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Learning How 2 Learn – In context 3D Printing

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Last year Dr. MM Pant a visionary educationist and a leader par excellence, gave me this unique opportunity to be a co-presenter alongside him in a WhatsApp based course, that he was doing on Learning How to Learn. The topic has been inspired by Dr. Barbara Oakland and it’s my endeavor to put forth the answers to some of the questions/topics below. 

AS 3.1: Why people fail to learn? Can everyone learn?

There is no one reason why people fail to learn, but a multitude of them. It could be procrastination, lack of focus, too much repetition, poor understanding etc. For example cramming just before an exam fails to impact our learning but may get us the grades (a short-term view/approach). As discussed before in the group too, testing students for a short time under controlled environment is being thought about as not a very good way of assessment of one’s learning.

As children we are not afraid to make mistakes, but as adults we stop asking questions and that’s where our learning gets reduced.  People at times learn languages to show off, but that’s not learning. It’s the ‘impostor syndrome’ as adults we carry it more often than children. Actual learning is when you want to speak that language as you are motivated to do so, want to learn that particular culture etc. For example, when I was in Afghanistan for a short stint, I picked up the local language DARI with the help of my boss and my own conditioning towards learning their language. I am a keen traveler and always like to know a region’s customs & culture. So through the language, its best done.

So is it possible that everyone can learn at any age? The answer is a simple ‘yes’. Keep an active circle from whom you can learn, bounce off ideas, join WhatsApp group like Dr. Pant’s etc. Keep a fitness regime (be it playing a sport, walking, doing yoga, jogging etc) where your physical exercise helps the brain keep active. For example learning any new skill such as 3D printing, chiaroscuro etc, helps flex mental muscles, gets you out of your comfort zone and gives you a sense of achievement during & post-learning. Exercise also, for example, builds neural structures. Astrocytes provide nutrients to neurons that play a role in our learning.


AS 3.2: What is your learning disposition?

The Chinese, Greeks, Egyptians, Indians etc. have from time immemorial stressed on the concept, ‘know thyself’.  The analogy here is that it’s very important to know what your learning disposition or temper, nature towards learning is. For instance, rote learning is commonly preached but is not necessarily the best form of learning. However, spaced out repetition and learning over days rather than a few hours is ideal. Understanding & learning go hand in hand. Without the former the latter doesn’t happen, even if it does, the retention is doubtful.

Humans have the prefrontal cortex, using which we can focus on an idea. When focusing avoid distractions such as checking an email, answering a call etc. Put out the noises with say using noise cancelling headphones, being in a quieter place etc. Its then, that one can use the focused mind to the best of its ability. It’s advised to start with the diffused mind and zoom in with the focused mind. Intermittently shifting from the diffused to the focus and vice versa helps us to learn from a problem or issue and ultimately solve it. We get various scenarios, options, views etc just as when we zoom in and zoom out in our cameras.

Another way of learning is through observation. I remember in one of my factory visits in our group, there was a Japanese gentleman with a notepad & pen continuously noting down what he was seeing or being told/described. In my 3D printing lectures I encourage my students to take notes, so they can ask questions later or their recall is easier.

A person should try & discover his or her own way of learning which is best suited. There are methodologies that can be followed, to the extent that they make you realize your best way or catapult you to the next level of learning. Personally speaking, post association with Dr. Pant and doing the MOOC of Dr. Barbara Oakley, my learning disposition has improved.


AS 3.3: Overcoming Procrastination, getting motivated, achieving mastery

Procrastination is simply delaying what should be or could be done now. Avoid it at all times as continued procrastination has the power to negatively compound our issues. Procrastination starts small and grows so much that its long-term effects are harmful/detrimental.  One way of dealing with it is to tackle the difficult tasks or say questions first. A student taking an exam should first focus on the difficult questions, then if not getting the solution go on to the easy ones, to later come back to the difficult ones. This is somewhat akin to the saying, ‘face the fear and the fear goes away’ or a way of deliberate practice/learning. 

Another way of getting motivated or achieving mastery is the Pomodoro technique. Pomodoro is a method wherein time your learning or say learning/working in terms of 25 / 30 minutes slots. Then you take a break of say 5-10 minutes and resume. According to person to person, this could also be working continuously for 6 days (on say a short project) and then take a break of 1 day. Alternatively, you work 15 days (say a long project) at a stretch and then take a long weekend off.

Similarly, when learning, reward yourself upon reaching a certain level. This reward could be like taking a break, going for a meal to your favourite place, movie etc. This reward (a way of self-motivation) stimulates your brain and pushes you to learn more. Pre – deciding the time you will spend on learning, helps you to manage time efficiently and allocate the same efficiently. Correspondingly it is proven, that sleeping over what you have learned helps in better retention. Sleep cleans metabolic toxins in our brain, strengthens memories and rehearses difficult materials over & over again. Sleep deprived individuals end up being poor performers/learners in the long run. However sleeping too long, makes us groggy and reverses the benefits aforementioned.

