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Learning How to Learn

| July 16, 2018

by Jim Bruce

It’s hard to believe, but after 18 years of formal study, from first grade in a small East Texas school through doctoral study at MIT, I cannot remember ever having a class or having a teacher talk about learning how to learn. Perhaps that’s why Coursera’s MOOC “Learning How to Learn” has been taken by more than 1.8 million students from some 200 countries.1, 2 It’s appears clear that my experience is not unique.
There are many reasons why we need to learn new things. The world we inhabit is continuously changing. For example, we cannot imagine not having electricity in our homes. Yet, when I was born only 57% of U.S. homes had electricity. About 37% had telephones; most, however, were party-lines (shared-line service). Today, would any self-respecting individual think of not having their smartphone with them at all times, with its collection of applications and services most of which were not conceivable even a decade ago?  (Remember, Apple introduced the iPhone on June 29, 2007, just 11 years ago.)
We get to new knowledge and new, next-generation technological devices by people first learning, learning about basic science, envisioning how the science can be used to build new devices and applications, how those devices and applications can be used, etc. We learn more about how people interact with each other and about how our brains function. We learn how to organize our work more effectively, etc. And, then, after hard work, “the new” arrives. David Peterson, director of executive coaching and leadership at Google put the impact of not continuously learning this way: “Staying within your comfort zone is a good way to prepare for today, but it’s a terrible way to prepare for tomorrow.”  To sustain success, you must develop learning agility.
Learning agility3 has to do with developing and having the capacity to learn from formal learning experiences (the classroom or MOOCs, for example), from making connections across work and life experiences, from mastering new situations, from being open to new experiences, etc. Simply put, individuals who are agile learners are individuals who have an insatiable appetite to learn and apply new ideas and concepts to their work and life.
So, where do we learn? Everywhere. There are opportunities for us to learn just about everywhere: the short coaching conversation with a colleague, a peer, or a team member as you walk along a corridor or stand on the edge of a meeting; the formal lecture you attend on a subject critical to your work; the “deep work” you do in your office, or a small conference room, behind a closed door to limit distractions; the formal course you take as a MOOC or in a formal classroom setting with homework; etc. The list of opportunities is truly endless.
To make the learning you can derive from these experiences “stick” and be effective and useful, you need to know and put four things into practice.
First, you need to recognize that the brain has two fundamental modes of thinking, “focused” for concentrating on the material you are striving to learn, and “diffused,” a neural resting state during which the new material establishes new neural connections with what you already know. For example, in the MOR Leaders Programs we teach a technique, the 4I’s (Initiate, Inquire, Invest, and Influence), that can be used to meet and potentially build a relationship with an individual we don’t know. It’s simple to learn and use. If practiced often, it becomes second-nature and used frequently.
In the diffuse mode, the brain makes connections between bits of information allowing unexpected insights to occur. For example, as I’m learning the 4I’s approach to relationship building, or later, my brain may well identify the first two of the I’s (Initiate and Inquire) as a way to meet individuals in a broader range of situations, something that I don’t do well. In this way, diffuse mode thinking creates new connections giving us insight into alternative ways to address an issue and provides solutions to challenges – e.g., my needing an approach to simply introduce myself to people I don’t know – for which we do not have a solution.
However, too often, after we’ve had a learning experience, we immediately turn to the next task. We think that relaxing, taking a short walk, or otherwise getting in some “down” time is a waste. Yet, having down time is essential to our learning, to anchoring what we have just learned into what we already know.
Professor Oakley2 says it this way: “The bottom line for all of us out of this is when you’re learning, you want to go back and forth between the two modes of thinking. And, if you find yourself stuck, as you are focusing in on something, trying to learn a new concept or solve a problem, you want to turn your attention away from that problem, and allow the diffuse mode, the resting state, to do its work in the background.”
