Tag: Learning

A simple tool to help you learn better

You have to reach.

From The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

Research shows that people who follow strategy B [read ten pages at once, then close the book and write a one page summary] remember 50 percent more material over the long term than people who follow strategy A [read ten pages four times in a row and try to memorize them]. This is because of one of deep practice’s most fundamental rules: Learning is reaching. Passively reading a book—a relatively effortless process, letting the words wash over you like a warm bath—doesn’t put you in the sweet spot. Less reaching equals less learning.

On the other hand, closing the book and writing a summary forces you to figure out the key points (one set of reaches), process and organize those ideas so they make sense (more reaches), and write them on the page (still more reaches, along with repetition). The equation is always the same: More reaching equals more learning.

Update: A better idea by way of Nassim Taleb: “Don’t write summary, write bullet points of what comes to mind that you can apply somewhere.”

Still curious? Discover how to practice; an effective way to learn new things and identify holes in your knowledge; and why some people are so much more effective at learning from their mistakes?

What is Deliberate Practice?

You’ve probably been doing your job for a while. If you’re like most people, your performance has plateaued. Simply put, you’ve stopped getting better at what you do. This is because you don’t use deliberate practice to your advantage.

Deliberate Practice

Despite repetition, most people fail to become experts at what they do. It doesn’t matter how many years they spend they stop getting better.

Experience does not equate to expertise.

In Geoff Colvin’s book Talent Is Overrated he writes:

In field after field, when it comes to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with less experience.

Society has always recognized extraordinary individuals whose performance is truly superior. If I were to ask you why some people excel and others don’t, you’d probably say talent and effort. These responses are misleading.

Conveniently, claiming that talent is the basis for success means we can absolve ourselves of our own performance (or, as the case may be, lack thereof). The talent argument, despite its popularity, is wrong. Yet research tells a very different story on how people become experts (for a more detailed argument read Talent Is Overrated, the source of most of the quotes in this article).

Deliberate Practice

Research concludes that we need deliberate practice to improve performance. Unfortunately, deliberate practice isn’t something that most of us understand, let alone engage in on a daily basis. This helps explain why we can work at something for decades without really improving our performance.

Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance and tons of it equals great performance.

Most of what we consider practice is really just playing around — we’re in our comfort zone.

When you venture off to the golf range to hit a bucket of balls what you’re really doing is having fun. You’re not getting better. Understanding the difference between fun and deliberate practice unlocks the key to improving performance.

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

Let’s take a look at each of those to better understand what’s meant.

Designed to Improve Performance

The word designed is key. While enjoyable, practice lacking design is play and doesn’t offer improvement.

“In some fields, especially intellectual ones such as the arts, sciences, and business, people may eventually become skilled enough to design their own practice. But anyone who thinks they’ve outgrown the benefits of a teacher’s help should at least question that view. There’s a reason why the world’s best golfers still go to teachers.”

But it’s more than just the teachers’ knowledge that helps — it’s their ability to see you in ways you can’t see yourself.

“A chess teacher is looking at the same boards as the student but can see that the student is consistently overlooking an important threat. A business coach is looking at the same situations as a manager but can see, for example, that the manager systematically fails to communicate his intentions clearly.”

In theory, with the right motivations and some expertise, you can design a practice yourself. It’s likely, however, that you wouldn’t know where to start or how to structure activities.

Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. *

Teachers, or coaches, see what you miss and make you aware of where you’re falling short.

With or without a teacher, great performers deconstruct elements of what they do into chunks they can practice. They get better at that aspect and move on to the next.

Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development center at Crotonville, puts the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone.

Most of the time we’re practicing we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone. This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily. On the other hand, operating in the panic zone leaves us paralyzed as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of reach.

Consider a chess tournament:

Skill improvement is likely to be minimized when facing substantially inferior opponents, because such opponents will not challenge one to exert maximal or even near-maximal effort when making tactical decisions, and problems or weaknesses in one’s play are unlikely to be exploited. At the same time, the opportunity for learning is also attenuated during matches against much strong opponents, because no amount of effort or concentration is likely to result in a positive outcome.*

Repeat

Repetition inside the comfort zone does not equal practice. Deliberate practice requires that you should be operating in the learning zone and you should be repeating the activity a lot with feedback.

