Learning How To Learn

Of all the things that can be taught to children, one of the more important is learning how to learn. That is, being able to learn by themselves, unprodded and unguided.

Once a child knows how to learn, more or less everything comes within their grasp. But… the issue at the core of this is not the availability of information: quantity of available information is not a transformative thing. What actually matters is the ability to make information one’s own… to transform it, by action of the human will, into something internal rather than external.

The Compulsory

The first necessity in this, very obviously, is that the child (or anyone) must want to learn. If there is no desire behind this, even reading a book matters very little: First you must want to discover something.

Unfortunately, desire – wanting – has been drained away by the never-ending stream of stimuli thrown at the people of the West. One significant example of this can be seen in the ‘upgrading’ of public libraries.

The library was once the place where children learned how to learn. Over recent years, however, it has morphed into a place of edu-tainment. This, in my opinion, has been a fundamental error.

More stimulation is not better; mostly it’s just distracting. In fact, a lack of stimulation is not only preferable, but necessary. It is in the absence of external stimulation that we learn to draw upon ourselves.

In other words, libraries served children far better when they were drab and uneventful. They were places where children learned to draw upon themselves. They had to make use of what was inside of them, precisely because nothing was thrust at them. If they did nothing, nothing would happen.

Authentic desires form within us and are discovered within us. The desires that are pressed into us by slick and persistent marketing are not our own; acting upon them is actually to pursue the desires of others; our own will remains passive.

The modern obsession with “engaging the child,” then, drowns-out the process of developing and discovering one’s personal desires.

Using The Child’s Desire

All of the above said, the root of authentic desire, and the ability to grow it, remains in us, and so hope is almost never truly lost.

Looking back at my own youth, I see that the times when I really learned mathematics were when I had a desire to use it. I sat through endless and boring algebra classes, for example, retaining almost nothing. But once I came into a situation where I needed algebra to accomplish something I wanted, I invented it afresh, because it was important to me.

And so, for millions of young people, the path to competence in mathematics isn’t endless drilling, testing, and so on, but providing them with applications they care about, and where math gives them what they want. Here are just a couple of questions that would be perfect for a child interested in baseball:

    • How do you calculate a player’s batting average?
    • How do you calculate a pitcher’s ERA?
    • If Williams goes 6 for 8 tomorrow, what will his batting average be?
    • How many more scoreless innings does Gibson have to pitch before his ERA drops below 1.2?

I’m stronger on the boys side of this than the girls side (for the obvious reason), but I’m confident you ladies can adapt the concept. And this is a model that can transfer to almost anything.

And please note that the questions above would be posed to a single child, not to a group of children. In a group, they will inevitably copy each other. What we’re after is the child drawing upon his or her internal resources… by his or her self.

I think I can best describe the immense importance of this with a two-word phrase from Albert Einstein: Holy curiosity. And curiosity is holy; it lies at the root of nearly all human progress and development. Curiosity in children may be guided, or even temporarily paused, but it must never be extinguished. It is crucial to our very existence.

And here is the full passage from Einstein, from Life Magazine, May 1955:

One cannot help but be in awe when contemplating the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of the mystery every day. The important thing is not to stop questioning; never lose a holy curiosity.

In real life, of course, there is a time for “You can’t have XYZ until you do ABC.” It’s probably better to get it into the child’s mind as “If I get this done, I can get that,” but that’s not always practical either.

These aren’t the best motivators, perhaps, but they can work, on one condition: You cannot make it a battle of wills. If the child feels that it’s a personal fight: You will do as I say, because I said it, then the motivation is ruined.

Where motivation is concerned, acquiescing to the will of the more powerful person is utterly destructive. It uproots internal motivation by defeating the “me” who needs to drive the process. With a defeated and subdued “me,” there is no authentic motivation, only the avoidance of fear and/or pain.

Some Practical Advice

I have four recommendations for self-learners:

1: Don’t try to memorize. Rather, try to understand.

Humans aren’t built for memorization; that’s work for computers. Humans are built for understanding. When we understand, memorization comes along for the ride.

So, don’t let your mind cramp up trying to remember things. Rather, work to understand what these things are and why they act as they do. Go slowly. Names and dates aren’t nearly as important as understanding how things react with each other.

#2: Don’t let yourself get lost. Slow down, stop, and look things up.

Once you get lost in a discussion, it can be very difficult to catch back up. And so, don’t keep trying it the hard way. Rather, identify the missing piece. Then go back and re-read the entire section. Do it ten times if you must, but get the concept you’re missing. Then you can continue forward fruitfully.

#3: Listen to your instincts.

In learning, especially as so many of us have encountered it over the past few generations, there is a lot of pushing one’s feelings away. To some extent this is necessary, but not always.

Your inner feelings are important indicators, and particularly when they’re guiding you to something that excites you. Pay attention to the subjects that grab your interest… that excite you. The better you follow the things that ‘make you sing on the inside,’ the better you’ll position yourself for the work that will be most rewarding to you over your lifetime.

#4: Remember that this is an individual venture.

You may notice that these things are not possible for mass schooling, simply because teaching thirty children at a time makes it impossible. Make of that what you will, but mass schooling cannot accomplish the things we’re writing about today, and for structural reasons. The occasional superb teacher may accomplish this with some of his or her students, but that occurs despite the mass schooling model.

As we noted above, what matters is not just the collecting of information, but making it your own… to transform it, by your own will and actions, into something internal.

One trick for helping this process along, is to have a child make his or her own math problems, to pose their own literary or research problems, and so on. Let them create their own lessons. The tutor (parent or otherwise) will guide, of course, but where this model can be applied, it’s probably worth using.


Paul Rosenberg