We Learn the Most When we’re Doing and Thinking Together

Lighting steps

The idea of that we each have our own individual learning style originated in the 1970s. It was then that we started talking about three main ways to learn—auditory, visual, and kinesthetic (by moving around.) That insight opened the door for learning models, many of which were developed to address both the human need for concrete experience and abstract conceptualization.

    Kolb's experiential learning theory, which combines experience, perception, cognition, and behavior, also includes two related approachesReflective Observation and Active Experimentation. Boiled down to what this means for each of us, when it comes to learning, we all lean on our strengths to acquire and use knowledge.

    The pace of change is so great that we cannot afford learning in one dimension anymore.

    But the implication is not that we should learn faster, as many seem to indicate. Nor that we lack motivation because the task feels daunting, as others seem to imply. The missing link is also the necessary ingredient—and that is connecting thinking with doing, discovering what is right, with a process to control how to make it work.

    Good thinking needs to be informed. We cannot skip the necessary step of grounding ourselves in the fundamentals of human knowledge, “the best which has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold put it in Culture and Anarchy (1869). We also need to practice our ideas by engaging in conversation. 

    In other words, we need to be willing to be accountable for teaching ourselves and patient about the process. When it comes to knowledge and critical thinking, as in many worthy pursuits, competence is the result of work over the long haul. William Faulkner underscores the point at a Press conference, University of Virginia, May 20, 1957.

He says:

“At one time I thought the most important thing was talent.

I think now that—the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph.

The most important thing is insight, that is… curiosity to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don't think the talent makes much difference, whether you've got that or not.”  

    Curiosity is an important quality to cultivate, because it both implies diligence and care in seeking answers by asking better questions. It's the secret to a bigger life. Because it drives the process of learning and integrates it with the desire to acquire knowledge and skill, curiosity is a necessary ingredient for the achievement of human development. It's the human “search box,” which puts us in discovery mode.

    For the actual business of learning, we need commitment to doing. Aristotle put that succinctly:

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

    Polymaths are “people who know a lot,” but they don't limit themselves to knowing. To be part of this exclusive club, one must do something with that knowledge. It's a simple concept to understand, but not easy to do. The line between knowing what we need to do and actually doing it is not a straight one.

    We may not be aware of what motivates us, for example. Do goals excite us or do they scare us off? Do we prefer things to stay the same, or do we delight in finding exceptions? Are we excited about broadening options, or do we prefer established constrains?

    If we want to get good at commitment, it pays off to think slow and address our needs.

    And here lies another paradox of our age. Along with the idea that we build our knowledge through experience, our starting point is the knowledge of others. We literally stand on the shoulders of giants like Aristotle, Machiavelli, Da Vinci, Galileo, Fermi, Montessori, Calvino, Curie, etc.

    What we know biases us… until we open ourselves to combining it with our personal experience and the knowledge and experience of others. We use the stories we learned to understand the world, our world, and package our assumptions in a digestible format. Which our mind holds onto tightly, unless we are willing to consider and receive new and different ideas.

    As Bruce Lee says, “Life is a constant process of relating.” Continuous self-improvement is one of those relationships. The key to mastery is to engage in the process. Conversation is the tool to find and keep clarity of purpose together.

    In conversation we generate heat. To deliver light, we must follow through with doing and compassionate guidance for others in the form of action steps. Otherwise, we're just running around lighting “pick yourself” fires and burning the place down.

Machiavelli put it nicely:

“It is not titles that honor men, but men that honor titles.” 

    Replace title with status, popularity, power, and other modern trappings (and the word men with individuals—we are in 2016.)