The most common misconception about learning

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Where Learners Think Learning Happens: Watching, Listening and Reading

Say you have the option to enroll in two different courses:

  1. Course A consists beautiful, HD videos from an excellent teacher, patiently explaining the entire course materials. There’s also a thick book full of illustrations and explanations.
  2. Course B has no videos or textbooks. Instead, it consists only of a big stack of questions and answers.

Which class should you attend?

Believe it or not, this isn’t as hypothetical a question as it sounds. During the MIT Challenge, I often had to make a similar choice: between classes which had excellent videos and instruction, and classes which had nothing, but did contain assignments with solution keys.

Given that choice, I always went with the second option.

Most students are under the misconception that passive input—watching, listening, reading—is where learning happens and practice is simply a check on that knowledge. In other words, I learn the class during the lecture and verify that I learned it during the homework.

The truth is actually closer to the opposite. The bulk of learning for almost any usable knowledge happens during practice. Watching, listening and reading are the supplementary activity, supporting practice by filling explanatory gaps and details.

Does This Mean You Should Skip Classes?

Unfortunately, no. While I do think the traditional emphasis placed on passive learning is overrated, the most effective strategy uses BOTH passive learning and practice. Even during the MIT Challenge, I always watched lectures and read the text whenever they were available.

Rather than delete passive instruction, I suggest changing how you use it in three ways:

#1: Minimal Pre-Practice Coverage

The first strategy is to do a shallower pass of the first part of the material, thereby allowing you to get to practice quicker. This can then be followed up by diving deeper, more selectively based on the feedback you get from practice.

A clear example of this was during the MIT Challenge: watch lectures at twice the normal speed, taking sparse notes. This isn’t the best way to absorb all the information, but it saves a lot of time and gets you to the real work of learning a lot faster.

Occasionally you can skip the initial coverage altogether—just dive into practice and go back to coverage as you need it. This was the dominant method in The Year Without English when we would often encounter vocabulary and grammatical problems in practice situations before covering them in classes/books.

#2: Selective Deep Listening/Reading

Accelerating the first pass of the material means there will probably be a lot of points that still confuse you, even after it is finished. That’s normal. The solution here is that, when you get feedback from your practice efforts that doesn’t make sense, you go back to the source and cover it again.

This has the added benefit that now you know exactly what you’re looking for. Without the feedback you derive from practice, it’s very difficult to ascertain what specific points are obvious and which are tricky that you need to be paying attention to. Doing a deep dive after getting that feedback is going to be much more efficient as a result.

#3: Interleave Practice with Theory

A third tip is to avoid bunching up all your theoretical learning at once and interleave practice efforts. Many classes do this already because they force homework assignments throughout the classes. However, self-education projects often don’t enforce this discipline.

Don’t wait until you’ve watched all the videos or read the entire book before you start using the ideas. Try to break up the watching/doing into smaller chunks which will help you as you learn newer material.

Examples in Action

Here’s a few examples of how you could change up your learning efforts to make them drastically more effective by reorganizing your time spent on passive instruction:

Case #1: Learning to Program

Typical method: Buy a book on a new programming language. Read it from cover-to-cover, then sit down and start trying to apply it.

Better method: Skim the book to see what kinds of things you can do with the language and how. Start a new programming project and do your best to get started. Go back to the book when you get stuck.

Case #2: Learning Calculus

Typical method: Watch all the lectures first. Still feel confused, watch even more videos. Finally start doing some problems (if at all).

Better method: Start with some problems. Whenever you don’t understand the answer, go to a video about the topic of the problem and watch carefully for the explanation. Repeat.

Case #3: Learning History

Typical method: Read a bunch of books. Never do anything with it.

Better method: Decide to write an essay about what you’re learning in history. Skim some books to create an outline. Read deeply from multiple sources to fill in the gaps in citations you need to finish off your essay.

Now It’s Your Turn

Practice doesn’t need to be hard though—to implement this idea, just think about ONE thing that you’re trying to learn and ask yourself if there is one way you could apply one of the three strategies we mentioned earlier (minimizing pre-practice coverage, selectively deepening post-practice coverage and interleaving practice with coverage).

Want to Learn History? Read Biographies, Not History Books

History is a powerful subject. Knowing the past allows you to understand the present. Understanding history overcomes the myopia of our limited lifetimes. History shows us alternative points of view and can show that our own perspectives are often parochial and arbitrary.