Let us briefly illustrate the difference between work and deliberate practice. During a three hour baseball game, a batter may only get 5-15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically exploited. *

It’s no coincidence that Ted Williams, baseball’s greatest hitter, would literally practice hitting until his hands bled.

Feedback on results is continuously available

Practicing something without knowing whether you are getting better is pointless. Yet that is what most of us do everyday without thinking.

“You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.”

Feedback gets a little tricky when someone must subjectively interpret the results. While you don’t need a coach, this can be an area they add value.

“These are the situations in which a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.”

Mentally Demanding

Doing things we know how to do is fun and does not require a lot of effort. Deliberate practice, however, is not fun. Breaking down a task you wish to master into its constituent parts and then working on those areas systematically requires a lot of effort.

“The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.”

Ben Franklin, an interesting example

Ben Franklin intuitively grasped the concept of deliberate practice. As a teenager Ben received a letter from his father saying his writing was inferior: “in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances,” as Franklin recalled.

“Ben responded to his father’s observations in several ways. First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would have ever thought of.

It began with his reading a Spectator article and marking brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. …

Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”

Even without a teacher, Ben Franklin grasped deliberate practice.

The Role of Solitude

In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain writes:

Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class—you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.”

***

Still curious? Learn more about deliberate practice in Talent Is Overrated and this New Yorker article by Dr. Atul Gawande.

An Algorithm for Solving Problems

“He (Richard Feynman) was always searching for patterns, for connections, for a new way of looking at something, but I suspect his motivation was not so much to understand the world as it was to find new ideas to explain. The act of discovery was not complete for him until he had taught it to someone else.”Daniel Hillis

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The Feynman Algorithm, which is a simplification of Richard Feynman’s technique to learn anything, is a good all purpose algorithm for solving problems. Cal Newport explains:

  1. Simplify the problem down to an “essential puzzle.” Here’s how Danny Hillis explained Feynman’s use of simplicity: “He always started by asking very basic questions like, ‘What is the simplest example?’ or ‘How can you tell if the answer is right?’ He asked questions until he reduced the problem to some essential puzzle that he thought he would be able to solve. Then he would set to work.”
  2. Continually master new techniques and then apply them to your library of unsolved puzzles to see if they help. As mathematician Gian Carlo-Rota explained when describing Feynman’s use of this strategy: “Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!’”

The Learning Paradox: Why Struggling to Learn is a Good Thing

The more you struggle to master new information, the better you’ll understand and apply it later. Annie Murphy Paul

Annie Murphy Paul explores in Time:

The learning paradox is at the heart of “productive failure,” a phenomenon identified by Manu Kapur, a researcher at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore. Kapur points out that while the model adopted by many teachers and employers when introducing others to new knowledge — providing lots of structure and guidance early on, until the students or workers show that they can do it on their own — makes intuitive sense, it may not be the best way to promote learning. Rather, it’s better to let the neophytes wrestle with the material on their own for a while, refraining from giving them any assistance at the start

Earlier this year, in a paper published in the Journal of the Learning Sciences, Kapur applied the principle of productive failure to mathematical problem-solving.

With one group of students, the teacher provided strong “scaffolding” — instructional support — and feedback. With the teacher’s help, these pupils were able to find the answers to their set of problems. Meanwhile, a second group was directed to solve the same problems by collaborating with one another, absent any prompts from their instructor. These students weren’t able to complete the problems correctly. But in the course of trying to do so, they generated a lot of ideas about the nature of the problems and about what potential solutions would look like. And when the two groups were tested on what they’d learned, the second group “significantly outperformed” the first.

The apparent struggles of the floundering group have what Kapur calls a “hidden efficacy”: they lead people to understand the deep structure of problems, not simply their correct solutions. When these students encounter a new problem of the same type on a test, they’re able to transfer the knowledge they’ve gathered more effectively than those who were the passive recipients of someone else’s expertise.

