Learning because you want to (instead of because you have to)
Chances are you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have something you wanted to learn. You may have discovered along the way that much of that learning you “had to do“ back in school didn’t leave you terribly well prepared to do the learning you “want to do“ later in life. Perhaps you’re looking for methods to optimize your learning skills in order to learn more, better, and faster.
Most of us managed to get through school, with or without struggle, without really learning how to learn well. It’s likely that you had classes where the material was so obvious to you, or the instructor was so talented or engaging that it was inevitable you were going to learn it. You probably also had a least a few classes that were a real struggle to learn anything in â€“ the material was presented badly, or it was uninteresting, and the “learning tools“ you were given were inadequate or barely adequate to overcome the challenges.
The good news is that sometimes old dogs can be the best trick learners, and you can “learn to learn“ faster and better than you once thought possible.
Things that make learning difficult:
Differences in learning methodologies
There are a number of different “styles“ of teaching, and of learning. Chances are that in the past, when you’ve found material from a particular instructor (or author, or trainer) difficult to learn, it was because their methodology and your methodology didn’t line up well. This often leads to missing concepts or relationships between concepts because they aren’t presented in a fashion that appears relevant to your learning style, and failing to mentally integrate ideas because they didn’t fully engage your learning skills.
Even in a formal school environment, it’s easy to get distracted â€“ we all have had times when other things were on our minds, or we didn’t really feel focused. Sometimes a concept will engage us so much that we take it and run with it mentally â€“ and find out that we missed the next item being presented. Outside of school, distractions are even more common â€“ phone calls, interruptions, and the general press of life.
In our “tick-tock“ world, time constraints often block learning â€“ if we’re in a class, then material (and our processing of the material) has to be squished into structured blocks of time. Time spent reading books is often grabbed catch-as-catch can; we even listen to audio books while commuting. All of these things can make learning the material we’re attempting to learn more challenging.
Lack of Post-Processing
With most skills we attempt to learn, there are four stages of competency:
- Unconscious Incompetency â€“ We just don’t know the skill.
- Conscious Incompetency â€“ We know about the skill, but we don’t have it.
- Conscious Competency â€“ We have the skill, but we need to pay conscious attention in order to use it.
- Unconscious Competency â€“ We have the skill, and use it automatically when necessary.
A good example is learning to drive â€“ when we go from instruction to actually driving, we move from stage two to stage three. As we practice the skill, we gradually have to pay less and less conscious attention to it in order to do it, moving to stage four. The same is true of most skills â€“ learning to walk, learning to play a musical instrument, etc.
Moving beyond stage two requires post-processing â€“ first we fix in our minds what we were attempting to learn, and then with practice, we integrate the new learning into our lives.
In order to fix the learning in our mind, there are various methods of post-processing we can use. The one most of us learned in school is “taking notes“.
The fine art of note-taking
Note taking is one of those skills we were taught in school â€“ unfortunately, in many cases we were taught the “how“ instead of the “why“, and didn’t really learn how to integrate the skill. In many cases we learned how to do it by rote, we were forced to take notes on material that may not have had value or failed to capture our interest. We were often forced to follow rigid hierarchies or methodologies, and in many cases it became something we were graded on as an end to itself.
This caused many of us to overlook the real value in note taking. Proper note taking causes you to process and consider the material being covered, helps embed ideas in your mind, and helps trigger recollection of concepts.
Good note taking can help overcome most of the obstacles to learning listed above â€“ you can restructure the material you’ve captured to better suit your learning style, bridge distractions and poor structures dictated by time constraints, and most importantly, the act of taking and reviewing notes causes us to process the material, and begin moving towards conscious competency.
Unfortunately, conventional note taking methods tend to suck. We are often taught to take notes in such a way that it is hard to pick out key words and hard to associate key concepts. Rigid hierarchies lead to monotonous structures, and we’re encouraged to record, review, and re-review unnecessary items. Last but not least, conventional note taking fails to stimulate our creativity.
A better breed of notes
Fortunately, there are better ways of taking notes. Mind Mapping, a technique originated by Tony Buzan, fixes many of the things that are wrong with conventional note taking. Mind maps are free-form, and use images and colors to stimulate whole brain thinking.
Mind maps incorporate both hierarchies and relationships, and stimulate finding associations between concepts. Mind maps are also excellent tools for bringing our creative talents to bear. The ability to see both “big picture“ and details simultaneously, as well as to be able to re-organize material and build relationships allows us to manipulate the material to best suit our own personal learning style.
When to mind map
Ideally, we should use mind-mapping as our primary note-taking method. Unfortunately, it’s not always convenient to get out a big sheet of paper, colored pencils and markers, and start mapping away whenever we want to learn.
Processing notes with mind-mapping
Fortunately, we can use mind-mapping as a way to process other notes. Whether you have conventional notes from a lecture or other material, a book you’ve highlighted, or even “voice memos“ made while driving down the road listening to audio books, you can take that material and use it to build a mind map. This will help fix the core concepts in your mind, and allow you to see relationships and concepts that weren’t clear when you originally took your notes. Even if you never refer back to your mind map after building it, the act of creating it will insure that the material you’ve learned is clearer, and that it stays with you for a much longer period of time.
Mind maps are also excellent tools for finding creative solutions to problems, or accessing your creativity for any task. In fact, before I wrote this article, I sat down and built a quick mind map of the points I wanted to cover, and how I wanted to cover them. In doing so, I ended up with a detailed “road map“ of the article I wanted to write.
How to mind map
The finer points of mind mapping are beyond the scope of this article. Fortunately, there are many, many good resources available to quickly teach you the skill.
The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential — Tony Buzan’s excellent introduction to Mind Mapping will have you making your own mind maps in only minutes.
Do you prefer Audio Books?
Super-Creativity – The Mind Map Method of Creative Problem Solving is an excellent audio introduction to building mind maps.