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Learning to Learn

Strange as it seems, during my 16 years as a student, not one of my teachers discussed how to learn. Are you as interested in learning as me?


For humans, learning is as natural and as automatic as breathing. But that doesn’t mean there’s no benefit to thinking about it. In fact, research on learning is now advancing and important assumptions are being overturned or reinforced.


Becoming expert is one important area illuminated by new research. Our time is called ‘the age of specialization’ because most of us want to become masters of one or more domains – so information on mastery is helpful.

Mastery doesn’t seem as automatic as basic learning. There must be special factors involved, since we don’t automatically become expert at everything we learn or practice. For example, most of us learn to drive a car, but few of us become masterful drivers. Instead we reach a certain level of proficiency and then stop improving – even if we accumulate lots of practice by driving thousands of miles a year.


That old saw, ‘practice makes perfect’ isn’t enough to explain mastery. While experts agree that practice is critical, it’s really more like ‘Perfect practice makes perfect’
– and ‘Imperfect practice makes imperfect’. So what factors make mastery practice more perfect?


Researchers have confirmed some popular assumptions. For one, it takes time to become a master – and lots of it! Typically, you can expect to spend at least 10 years of your life mastering anything non-trivial. Notice how that’s about the minimum time it takes to get a PHD? People are in a hurry these days, but mastery is not something you can hurry much.


Mastery is also hard work. That means you’ll need lots of motivation and dedication to succeed at it. This leads to the idea that there are advantages to mastering something you love doing – something you want to do when it’s playtime instead of work time. Since few of us love to work, but we all love to play, making your favorite play into your work makes it easier to do more of it, do it better and get more from the experience.

One reason mastery is tough work and not automatic is that you progress only by constant challenge. You must frequently turn your goals up a notch, in order to keep improving. When your practice starts to get easy, it’s time to step up to the next
level of difficulty. Without this self-imposed struggle, you’d soon reach a ‘learning plateau’ and stop improving. In mastery you can never stop outdoing yourself. It’s that old ‘No pain – No gain’ principle.


Research with chess masters shows that they aren’t smarter than other chess players. They don’t score higher on intelligence tests, plan farther ahead, have photographic memories or analyze every possible move like a computer. Their power is not from analyzing many moves, but from quickly recognizing which is the one very best move. To work this apparent magic, they rely on a mental history of past moves, a system for classifying such moves and strong pattern recognition skills.

This must be another reason mastery takes so long. The master has to develop a mental library of past experiences and also polish those mental classification and retrieval skills.


Many people believe in the concept of ‘talent’ – this idea that some people are born with special abilities which forever render them superior in certain ways to everyone else.

Researchers have found that talent is much overrated in gaining mastery. Most ‘Child prodigies’ and ‘geniuses’ were found to have worked just as hard and taken just as long to master their specialties as everyone else – though they may start sooner and
therefore surprise people with their youthful mastery.

Historical studies show that many prodigies and geniuses owe their record-breaking careers not to an innate talent at some particular career, but rather to an arbitrary decision about their future careers made by their parents! While every specialty has certain prerequisites, mastery seems more a matter of nurture than nature.


As a student, a teacher, an amateur scientist and an aspiring visual artist, I’ve developed some opinions on learning and creativity.

Personally, I’d have to say this concept of ‘talent’ is too often a copout for the lazy or timid ones. Believing in talent and deciding you don’t have any is a rational excuse for such people to lower their levels of anxiety and effort – at the cost of dull lives.


Although many teachers and educational systems have managed to overcome this, learning is naturally fun. Never let schools or teachers interfere with your learning or your enjoyment of it.


And that’s a good thing, because you should never stop learning. It’s one thing you can enjoy late in life, long after you’re best physical performances are in the past. And ’Use it or lose it’ applies to the mind also. Stay young at heart by always learning and practicing the mental activities you love.


I’ve found teaching others is one of the best ways to learn. That’s because you have to get things straight in your own mind before you can clearly explain them to others. And students have a way of finding and testing the gaps and weak spots in your understanding, so that it improves over time. Students are also great at disabusing you of your comfortable illusions.


I like to joke that my life’s desire is very simple. It’s just to learn everything about how everything works.

There’s nothing wrong with mastering several areas, if you have several areas of interest. But don’t expect to reach the level of expertise in each that someone who concentrates on only one area achieves. ‘Jack of all trades and master of none’ is a saying with some truth to it.


Learning is so critical to your success that it seems wise to pay close attention to it.

I’d recommend that you:

1. Keep an eye on the research – much is being learned

2. Minimize ‘time-to-mastery’ by putting in lots of regular practice and fully challenging yourself.

3. Consider your decisions about mastery carefully, realizing that you’re making a long term commitment. Changing later can cost you a lot of time.

4. Don’t fall for the myth that you can’t be a master because you lack ‘talent’.

5. Chose things you love to do as areas for mastery. Why spend most of your time on things you don’t enjoy?

6. Use teaching, or at least advising, as a method of improving your learning.

Here’s to your learning!

Copyright © 2006 Jim Coe Art Head Start Jim Coe is a learner, jack of several trades, 3D artist, photographer, writer and former art college teacher. Art Head, features his art skills ebook, free 3D tutorials, free 3D models and more.

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