Kapur argues we need to “design for productive failure” by building it into the learning process.

In the process of his work he’s identified three conditions that promote a beneficial struggle:

1. Choose problems that “challenge but do not frustrate.”
2. Allow students to explain and elaborate on what they’re doing.
3. Compare and contrast both good and bad solutions to the problems.

Still curious? Use the Feynman technique to learn anything better and faster.

The Feynman Technique: The Best Way to Learn Anything

There are four simple steps to the Feynman Technique, which I’ll explain below:

  1. Choose a Concept
  2. Teach it to a Toddler
  3. Identify Gaps and Go Back to The Source Material
  4. Review and Simplify (optional)

***

If you’re not learning you’re standing still. So what’s the best way to learn new subjects and identify gaps in our existing knowledge?

Two Types of Knowledge

There are two types of knowledge and most of us focus on the wrong one. The first type of knowledge focuses on knowing the name of something. The second focuses on knowing something. These are not the same thing. The famous Nobel winning physicist Richard Feynman understood the difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something and it’s one of the most important reasons for his success. In fact, he created a formula for learning that ensured he understood something better than everyone else.

It’s called the Feynman Technique and it will help you learn anything faster and with greater understanding. Best of all, it’s incredibly easy to implement.

“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.”

— Mortimer Adler

There are four steps to the Feynman Technique.

Step 1: Teach it to a child

Take out a blank sheet of paper and write the subject you want to learn at the top. Write out what you know about the subject as if you were teaching it to a child. Not your smart adult friend but rather an 8-year-old who has just enough vocabulary and attention span to understand basic concepts and relationships.

A lot of people tend to use complicated vocabulary and jargon to mask when they don’t understand something. The problem is we only fool ourselves because we don’t know that we don’t understand. In addition, using jargon conceals our misunderstanding from those around us.

When you write out an idea from start to finish in simple language that a child can understand (tip: use only the most common words), you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas. If you struggle, you have a clear understanding of where you have some gaps. That tension is good –it heralds an opportunity to learn.

Step 2: Review

In step one, you will inevitably encounter gaps in your knowledge where you’re forgetting something important, are not able to explain it, or simply have trouble connecting an important concept.
This is invaluable feedback because you’ve discovered the edge of your knowledge. Competence is knowing the limit of your abilities, and you’ve just identified one!
This is where the learning starts. Now you know where you got stuck, go back to the source material and re-learn it until you can explain it in basic terms.
Identifying the boundaries of your understanding also limits the mistakes you’re liable to make and increases your chance of success when applying knowledge.

Step 3: Organize and Simplify

Now you have a set of hand-crafted notes. Review them to make sure you didn’t mistakenly borrow any of the jargon from the source material. Organize them into a simple story that flows.
Read them out loud. If the explanation isn’t simple or sounds confusing that’s a good indication that your understanding in that area still needs some work.

Step 4 (optional): Transmit

If you really want to be sure of your understanding, run it past someone (ideally who knows little of the subject –or find that 8-year-old!). The ultimate test of your knowledge is your capacity to convey it to another.

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Not only is this a wonderful recipe for learning but it’s also a window into a different way of thinking that allows you to tear ideas apart and reconstruct them from the ground up. (Elon Musk calls this thinking from first principles.) This leads to a much deeper understanding of the ideas and concepts. Importantly, approaching problems in this way allows you to understand when others don’t know what they are talking about.

Feynman’s approach intuitively believes that intelligence is a process of growth, which dovetails nicely with the work of Carol Dweck, who beautifully describes the difference between a fixed and growth mindset.

Are You A Learning Machine?

The same advice from three remarkably different people: Become a Learning Machine.

Charlie Munger says:

I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up and boy does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.

Carol Dweck says:

You have to apply yourself each day to becoming a little better. By applying yourself to the task of becoming a little better each and every day over a period of time, you will become a lot better.

And this tidbit from Susan Cain, also fits:

…identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly.