What I Talk About When I Talk About Learning

Yesterday I completed my first official half marathon alongside my wife, who introduced me to running a few years ago (I feel comfortable blaming her for the post-race fatigue andJoan Benoit 2 muscle pain). I also recently finished reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). Both have given me cause to think about the importance of training oneself to learn.

Recent studies on subjects like decision fatigue indicate that the mind responds to exertion much like a muscle. The mind is lazy, preferring to expend as little energy as possible. It employs shortcuts and avoidance to achieve this goal, even though such strategies frequently lead to systematic errors of judgment. To get a sense at how effectively your mind can prevent itself from working hard, try mentally multiplying two- or three-digit numbers together while performing a physical task, like running, that requires a minimal amount of concentration. There’s a good chance that you will either trip and fall or be unable to compute a result.

So, drawing upon some analogies to running and Murakami’s very worthwhile book, here are few ruminations about learning:

  • “Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don’t continue things they don’t like” (Murakami, p. 44). Learning requires effort, and effort is unpleasant, so under normal circumstances people will try to avoid it. Remove the effort and you remove the learning, which is why I react so viscerally against slogans about “making learning fun” in college-level instruction.
  • “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional” (p. vii). As implied by the paragraph above, attitude matters. Accepting that the process of learning is not always butterflies and unicorns  goes a long way toward getting you through the process.
  • A mind that is used to lounging on the couch with a bag of potato chips within easy reach will quickly become overtaxed and shut down if it is confronted with too onerous a task — such as learning a large amount of knowledge in a short period of time. This is the same phenomenon as the sedentary middle-aged male who buys an expensive pair of running shoes, tries to run five miles on his first day out, and never puts on the running shoes again. In contrast, exercising the mind regularly to steadily build endurance leads to dramatic changes over time.
  • “To be able to grasp something of value, sometimes you have to perform seemingly inefficient acts . . . activities that appear fruitless don’t necessarily end up so” (p. 172). We make noises about the importance of scaffolding in teaching students how to write, but we don’t emphasize that moving from the simple to the complex can be just as important in learning how to learn. Because of the preference for immediate and readily apparent gratification, people rarely spend enough time mastering basic tasks that can greatly improve performance over the long run (pun intended).
  • Through experience one learns how to compensate for one’s shortcomings (p. 171). Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, but only through experience will a person discover exactly which ones he or she possesses, how to capitalize on the former, and how to minimize the effects of the latter.

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