What Is Learning?

Most educators (whether in official positions or sharing their knowledge and expertise informally) tend to focus on providing information, without paying too much attention to how the information will be received, especially by beginners in the field being taught.

I noticed this recently, while trying to pick up web development again. Most tutorials make too many assumptions about what the learner knows and is capable of learning. They either assume too much knowledge (throwing terms as though their meanings are self-evident) or explain a tiny patch of the web development landscape in great detail (to appeal to a curious beginner), without explaining where this patch is on the map, or how it relates to other areas in web development.

Web development requires the use of a number of technologies together in the process of creating web applications. Learning about a single technology or how to perform one step of the process will not yield any results. That’s why an overview of the subject, the technologies involved and the process taken is required for effective learning.

This isn’t exclusive to learning web development. There is an effective learning process that can be applied to any field you’re interested in learning more about, and an approach to any skill you wish to acquire.

What follows are some of my (unrefined) insights into what learning is, based on my readings on the subject, experience as a teacher, and hours of reflection. I will cover how to learn more effectively in a future post.

  • Learning is the process of building a mental model of reality. “Knowledge” doesn’t exist outside the mind, but constructed mentally to serve as a reference point for reality
  • The benchmark of learning is reality, and the aim is to develop a mental model that is both accurate and detailed
  • A pitfall of learning is to assume that to learn the meanings of terms or to memorize abstract concepts is learning. That’s often a distraction that can lead to a detachment from reality (where you’re unable to apply what you learn to the world), and often leads to inaccurate mental models. But learners who have fallen in this pit are unable to realize the mistake they’ve made because they use their university curriculum or the opinions of experts as the benchmark, and not reality
  • Knowledge is awareness of truth (what is real). What is untrue cannot be referred to as “knowledge”, but rather false ideas, opinions or beliefs (i.e. mental models that do not correspond to reality)
  • All knowledge is imagination, but not all imagination is knowledge. Your mind can visualize different concepts that can either be true or false. Constructing concepts requires imagination (holding an “image” in mind), whether you are recalling an incident or reaching a conclusion about how the world functions. Human advancement requires knowledge that’s grounded in a proper understanding of reality (science) and the creativity to apply this knowledge in new applications (technology)
  • Facts are the building blocks of knowledge. Rational thinking is what glues facts together to form an accurate mental model of reality. If you apply logical fallacies or rely on cognitive biases in the construction of your mental model (i.e. in your learning process), then you will build an inaccurate mental model (and would have formed an opinion, without acquiring knowledge)
  • Acquiring facts without context often leads to a fragmented mental model that’s unable to reconcile gaps or define how facts are related. Those with a fragmented mental model of reality often struggle to make important decisions or make sense of reality because they’re unable to figure out what fragment of their mental model applies to the particular situation they’re facing (i.e. the context they are in)
  • Having a “worldview” (a comprehensive mental model of reality) is not a bad thing. It enables you to add to an existing mental model and accelerates future learning. To continuously “start from scratch” is inefficient, mentally exhausting, and does not support learning, but can be considered as intellectual juggling. The problem is with having a rigid worldview that you’re not willing to question, which is often the case with religious worldviews that were accepted through upbringing on faith and never questioned
  • Your existing knowledge will enable you to filter out false ideas. However, you need to balance your current knowledge with the possibility that your knowledge could be limited and you may have inadvertently made intellectual errors (commonly jumping to conclusions or dropping contexts) as you were constructing your mental model. Ask for evidence before you dismiss any opinions that conflict with your mental model
  • There is a difference between learning psychology and learning Freud’s views on psychology. Both are knowledge, but of different things. Never mix the two. Freud’s views are a model that describe an aspect of reality (how the human mind works). These views can be accurate or inaccurate. It’s often the case that inaccurate views contain elements of truth. But no view should be taken as a substitute for reality, because no view can ever capture reality in accuracy and detail. What you learn in school and university (and beyond) are attempts to make sense of the world (or of other people’s views about the world, which is a big chunk of any academic discipline). Always maintain that distinction: between reality and human attempts to model it
  • Continuous learning requires the refinement of your mental model, in both accuracy and detail. This involves questioning your present mental model, the willingness to unlearn (abandon) what you currently hold to be true, the courage to accept that your mental model is inaccurate and incomplete, and the openness to acquire new knowledge

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