Whenever we start to learn something new our most instinctive question is “how do I understand this?”
That’s exactly the right question, of course, but too often what we mean when we ask it is “where do I put this?” We think of our knowledge as some kind of architectural blueprint, and what we want to know most is where all the parts fit. I see this with undergraduates all the time. and I remember it from my own time as an undergraduate. Whenever they start a new paper they want to know how it fits in the blueprint of the subject as a whole. To understand what we’re reading, we feel like we need to be given this information. It’s an essential lens for reading the material through.
But there are problems with this approach.
For one, it’s very passive. We situate something where we are told it should belong. Useful, yes. But on the one hand it will make it harder to spot any flaws in received wisdom, because we are just going along with it. And on the other hand, it puts our brain in a passive state. We’re not having to grapple and figure things out. We’re just filling in a knowledge-by-numbers. We know that Plato’s Republic sits in “political philosophy” so we create a Republic-sized hole in our blueprint and fill it in with what Plato has to say.
But the most effective learning happens in the state of “deep practice”. That is the state right at the edge of our capabilities, where our brain is constantly uncertain, having to figure things out. A brain reading Plato’s Republic and trying to work out what the hell is happening will learn much more effectively than one that “knows” what’s going on and is just filling in gaps.
Of course there are caveats. If we read the Republic with absolutely no background at all, and it might as well be a piece about genetically modified corn or the radiation spectrum of quasars, we will go nowhere. We learn best at the edge of our abilities – not so far beyond them we don’t stand a chance.
That’s why I think of learning as a constantly iterative process. The more background information we have on *everything* the richer the possibilities we have for understanding every new thing we discover. And the more new things we discover, the more we can deepen our understanding of what we know. We are developing up with a knowledge pool that is provisional, malleable, and most of all useful.
So learning is a dialogue between the new stuff and the old stuff. But we can also ask a better question to help this dialogue than “where do I put this?” We can ask
“What Can I Do With this?”
And that comes back to what I say over and over. The important thing abut what you know is how easily you can use it. Knowledge isn’t (well not only!) something to be hoarded but rather the raw material for making the future better. And that means when you learn something new, not only understanding all the ways it fits with what you already know but all the applications it might have, the ways it might change your behaviour, your plans, your future.