Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Learning Process

The real voyage of discovery, wrote Marcel Proust, "lies not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes." Well, Marcel, I'd like to see learning through new eyes. My mind is crowded with theories of how people learn but most of them are merely static in the broadcast message of schooling. Like many of you, I spent the better part of twenty formative years learning and forgetting information I would never use again in a never-ending struggle to please my teachers. I've been brainwashed. I have so much to unlearn in order to become open-minded. To make this easier, I'm going to drop the vocabulary of training professionals and pedagogues and explore my vision of learning in plain English.

Learning is the non-generic adaptation to one's ecosystem. Its measure of success is the successful fit of people with communities that matter to them.

Perceive | Engage | Retain

Let's think of learning as a three-step process. The first step is perception. You've got to be alert to perceive the subtleties of life. You have to pay attention. You need to know your desires well enough to recognize what's worth looking at and what's superfluous.

You've also feel you're in charge. If you watch life go by passively, as if watching television, you won't get much out of it. A curious person is always looking at things from new perspectives. Look closely and you realize that everything in this world is awesome. On a grand scale, you're hurtling around the sun at 38,000 miles per hour. At the opposite end of the spectrum, all matter morphs into waves and particles performing randomly. Somewhere in between these extremes, your mind displays a private, internal movie which is you call consciousness or reality.

Step two is engagement. Our brains filter out all but 1 bit of information in 600,000 bits that bombard our senses. Even then, we don't do anything with this information unless we recognize it as a pattern. Patterns that seem reasonable and that may help us prosper are saved to our short-term memory. If the mind rates the new pattern particularly useful or a good fit with existing patterns, perhaps it will find a home in longterm memory; it will become part of our repetoire. If we don't apply what we've learned or otherwise reinforce remembering it, more than half will evaporate within an hour. Learning requires reflection. Practice is engaging. It connects what you're learning to what you've learned. It wires new things into your existing frameworks.

Step three is fit. The more something we learn helps us prosper, the more likely we are to retain it. Once a mental connection is made, repetition strengthens it. Problems arise when our ecosystem changes and our brains don't change in tandem. Antiquated vestigial programs trip up people who do not consciously work to elminate them. As mal-memes propagate, unlearning becomes a survival skill.

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