The learning process can be broken down into a spectrum from memorization to expertise.
Understanding this process can help you move along it faster. For example, sometimes students in the memorization or knowledge stage become frustrated when they don’t understand the reasoning behind something they’ve been told.
A novice computer programmer recently described to me the frustration he felt when he did not understand how something worked. He was still in the memorization phase, and did not have enough knowledge to develop an intelligence about how code of this particular kind should work. Worse, his mentors had too much expertise to be able to bridge the gap and explain the situation to him.
This does mean that we have to accept certain things as truth, even if we don’t understand why, when we are novices. It does not mean that we shouldn’t challenge assumptions though. As we’ll see, some of the best insights come from students who are still taking their first steps on this process…
All learning starts with memorization of some kind.
In any class where you diligently take good notes, your first goal is simply to remember the information they contain. If you’re learning the guitar or a foreign language, the first step is just to remember how to form the chords or say the words. Even highly physical skills, like sports, start with learning the exercises and remembering how to execute them with good form.
Stacks of flashcards or multiplication tables is what most people think of when they talk about memorization. This is a more intensive kind of memorization, but still the same basic process. There are some effective memorization techniques which can speed up this process. No matter how you start, though, the information needs to get into your brain somehow. Once you start to accumulate a bit of information, something interesting happens…
Once you successfully memorize many parts of a subject, you may start to gain knowledge.
Knowledge comes from the interaction between different memorized facts. It begins to generalize the facts into systems and rules. The brain naturally does this in the learning process, attempting to find shortcuts to represent many facts with less effort.
For example, a guitar student might memorize many different scales. Eventually it will become obvious that the major scales actually fit together like puzzle pieces, far less random than they originally seemed.
Likewise, a student of a foreign language might memorize many verb conjugation tables. Over time, he will begin to remember general rules and exceptions instead of specific words. The brain is conserving space: instead of remembering a hundred individual conjugation tables, it learns to remember a handful of sets of general rules.
The limitation of knowledge, though, is that it is still simply memorized information at the end of the day. That’s where intelligence comes in…
There’s a tendency to think of “intelligence” as a general idea, but the truth is that intelligence needs to be about something. Things like an “IQ test” actually just test some specific intelligences, like spacial or logical intelligence, and use that as a proxy for a general intelligence. Because this generalization is of questionable value, the IQ test itself has been widely criticized.
Tests like these give the wrong impression that intelligence is innate. Since intelligence must be about something, it can be learned. This is the basis of what is known as a growth mindset.
Intelligence is the next step beyond knowledge in learning. Where the knowledgeable person can parrot back the relevant information, the intelligent person can reason about the subject and come to their own conclusions based upon the knowledge. The knowledgeable computer programmer, for example, can cite the exact reason to use a specific solution in a specific situation. The intelligent programmer can take this a step further and know when to make exceptions to the rule.
The key difference is that knowledge is accepted as gospel as a sort of argument-from-authority.
When you become an expert, your brain changes in some fundamental ways. Your brain is a “cognitive miser,” and creates shortcuts. What makes experts amazing is that they’ve created such big, powerful shortcuts that they can reach better conclusions, faster.
There are some negative aspects to being an expert, though. Experts have a hard time understanding what it is that novices are failing to understand, and therefore don’t always make good teachers. Moreover, it’s possible to use some of those shortcuts against them. If something changes, or one of the shortcuts are wrong, the expert can come to the wrong conclusion and never challenge it. This is why it is sometimes possible for an outsider to revolutionize a field: she is capable of challenging core assumptions that experts cannot help but accept.
Due to the learning curve, experts enter a realm of diminishing returns. Each small amount of progress takes more and more time.
Learning is the progress which takes us through these steps.
It is the process of inferring those general rules we talked about.
This is why memorization is usually thought of to be no fun: it’s just setting the foundation for learning. True learning comes from putting these facts together and understanding the system of which they are a part.
Our ancestors survived by learning to hunt effectively, learning to identify dangerous predators, and so on. It’s not surprising, then, that neuroscience has shown that the brain rewards us for learning. When it generalizes and creates these rules, it gives us a sense of success and elation.