What is the Best Way to Learn – in Life?

A controversial new study has suggested that the best way to learn in school is to take tests. Compared with repeatedly studying materials and concept mapping (drawing detailed diagrams of what one has learned), testing students (also known as retrieval practice) seemed to have had the most positive impact on learning and remembering. A more detailed summary can be found in today’s New York Times article and in the journal Science. Though this testing in this study refers to free-recall, as opposed to standardized testing, it led me to think about how one learns in school versus how one learns outside it.

Since the early 1990s, progressive educators as John Dewey advocated a constructivist learning approach, i.e., creating meaning and understanding through the interaction of experiences and ideas, as opposed to the traditional teacher-centered approach that focused on absorbing knowledge through rote memorization and repeated practice. Ever since then, education has moved towards the former in an effort to make learning more student-centered. However, with the conclusions from this new Purdue study, constructivist educators as Dr. Howard Gardner and countless others will have much to address.

There has always been a constant battle between the best ways to learn, usually pitting advocates of reasoning versus memorization. In education, we have seen a steady progression towards the latter. But how about it life? Which works more?

Do we learn best by trying to internalize and construct meaning or do we understand best through repeated practice? For example, in learning a new language, would it be better to be immersed in a culture or learn it through repeating over and over again? How about in athletics? Do we become better basketball players through dribbling drills or through understanding the dynamics of the game by playing 5-on-5? How about martial arts – does one “get it” more through repeated practice (forms or “katas”) or through two-man simulated combat?

The longer I taught, the more I began to realize: drills and practice are not as contemptible as progressives make it out to be.

Though students learn in different ways, Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia agrees: “It’s virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extensive practice…if you repeat the same task again and again, it will eventually become automatic. Your brain will literally change so that you can complete the task without thinking about it.” (as quoted from a Time magazine article)

Not just in the obvious sense (all children need to memorize the multiplication tables eventually), but I have found that drills can lead to understanding in ways that are less perceptible to the uninitiated.

As a practicing martial artist, I execute solo forms (repeated encyclopedia of movements) hundreds or thousands of times. Such routinization has subtle benefits that inform my understanding in ways that cannot be gleaned from two-man combat. Building that muscle memory through repeated practice over time leads to much more nuanced understanding of how certain moves are meant to be used; It’s not just building muscle memory, it’s also building higher order mental understanding. We start to understand what works and doesn’t work and make micro-adjustments that are refined over time, leading to perfection and eventually to application. Isn’t that the holy grail of learning?

Progressive educators have given short shrift to the ideas of building skills and repeated practice, often confusing it with mere rote memorization. There is no need to do the same double-digit multiplication problem fifty times, but there is a need to build from simple multiplication (single-digit) to complex (triple-digit) in order to understand the importance of place values.

The same concept can be applied to playing the piano, learning a language, or making a souffle. People tend to believe that attitude influences behavior, when in fact the opposite is also true — if not more: John Doe likes blondes (attitude), so he only dates Scandinavian women (behavior). What if he had met a wonderful brunette early in his life? No doubt his attitude would have changed  — a classic example of behavior influencing attitude. This works the same way for developing other skills.

Here’s the takeaway: If you practice harder and smarter, you are already ahead of 90% of people in your similar situation. In any aspect of life.

It’s interesting how in education, there is such an aversion to practice, drilling or testing, but not so in athletics, music, or any other life skills. Both active/critical learning and rote memorization has its place in school — and in life. Think about how we become proficient in any task or behavior in life, then think about if our education supports that.

2 thoughts on “What is the Best Way to Learn – in Life?

  1. How can you test children without the knowledge they need to do well in the test in the first place ?
    Surely we need to give them the resources first before testing.
    I have great difficulty in getting my pupils to understand the correct way to answer an exam question. Understanding how to answer questions is something I do a lot of and have had good success to date .

  2. There are tried and true methods for teaching people. The first and most effective approach is a desire on the part of the student to learn. Also, the information must be presented in a way that addresses the age of the student. For example, giving a speed drill of math facts to 9 year olds is a wonderful way to test knowledge and let them know this is important. They love facts with out alot of clutter. Then when they are older (11 or so) you build on this foundation with clutter (equations) and focus on abstract concepts that they are now interested in. There are some very good ideas from progressive education ideas, but they must accept that the old methods are valid and still work. The new ways are not always the best.
    One final thought. We will only learn what we know to be important. Therefor environement will play a big role in a students willingness to master reading, writing, and math. If the home life does not value these activities then the student will not. If the home life values these activities then the student will.

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