Are You Learning, Learning, or Learning?

The Eight of Coins is about applying what you’ve learned.


Last Friday marked the end of “math camp,” a two-week intensive designed to arm incoming graduate students with the basic skills we’ll need for our first day of classes. Granted, there was no way to fail math camp, short of not showing up or not turning in the homework. There was no final exam. There were no grades. Even the homework was collaborative.

But that’s not to say I didn’t learn anything. Actually, I learned a lot. A lot about math. But also, an important lesson about learning. Namely, that there are three types of learning, each one better than the last:

Learning Because You Have To

When you were young, much of your learning was probably done under duress. You didn’t choose to go to school; it was something you were made to do. Maybe you liked English but weren’t a fan of math (or vice versa). You didn’t have a choice—you had to go to both classes, every week, for twelve years.

There is a reason for this approach—no one would choose to go to school at age 5. Someone has to force you to read and count. And while some people may never pick up another book after graduation, for others, school is an opportunity to learn what you like and what you don’t.

In either case, you probably don’t remember much of trigonometry or American lit. That’s because this type of learning was not done by choice. You didn’t enjoy it, and therefore, you did not remember it. In many cases, you weren’t truly learning the material so much as you were learning how to pass a test.

Learning Because You Want To

Once you leave academia behind, you’re out in the real world. No one is there to make you read or learn new things; your continued education is in your own hands. I’ve both practiced and preached this approach.

It’s clearly more effective than learning simply because you have to. Your interest in the material and in your own edification makes learning easier and more effective. But in the end, it’s no better.

Go to your bookshelf. Choose a book at random. Can you remember much of it? Probably not.

Learning for learning’s sake is fun, but it’s not much different than watching a whole TV series in a day—entertaining, but ultimately empty. A way to pass the time. It’s Netflix binging for smart people.

Learning Because You Need To

Had I sat in “math camp,” listened to the lectures, and never done a single practice problem, I’d know no more today than I did two weeks ago. The reason I took something away from that class is because I put the material to work. And not only that, but I knew that this material would be important later—I would/will need to know it for the rest of my career. I need to learn this material.

And so, I learned it. I practiced it. I made myself understand and finish the hard problems. I didn’t just get it down well enough to pass the test.

That’s the same reason I write this blog (and often include quotes and pieces of what I’m reading, learning, and thinking about). It gives me a reason that I need to learn and a way to apply what I’m learning.

You cannot watch yoga videos and become a yoga teacher. You cannot just follow my blog and become a writer. You cannot read about the Revolutionary War and expect to be an expert. Only through practicing these skills, only in creating a need, and only by applying them somehow, can you truly learn.


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