Learning with the soles of our feet

Don’t follow the old masters’ footsteps, seek what they sought.
To learn about pine trees, go to the pine tree;
to learn of the bamboo, study bamboo.  ~ Basho.

So much interesting stuff to read out there, knowledge to absorb. Some of it invaluable for our careers. Some just super interesting. Plus, really getting what we read gives a sense of deep fulfillment. As humans, we have a basic yearning to learn. So I recently began a concentrated effort to lean into this. Which led to the questions: How do we best learn? How do we integrate what we read in meaningful ways?  

The English word "learn" traces to Gothic and Germanic languages and refers to "following or finding the furrow or track." It relates to an Old English word that means "sole of the foot." Think about that! Learning is about furrows for the soles of our feet. How can we ground ourselves in tractable ground? 

 credit: Gaelle Marcel | unsplash.com

credit: Gaelle Marcel | unsplash.com

The science of successful learning has fortunately been evolving rapidly in recent years. Science understands that education is about drawing out innate connections, not about pouring in data and drills. Several excellent new books have appeared. From them, first, a sobering fact: The process of forgetting what we read begins as soon as we stop reading. Yep. Peter Brown and Henry Roediger, the authors of Make it Stick, offer an equally sobering solution: "What's essential is to interrupt the process of forgetting."  

Learning follows a similar track for everyone, in fact. No shortcuts or magical pillows. Learning takes mental effort and time, discipline and persistence, in the moment. It is an active process. It is humbling. For me, precisely because learning takes effort and time, a first step is to be rigorously selective in what I read. 

Children love learning, by the way: All the questions they ask, right? Curiosity is one of our essential human traits. Adults can learn like children. Curiosity is still in us even if it was beaten into submission by impatient caregivers decades ago. We can reignite an unbridled sense of wonder. Our brains, even in old age, are far more pliable than we give them credit for.  We can grow new neural pathways - with focused, varied exercises coupled to small steps. Here are a few:

Find your why. Ulrich Boser, the author of Learn Better emphasizes that it is helpful to begin with a personal declaration: Why is it that you want to learn from a particular material? What does it give to you that is important? Write it down; tell someone. Have a clear target: What is it exactly that you want to learn? Clarity motivates. (here is a fascinating quiz based on Boser's work that tests beliefs on learning.)

Adopt dedicated practices.  Brown and Roediger recommend that after a paragraph, section or chapter, you pause. Ask yourself: What was most useful for me in this?  "Reflection is a form of practice," the authors say. What was the big insight, your moment of aha!?  Close the book and write out what you remember. Jot down the most important findings in a study. 

Use pen on paper. Can't we just highlight sentences? Not really. Highlighting can be useful to quickly find something, but the process is too automatic, without allowing things to stick. How about typing? Not either. When you write by hand, which is slower than keyboard or highlighting, you are forced to summarize, synthesize, find your own words. This is critical, according to The Pen Is Mightier Than The Keyboard, a study published in Psychological Science. 

Draw your knowledge from within. Some people create flash cards with simple index cards, asking questions on one side, then quizzing themselves. Or you can explain key issues to yourself or an (imaginary) other person. Retrieve your knowledge from memory. 

Think independently. Could you apply what you are learning in meaningful ways beyond the material's context, for example in situations you are struggling with or in imaginary scenarios? 

Find underlying structures. "People learn better if they can detect underlying rules that differentiate types of problems and apply these rules later to categorize new problems," explain Brown and Roediger. "The ability to distill key ideas from a text, organize them into a mental model, and relate the model to what one already knows is called structure building, and this skill contributes to concept learning and complex mastery." 

Sounds like a lot, I know. So give yourself space. Space will help you to reconfigure your insights powerfully. Your knowledge becomes liquid knowledge. One day, you'll find, it flows easily from one subject field to the next. It is in this fluidity that creativity, innovation, success, magic and the very best of leadership unfold. Learning feeds the heart, the mind, the soles of our feet. We won't run out of material nor tracks to follow: Here is Michel Legrand: “The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.” 


Thanks as always for reading this post. Liked it? Please browse the website, drop me a line to say hello, forward to others. And do explore if coaching might be right for you: When you work with a good coach, you will learn new ways of being, behaving, responding, thinking - so that you can succeed in what is important to you. It is a commitment to step into all that you are and can be. And if you haven't done so yet:

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