, certifications and stamps of approval. They don’t matter in the real world. You direct your own development now. You don’t have to learn what others think is important and you don’t have to follow anyone’s instructions. You can follow your interests and engage in activities for their own sake, because they’re meaningful to you.

Make no mistake, it will most likely take a lot of effort to let go of the schooled mindset, and to approach learning like a toddler again, but it’s worth it.

If you are so far gone that you have completely forgotten what real learning actually looks like, I can give you some pointers. Real learning is actually very similar to the steps of the scientific method:

  1. Context (theoretical framework): through research, conversation, exploration and observation, you develop some understanding of environment and context, including some elemental knowledge about what factors are in play, and what causal relationships they have.
  2. Idea (hypothesis): through your learning about context, you get an idea of where you want to go next and what you’d like to experiment with.
  3. Play (experiment): play around and observe.
  4. Reflection (conclusion): based on your experience and observations during 3, you adjust and improve your understanding of the context and start the process over again.

This simple process is essentially how humans learn anything from the very beginning. From the moment we are born, we learn through observation, exploration, and most importantly: play — the most underrated form of learning, (especially in schools). As you learn more, play involves more and more challenging projects, aiming to eventually create something of real value, to yourself or others.

Notice how there are no tests, no grades, no stamps of approval and no gatekeepers telling you when you’re ready to move on. There is only learning what’s meaningful to you, at your own pace, and doing meaningful projects in the process. This is how you grow in skill and understanding. This is the path to mastery.

Bottom line

The bottom line is that you don’t learn how to learn in schools at all. First of all because you already knew how to learn, the moment you came out of the womb. The fact that you can walk and talk proves that conclusively. And second of all, because schools are not institutions for learning, but diploma factories, where memorizing information in order to pass tests has taken the place of real learning.

If you have spent too much time in school and you’re now suffering from a schooled mind, I highly recommend you vacate the school system if you haven’t already, and start deschooling yourself. Let go of everything school and relearn how to learn. I promise you won’t regret it.