to learn, faster or slower

I teach a class where we start with a discussion about our definitions of the verb, “to learn.” I like this for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I, myself, spend a career studying this verb and yet I still consider it an open question. I stand by and even embrace my confusion, motioning to it as though it’s hovering above me, gesturing with open palms and shrugged shoulders. When we talk about someone “learning” something, it comes in distinctly different forms. We learn to throw a strike. We learn the capital of Oregon. We learn how to factor quadratics. We learn a language. We learn to relate to others; and we learn to understand the self. None of these is the same as another.

The capital of Oregon is Salem, by the way.

I recently had a couple of examples that contrasted our definitions of learning especially well. This was during a trip to Austin and specifically attendance at SXSWedu. As South By Southwest (SXSW) in its original form was designed to bring together new music and new ideas (not to mention lots of people and money), the edu spinoff is intended to focus attention on innovations on teaching and learning. It offers a lot of promise in technological innovation and business enterprise, and even as a few people might be shaking things up from time to time, you still see an expo where there’s a steady glow of tablets and a hum of small programable robots, overhead and underfoot.

An example of that enterprising orientation to education was showcased through Tim Ferriss’s keynote, a kind of “fireside chat” with his old friend Charles Best. Charles posed questions to Tim in a guided conversation on cushioned furniture accompanied by tall glasses of water and big screens with multiple camera angles. I suspect there’s a lot to admire in Ferriss’s record: he’s sold books and fostered a movement with presentations and followers. He’s received acclaim and gushing reviews for guiding us towards a more efficient workweek and wealth, and most recently he’s interviewed and gleaned advice from successful individuals and how they’ve achieved their own expertise. Ferriss, for his part, has learned languages and swimming and Stoic philosophy — to name a few pieces of his collection — and he tries to help others learn how to “learn” more things more quickly. At the heart of his message was this: you can learn more and more quickly by subsuming the essence of things into simple nuggets and taking them in with complete focus and intentionality.

Of course, there’s more to it than this — he’s written entire books, after all. But as I go back through my notes I have words from his conversation that I’d circled in ink: skills, remember, mastery, behave, conditioning, absorb. I was trying to use these to give me a framework for how he was defining “to learn.” His learning fit into two categories for me: remembering things and doing things. At face value it’s adequate enough. You learn to play piano or you need to remember all the names of people in the room. Or, maybe learning a language is a combination of words you need to remember with the skill of stringing them together. It’s reasonable; we learn lots of things like this.

When we were in the Question and Answer period of the presentation, one of the queries asked if faster learning was always better. He said “yes,” confidently and emphatically, even when an audience member challenged the notion. Again, it stands to some reason. Why wouldn’t you want learning to be fast and more efficient? My physics students would certainly want it this way, and what could be wrong with this? Or, what could it be leaving out? In general, doesn’t it make sense that if you need to know something that you should get that knowledge quickly and move on to the next thing, perhaps even putting it to use?

There’s an entire industry that’s devoted to helping us learn more efficiently. I often see advertisements like this:

The InterWebWorks know that I’m an instructor, and they know that not only would it be nice for my students to learn more efficiently, but that I probably would like to make the process more efficient from my end as well. Top Hat is but one of a crowded collection of services that would be happy to help us. Here we see the students facing forward, rapt in attention, consuming information as efficiently as possible. The verb “slurp” comes to mind: I picture a tube of information that we want to direct as completely and directly into these students’ psyches. If learning is the consumption of information, then Top Hat should take my students’ money and I should deliver compelling and efficient TED-esque presentations. There are times and subjects that would be completely appropriate for this mode. It’s compelling.

It could be compelling. But, then, I’ve met Aunt Mary.

John, my dear friend and accomplice, introduced me to Aunt Mary the previous evening. (Aunt Mary is actually John’s aunt-in-law, but it doesn’t seem inappropriate to claim her as an aunt to all of us. Or, at least, I would like to claim her as family for myself.) She was looking forward to dinner with us at a restaurant in South Austin where she and I both enjoyed the scallops. Strikingly, she had been telling her friends how she was so looking forward to dinner with two scientists. To John and me, this sounds a little funny. Who really wants to have dinner with us? But then there is something remarkable in this. Of course that could be interesting, if you take the time to soak it in. How do you get to know someone? For that matter, how do you get a feel for nature, a scientific way of knowing, or the human condition? How do you get a feel for how others know about things, how they shape their thinking, where the poetry of their models comes from? I suspect that you start by sitting down with a glass of wine and scallops. It’s a slow process.

Learning things like taking on a perspective, a culture, a way of knowing — these take time. You have to be immersed and listen, and you have to challenge what you already think you know. Sure, there’s remembering everything that someone told you, but there’s a deeper understanding. My favorite writer, John McPhee, spends countless hours on the road with geologists or engineers or truck drivers not just so that he gets the facts right, but so that he understands the essence of their work, their mission, and their selves. I read John McPhee slowly.

Aunt Mary and I had each been reading a short overview of physics called Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli. She’d read it from the perspective of a novice, someone who later in life has become entranced with the natural world and what we could know about it. I’d read it from the perspective of an expert (though when I say this I feel shame — how could I claim such?), someone who has become entranced with the natural world and what we could know about it. Aunt Mary and I have so much in common tangled up in our different perspectives. That’s the heart of great conversation, and I suppose it’s the heart of a learning that’s quite different from remembering a fact or rehearsing a skill.

As I’m working on coming up with a meaning of “to learn,” it still eludes me. There are different learnings and knowings. I think that we get to know about things, but to really know the thing there’s some deeper interaction. We learn about ourselves and our identities and our cultures in different ways than we learn about the battlefields of the Revolutionary War or the parts of a cell. And, as an historian or a scientist will tell you, those latter knowings aren’t enough. You need to get a feel for the thing itself. You need to become part of it and it a part of you. This reminds me of a physics class in which Michael, my most foundational physics mentor, explained not just the equations or the theory, but how he pictured the model and where he was standing and what it felt like there, along with all his analogies and imaginings compiled on the way.

This all came back to me in my visit to Austin. I learned something from the esteemed keynote presenter, but I learned much more from Aunt Mary. I need to build on this.

Of late, it’s been hard for me to focus on this project. In fact, there have been moments when I’ve thought that it’s frivolous. In recent political maneuverings and changes, how could one think about big philosophical ideas like “What does it mean to learn?” when I am panicked about policies that radically change the landscape, both literal and metaphorical? There are policies that change how we view humanity, how we impact our climate, and how we support our most fundamental societal institutions — science, for example. So, wringing my hands about these definitions seems trite, trivial.

But I’ve recently been getting enough breath to change my mind. There’s lots for us to all work on, and the political and policy spillage that seems to shift with each newscast is critical. Yet there’s also a long view. I have to keep thinking and working on this. There has to be two, four, eight, sixteen years down the road and I have to think about where we’ll be at that point.

This is all to say that I’m renewing my own drive to document this work on what it means to learn, what spaces we do this in, and what outcomes it has. This impacts how we think about learning on a personal level — at least it does for me — and it should also have an impact on what we mean by schooling, curriculum, standards, and the like. To me, the institution of education is more sacred than any other. This inquiry is what I have to offer; it’s what I can work on; it’s my own imperative. So I’d better get on it.