This brings us to the second practice.  Professor Oakley,2 suggests that when we are learning something new – watching a lecture on video, working on a new problem, writing code, etc. – we use the Pomodoro Technique.4 The what, you ask? Wikipedia defines the Pomodoro Technique as a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. These intervals are named pomodoros, the plural in English of the Italian word pomodoro (tomato), after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student. During the short break, typically about 5 minutes, you do something entirely different – take a short walk, talk with a colleague about a non-work matter, anything that takes your mind off the task you were working on and allows your brain to enter a diffuse state. Oakley compares this process to that of a librarian putting books back on the shelf to be available later. 
And, after the break, you return to the learning or project task you were working on. Oakley says anyone can focus for 25 minutes and do more work on the task. It’s important, when you begin or resume your work, that you don’t ever say “I’m going to do the entire ‘thing’ in the next 25 minutes” but rather that “I’m going to work with focused attention for 25 minutes on the ‘thing’.” This is the key in setting the stage for a good experience.
I should note that there is nothing “magic” about the Pomodoro Technique.  For example, Tony Schwartz, chief executive of The Energy Project, in his New York Times essay Relax! You’ll Be More Productive,5 noted work by William Dement and Nathaniel Kleitman in the 1950s demonstrating that humans follow a Basic-Rest Activity Cycle progressing from a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue and back to alertness every 90 minutes throughout the 24-hour day. Schwartz suggested that we build this rhythm into our work. He typically schedules his work day beginning with three 90-minute work sessions taking a break after each one.  He found that doing this enabled him to achieve more in three cycles of this schedule than he had previously completed in an entire day.
So, whether you use the Pomodoro approach of 25-minute work periods followed by a 5-minute break or a 90-minute work period followed by a 20 or 30-minute break, or the “university” practice of 50 minutes for a class or meeting and a 10-minute break, you will want to develop a practice that works for you:  short work periods followed by a break with “non-work” activities.
The third practice is “practice.” Oakley and others note that too often when we have learned something, we assume that what we have learned is firmly ingrained in our brain, ready to be recalled at any future time. Not so, she argues. She believes that these “chunks” of knowledge need to be “packaged” into neural patterns that can be reactivated when needed. Having such a mental library of well-practiced neural chunks is necessary for developing expertise.  Similar to what professional musicians and sports teams do, we need to practice, practice, and practice some more to firmly lodge these neural patterns in our brains. In essence, these patterns need to become well-honed habits.
For the student solving homework problems, he or she shouldn’t be satisfied with solving the problem once (as I was). Rather they should stop, examine the problem, create another similar one that requires different thinking, and solve that one.  Every time this is done, the mental knowledge will expand creating increased knowledge to be called upon later. 
In general, when you learn something new, you need to use it as often, and in as many different contexts as you can.  The axiom “Use it on lose it” is very applicable here.
The fourth practice is to know yourself. We each learn new information in different ways. Some individuals have brains that can rapidly assimilate new information; some of us take longer but we may perceive more details along the way. Each approach has different advantages and disadvantages. For an individual to be most effective, particularly in understanding how to approach new material, he or she must know how his or her brain works. 
As you go through this week, slow down to see the learning opportunities that show up for you. And, as you undertake one, stop and ask whether the process outlined here – for example, using the Pomodoro Technique to energize both your direct and diffuse thinking processes, examining multiple solution approaches to increase the span of neural connections in your brain, etc. – would be of benefit in your work and to you later. I do hope that you’ll give it a try.
Make it a great week for you and your team.
.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
 References and Notes:

  1. John Schwartz, Learning to Learn: You, Too, Can Rewire Your Brain, The New York Times, August 2017.
  2. Barbara Oakley, the principal faculty member in the Coursea MOOC, “Learning How to Learn,” also speaks to this subject in a TEDxOaklandUniversity session that can be found here. Other YouTube videos by Professor Oakley on this subject can be found by searching with the search string “learning how to learn Barbara Oakley YouTube”.
  3. Monique Valcour, 4 Ways to Become a Better Learner, Harvard Business Review, December 2015.
  4. Pomodoro Technique, Wikipedia.
  5. Tony Schwartz, Relax! You’ll Be More Productive, The New York Times, February 2013.