But history is often a hard subject to learn. Few subjects have as much factual density as history.

I believe it is this torrent of seemingly arbitrary facts, dates and people that can make learning history feel like a chore. It was the reason that I often avoided the subject, preferring to learn about math or science, which at least felt like I was making some kind of progress towards understanding.

However, I now believe I had been going about learning history the wrong way. I believe an alternative strategy for learning history, which is seldom suggested, is to focus on biographies instead of history books.

Why Biographies?

The biggest advantage to reading biographies is that our brains are not designed to store arbitrary facts. We remember stories better than trivia, and biographies ground a lifetime’s worth of historical events in the story of a single individual.

I had an interest in understanding the contemporary history of China ever since my trip, but it had mostly confused me. What was the difference between the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward? What came first, the Japanese occupation, the Kuomintang or the Communist Party? How did China start economic reforms? Were China and Russia allies or not?

Many of these events were confusing because they were presented as arbitrary facts and dates without any context. I had no memory structure to pin all of the details to, so in cases where the situation changed (China was closely allied with the Soviets under Stalin, but changed after Mao’s relationship with Khruschev soured) it often became hard to remember the facts.

The book that made sense for me wasn’t a history book, but the biography of Deng Xiaoping, Chairman Mao’s successor whose economic reforms turned China into a world power. By placing all of the tumultuous contemporary history of China through the eyes of one man and his associates, the history became accessible.

I’ve had a similar experience reading biographies of Albert Einstein to understand both early physics and the World Wars, Leonardo da Vinci to understand the history of Renaissance art and Daniel Kahneman to understand the history of Israel and experimental psychology.

The Problem with History is That There is Too Much of It

If your goal is comprehensive historical knowledge, biographies may feel like a backwards approach. This can feel like trying to see the forest by meticulously examining a single tree. Why go in-depth into just one person’s viewpoint, when there are thousands to see?

But this is exactly the problem with history, there’s simply too much of it. Trying to see everything at once doesn’t make you an expert—it just exhausts you with minutia.

Narrowing on a single biography allows you to shut the filter the information down to a meaningful chunk. If you pick the right person, you’ll still get generous coverage of historical events, but the events won’t feel as arbitrary and scattered. They will all be connected through a single source.

What About “Big History” Books?

Another alternative strategy that compresses history into an easily remembered narrative is to read “big history” books. These are books like Yuval Harari’s Sapiens or Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which try to tie many events together within a single framework.

I do think reading “big history” books has its merits. But the challenge with such books is that they often selectively cite and omit details to make a compelling historical narrative. The problem may be that there is no simple “story” which accurately conveys a lot of history, and as such, books with grand theories offer a lens for viewing the world which may be distorted.

Biographers are by no means perfect, and also suffer from biases when telling their stories. But because the historical details of an individual’s life are more naturally suited for a storytelling format, the need to distort to make the information comprehensible is lower.

In all, I think both biographies and “big history” books with strong theses can be useful, but the former is a relatively underused strategy by people who want to “get” history.

Who Shouldn’t Follow This Approach?

In arguing for reading biographies as a method to understand history, I’ve made some assumptions.

First, I’ve assumed that your goal is to have better historical understanding, not to pass a specific test. Obviously, if you’re in a history class that uses a particular history text, read that text, not a random biography of someone from the time period.

Second, I’ve assumed your interest in history is modest, not intense. Historians and others who are serious about learning history can overcome the difficulty of traditional history texts with serious study. I’m sure if my interests in post-dynastic China had been serious enough to make a full effort, reading dozens of texts may impart an even less-biased picture than a single biography might. The value of reading biographies isn’t that it gives the most accurate picture, but that it gives a particularly accessible one.

Third, some historical ideas might not work well within the framework of biographies. Understanding Buddhism, Western art or life in ancient Mesopotamia might require spans of hundreds of years, of which there may not be a biographical vantage point to understand the trends. Here the only solution is to read more traditional historical texts.

Still, as a tool for understanding history, I think reading biographies is an underused strategy. It has the benefits of organizing the information in a relatively comprehensible fashion, without some of the more severe distortions of books that attempt the same with larger swaths of history.

What’s your opinion on this method for learning history? Agree or disagree, I’m interested to hear your thoughts!