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Updated: January 5, 2014 17:10 IST

Learning to learn

Malini Seshadri
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Each one of us is unique. There is no single formula for effective and efficient learning.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

Thus wrote Alexander Pope in the early 18th Century. And generations of delighted slackers have been feeling vindicated in their unwillingness to get started! They do not get to the second line of the quote which begins… “Drink deep…”

Here is this little fellow who has not read Pope yet. He is only 11-months-old. But every waking moment he is learning something new. Now he is sitting on the floor, clutching at the table top and trying to pull himself up. It doesn’t work. He tries from a kneeling position. Better, but not quite….So how about squatting? Yes, now his leg muscles are helping him….victory!

Who taught him how to stand? Who does the learning? And who does the teaching?

His brain is learning. His brain is also his teacher. In that infant body, the brain is growing networks at a furious pace. And, in a marvellous feedback loop, it is learning as it teaches….teaching as it learns…till learning and teaching are one seamless whole…. and all this at a rate that no teacher in any classroom can aspire to.

So what happens later when we have ‘learned’ to walk and talk and start going to school? Do we exchange our ‘brain teacher’ for the ‘classroom teacher’? Sometimes we come perilously close to relying too little on our own brains to take the learning process forward. That is when learning stutters and loses steam.

“Learning” is an interesting word. Everyone knows what it means. Yet no one does.

Kids in kindergarten use it. “I learned my ABC”.

Children use it. “I am learning Sanskrit”; “I am learning football.”

Teenagers use it: “I am learning how to drive a car.” “I am learning a new computer language.”

Parents use it: “When will you learn to keep your room tidy?”

Motivational speakers use it: “Learn what you really want in life.”

Philosophers use it: “We must learn the meaning of life.”

But none of them would be able to explain what the word itself means. Yes, yes, I know the dictionary attempts it…and tries to cover a wide ambit in doing so. And yet it lists ‘teaching’ as the antonym of ‘learning’! That infant has shown it’s just not true.

What is it all about?

The purpose of education is to teach/learn how to learn. Indeed, some would say it is the purpose of life itself!

Now that we have established the importance of learning to learn, how do we go about it? What is involved?

Take the example of training for a sport. First, the person must be physically fit; this means he/she must be healthy and well in body, but also in mind and attitude (as we all know, the latter two affect the former acutely). Next, the stamina must be steadily built up and muscles must be exercised and trained to optimal strength. Only then come the specific skills associated with the sport in question. One cannot be a couch potato one day and a football star the next.

So also with all learning. Early in life we learn to pay attention to physical appearance (though not always to physical fitness!). We are taught the parts of the body and their functions. Even in primary classes children are taught ‘health science’ which ignores the brain altogether! As early as possible, even in early childhood, every person should be made aware of the role of the brain. It is the motherboard, the control panel…or whatever parallel nomenclature this electronic age prefers.

Becoming aware and informed is the first step towards control. We must learn about our right brain and left brain and how they work. We must be aware what our brain is doing when we eat, sleep, play, study; or when we look at a sunset or listen to rock music; or when we laugh or weep or feel a pang of jealousy. In other words, one must figure out what one’s own brain is up to….and one must use one’s own brain to do the figuring out. That is where learning how to learn actually starts.

The learning process

Next we should understand the process. If someone shows you a page containing several columns of figures, you could read them, sure, but what would they mean? Nothing. Let us say you are then told they are to do with the weather. So are they temperatures, rainfall in centimetres, atmospheric pressure? Here your general knowledge may help you out a bit, so you have something…but by no means all of it. You don’t know why they are listed that way. Time sequence? Different locations…what?

By now you know what I am getting at. Data is not information; information is not knowledge; knowledge is not learning. Yet they are all essential ingredients of learning. Learning involves understanding information in the proper context and processing it to make it applicable to a situation or a problem. It is a skill — a skill we never completely master. But it is essential to try, because continuous learning is what makes life both challenging and interesting…and therefore satisfying.

Can we improve our efficiency in learning? The short answer is, yes. There are any number of self-help articles and books that address the topic. In essence however, it calls for:

Becoming aware of our own brain processes and what switches them ‘on’ and ‘off’.

Never ceasing to ask questions, about ourselves as well as about what our five senses tell us.

Looking for the unusual and the off-beat, and embracing change.

Seeking new challenges for our mental faculties.

Increasing our tolerance of differences so as to widen our horizons.

Being respectful of others and their opinions; there is much to learn from others.

Being respectful of people’s feelings; learning human values is an important part of learning.

Being respectful of nature; she is the best teacher if we are willing to learn from her.

Let us also remember that we are not clones of one another. Each of us is unique. There is no formula that will guarantee that we learn how to learn better.

But in this New Year, should we not resolve to give it a try? And read the other three lines of Alexander Pope’s verse?

Malini Seshadri is a freelance writer.

Email her at malini1seshadri@gmail.com

Very nice article. A pattern based learning is given in this link.

uni5.co/index.php/en/uni5-education-system-ues-3.html

from:  sakthi
Posted on: Jan 7, 2014 at 22:14 IST

A very nice write up depicting the trend in todays education system. Children are made to follow course without being allowed to make logical thinking while at their school especially the primary level.

from:  Manimegalai
Posted on: Jan 7, 2014 at 11:49 IST

Very good article Malini. Thanks for sharing with all readers.

Critical thinking is a very important aspect of learning. Classical education system of
" Trivium" followed a system of enquiry.

Carol Dweck of Stanford university talks about growth mind set vs fixed mindset.
The individuals who know that brain is flexible and the learning happens in the "
struggle" of learning the new skill continue to put in more effort and keep learning.

from:  Binita
Posted on: Jan 6, 2014 at 10:39 IST

A simple and effective write-up. I welcome the author's stress on
physiology, especially the brain in the learning mechanism.

from:  Hari B Ramamurthi
Posted on: Jan 6, 2014 at 10:37 IST
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