Mastery can be achieved when you avoid over learning and avoid developing a mindset due to preconceived notions/ideas. As mentioned, spaced out learning is ideal for a long-term retention of the learning. Test yourself on your learning to develop a mastery over what you have learned. This is something I do as well in our 3D printing trainings; frequent testing on what’s been learned & spaced out learning after 6 – 9 months of practice with a refresher workshop. It’s also suggested to start answering questions first on what you want to learn. Lack of those answers stimulates your hunger to learn that particular subject. Engaging in discussions with people or group problem solving is also a good way to learn. It especially helps to bounce off ideas and get many views. Doing anything yourself is true understanding, expertise & mastery.


Drawing up a learning strategy:

AS 4.1: Learning is not a spectator sport: focused and diffused learning

As touched upon in post 3.2, there are 2 kinds of learning using our diffused brain or focused brain. The prefrontal cortex is the focused brain and is useful when we are focusing on an issue. However, it’s also like a whiteboard signifying short-term memory. Our long-term memory is like a warehouse of information and is on the rear side of the brain. With diffused brain, you can create efficient chunks of information. Chunking will be discussed in detail in the next post.

Many of the great scientists/visionaries of their time like Edison, Lincoln etc began with a thought in the diffused brain and then moved onto focusing on it to find solutions & in the process learn.  It’s said that Edison sat with a ball and kept throwing it endlessly against the wall while focusing on the thought or problem. President Obama is said to close his eyes for a few seconds, sit back and focus on an issue or problem at hand before going further. Make problem a family member, get into the problem and then solve it. Living inside it we see the solution. To paraphrase Ralph W. Emerson, ‘there’s more to it inside than outside of you.’

When drawing up a learning strategy, exercise is essential for a brain as it refreshes it. Continuous learning without a break is not so productive & efficient. Instead , jog, walk, cycle for some time and come back to what you are learning. That learning will be far intense, faster & long lasting. Similarly, exercising your hand that is making notes while reading, is a good strategy for having a higher recall. Highlighting is also a good way to flag what’s important.

However when writing a report or a long piece of work use a sheet of paper in landscape to pen down all your ideas and write continuously. It’s best to maintain the flow, so no editing while writing, but later proof reading. Alternatively if you are writing on the laptop / desktop, try and turn off the screen or put an opaque sheet on it. This way, you do not see what is written and there is no distraction of editing wrongly typed or written text. The central idea again being, to not disturb the flow. Writing is best done with the diffused brain and editing with a focused brain. Sloppiness in spellings, grammar etc post editing is always unacceptable. 


AS 4.2: Nano-learning: Chunking

Chunking is the process of holding bits of meaningful information together logically, towards learning any topic. It’s like holding relevant bits of a puzzle to form a larger picture later. One has to give undivided attention, understand the basic idea and be focused when chunking. Practice & spaced repetition too help in chunking. The better our chunked library the more efficiently we can deploy / transfer it in other learning as well. Its creative flexibility aiding our recall & accessibility of what we have chunked. This too aids in our learning.

The best knitted chunks could be that of playing music or learning a language. So chunking has 4 key components:

  1. Focused attention – avoiding distractions, being in a quitter place, using noise cancelling head phones to stamp out unwanted sounds.
  2. Practice – spaced out and repeated.
  3. Understanding – avoid cramming, know less but know it inside out.
  4. Context – central idea, easy to relate to.

A concept related to this is the focus on the process v/s. product. Product is the end result and process is the key to reaching the product. Focusing on the process is like the saying, ‘journey should be as or more enjoyable than reaching the destination itself’. Focusing on the product leads us to procrastination.

Always remember the law of serendipity: lady luck favours the one who tries. So like chunking there could be other learning strategies as well that work for you. Its best to understand your own self and what works best for you. But the underlying point being, ‘keep trying and at last you will succeed’, an often quoted statement by my Modern School Hindi teacher Mr. D.K. Pant.


AS 4.3: Illusions of competence

By going through solutions of a problem we are putting ourselves in an illusion that we know it or can handle it. ‘I know it all’ approach may be an illusion. So testing is one way of removing these illusions. Correcting our mistakes corrects our thinking / approach. Also recalling in different environments helps us learn better.

Illusions of incompetence are best avoided using the following:

  1. Highlight in a paragraph / page, the critical or crucial points – We tend to underline or highlight a lot of information on a page or paragraph when reading. This misses the critical point for us, so underline what’s important.
  2. Testing – Testing post learning is a good way to strengthen what you have just learnt or understood.
  3. Using deliberate practice – Regular learning’s have to be deliberate and as there cannot be frequent accidental learning.
  4. Mistakes are good – Mistakes are like failures and failures as told by many are the stepping stones for future success. (FAIL – first attempt in learning)

Einstellung is a mind set that prevents us from finding a better solution due to preconceived ideas and notions. It keeps one from being flexible. A way of tackling it, is to look at the approaches / techniques of other people to handle & solve such problems. Being in a mission or challenge mode, helps one get to achieving one’s objectives. ‘Always try to surpass what you’ve already mastered’ (author unknown) sums up my posts & discussion.