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  • Rikki Lee

When Will We Ever Learn?

Knowledge is an important commodity in the Information Age, but not all information is knowledge. If you remove all the information in your brain that has short-term value, such as news, celebrity gossip, weather, sports scores and so on, you’re not left with much actual knowledge.

One might define knowledge as “information with lasting value to retain and use.” You can gain knowledge (and keep it) mostly through reading, observing, following good advice, and learning, but you can gain information from almost anywhere—and usually throw it away. For example, if the circle below represents all the knowledge (as we’ve just defined it) in the world, about how much of it does the average person have? It’s the little green spot inside the blue circle.

To find that little green spot, dust off that electronic microscope that's been sitting in your attic and set the magnification level to 10,000,000 (10 to the seventh power). You just might see the little green spot. That’s because the lasting knowledge we carry with us is infinitesimally small, compared with the amount of available knowledge out there.

As Hemingway's protagonist mused in For Whom the Bell Tolls, “How little we know of what there is to know… I thought I knew so many things that I know nothing of.” But most knowledge in the world is outside our personal interest.

Ad hoc knowledge

Despite this, we make few attempts to grow that little green spot, even incrementally. Most of us seek out and keep only the knowledge that helps us do well in our jobs and in our personal lives. Otherwise, the knowledge isn’t important to us. If we have a sudden physical ailment, we might quickly surf the popular medical websites to gain an answer. Or if we want to know how to fix a glitch in our elearning authoring tool, we might scan the PDF manual or search the user forums. This is ad hoc knowledge that, unless regularly practiced, is often quickly forgotten. And unless it’s a hobby, we rarely look for information that’s irrelevant to our needs.

But it would be beneficial if, as learning professionals, we actually made it a regular habit to gain knowledge that can last longer than a few minutes. This means adding new fields of personal interest to our working memory (the part of our memory that we use every day). The practice of learning for ourselves is useful if we’re in the business of helping others learn. For example, being involved in learning for our own sake helps us to anticipate a learner’s knowledge gaps that we can fill in (such as with an extra slide in an online course) or to notice when a student in the classroom has a question but is too afraid to ask. We've been in those situations as a result of our own learning, so we can respond when others are faced with them.

Most knowledge in that big blue circle (with the little green spot that shows how much we know) is good enough to keep—and the more knowledge we keep, the better. For example, if you’re a birder, you’ll know what an American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) looks like when you see one in a tree. But if you’re not a birder, here’s a picture.

Or if you’re really into 18th century literature, you’ll be able to conjure up an image of Voltaire. If you’re not into 18th century literature, here’s a picture.

As a mental exercise, right now think of five areas in which you frequently pursue knowledge outside of your job or your life needs. For example, I’m currently into European art cinema, Japanese culture, the history of the Weimar Republic, multiverse theories, and composers of the Romantic period. Of course, I’ll never learn enough about any of these areas to become an expert. But once I was drawn to them, I couldn’t stop. By the way, creating a personal, emotional connection to the subject matter is an element of the best techniques you can build into your learning programs.

Learn as much as you can

If you’re experiencing a psychological slump in your position as a classroom trainer, instructional designer or other learning-based career, and don’t find your work exciting any more, it could be that you’re not learning as much as you can for yourself. (Maybe you’re even reading this blog post in hopes of finding inspiration!) Although you’ll forget a lot of information that you don’t regularly use, your brain certainly has a lot of unused neurons to connect to new knowledge in areas you might want to pursue.

Neuroscientists tell us the practice of continuous learning increases the brain’s capacity to spark those neurons (called “neuroplasticity”) and gain even more knowledge. And this knowledge doesn’t have to be about your career—although finding out new and different approaches to raise effectiveness when you provide learning opportunities for others may help you get over that slump.

Here are some tips to increase your knowledge in ways that can improve your personal and professional learning. Let's call them “the four R’s”:

1. Read. Use more books and fewer web searches. Books have more important and verifiable information that you can generate into long-lasting knowledge. And they're hands-on, just as with any performance-based activity: You physically hold the book (or e-book reader) and turn the pages while your eyes scan the words and your brain thinks about what you’ve read. After reading, review previous chapters from time to time to strengthen the link that the knowledge has in your brain. As a result, you’ll retain more. On the other hand, there’s less physical interaction with web searches. And once you find out what you want to learn, you may soon forget it.

2. Recreate. Exercise is great not only for your body, but for your brain as well. You need to keep the blood flowing to the brain for it to continue working properly. Get the right amount of physical activity for your lifestyle, such as walking or attending a Pilates class at the Y several times a week. Proper nutrition also plays a role in keeping your brain in peak performance.

3. Rest. Get enough sleep every night. And during the day, keep calm; nothing inhibits learning as much as stress and panic. The more you worry about troublesome situations, the less you’ll be able to improve them. Awareness is important to have, but worry is often unfocused brain activity. And whenever you begin learning something new, put yourself in the right frame of mind. For example, understand that learning is (at best) a gradual process that takes time. Don’t think you can learn a topic as fast as you can by grabbing a bit of information here and there, now and then. Rather, immerse yourself in the subject matter as completely and deeply as you can, then go back into it when possible.

4. Reminisce. Spend a few minutes each day recalling what you’ve learned in the past—as far back as you can remember—then try to apply or relearn it. If you can’t summon any of your high school algebra (“solve for X”), that's because you haven’t used it in years. So, take a trip into your memory maze to remember how you felt when you learned something new. For example, which teacher had the biggest impact on you, and what specifically did you learn from them? Or what was the first thing you noticed when you glimpsed through the telescope in astronomy class?

As you learn more and remember more, you might be able to reduce the magnification on the electronic microscope to locate your own little green spot.

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