Learning is... kind of everything. It helps us to get what we want and to take us to where we want, even showing us how—so we can become who we want. At its best, it’s also figuring out the why of something, which is actually the most important and informative part as far as critical thinking and problem-solving goes.
So here’s a quick and unscientific look at how people actually figure things out. Nearly every project Tremendousness does introduces us to some new idea, process, product, or approach that we've got to (quickly) understand well enough to explain visually. So all of these approaches tend to blend together, depending on the thing we’re seeking to understand. That said, all of these approaches also apply to life in general—whether you're in school or halfway through a career.
Yeah, just do it... if possible. “Doing” often feels like the most effort, but tends to be the most valuable. When you do something over and over, your experience can help you get better at it as you internalize it. That’s why it’s also referred to as experiential learning. I saw a great example recently that applied to both kids in school and adults working on their health:
“I sometimes worry that the word teach leads us astray in academe. The word suggests that our job as faculty members is to put new knowledge into our students’ heads. But in my experience the best learning occurs when students teach themselves — when they discover something on their own. And that’s what happened in this medical study.”
Only doing can lead to “flow”, that desirable but elusive state of high-quality, productive understanding realized as action or output. Doing, in fact, can lead to flow in all the following ways of learning, and all the following ways of learning can, in fact, be considered “doing” in one case or another.
Our discovery sessions often feature live sketching—drawing out ideas as people say them so we can understand things better and figure out the best way to represent the visually. This is a really fun and effective way to learn. That said, most people (including us) have insecurities about drawing. This is because, as D.B. Dowd writes in his fascinating new book Stick Figures: Drawing As A Human Practice,
“We have misfiled the significance of drawing because we see it as a professional skill instead of a personal capacity. This essential confusion has stunted our understanding of drawing and kept it from being seen as a tool for learning above all else.”
There are many, many resources for building your drawing skills, and the publisher notes that this particular book “...is a rumination on drawing, but it is not a book that will teach you how to draw. A reflection on why drawing matters, and how we might think about it as distinct from painting. Drawing as symbolic communication, not illusion-making. Not How-To, but What-For.” So drawing is another example of how learning helps us get to the why and not just the how or what.
The most abstract, least tangible approach is also the one we probably do the most—simply because we can't help it. A proven way to power-up your thinking, though, includes visualization. I'm not talking about drawing, I'm talking about mentally visualizing actions and outcomes.
"Never underestimate the power of visualisation. It may sound like a self-help mantra, but a growing body of evidence shows that mental imagery can accelerate learning and improve performance of all sorts of skills. For athletes and musicians, “going through the motions,” or mentally rehearsing the movements in the mind, is just as effective as physical training..."
But there's no reason to limit visualization to sports or music. And visualization is only one thinking technique—of course we can "think" on things in other ways, and even unconsciously. Taking a walk has been proven to boost creativity and encourage divergent thinking.
Sure, having a conversation with someone who knows what they're talking about can help you learn. Teachers, tutors, trainers, mentors, and leaders all are relied on for passing along knowledge—much of it simply by speaking with or to us. This is core to our discovery sessions. And interpersonal learning is very effective for people who are eager to interact with others and engage in conversation. But what about those who are less outgoing, or who aren't part of a session?
"Self-talk has a bad reputation; muttering to ourselves often seems to be a sign of mental distress. It’s not cool to do in public. But talking to ourselves is crucial to self-explaining and generally helpful for learning. For one thing, it slows us down — and when we’re more deliberate, we typically gain more from an experience."
Yes, talking to yourself (out loud) can help you learn. As that HBR article notes, one study showed that people who explain ideas to themselves learn almost three times more than those who don’t. So speak up! And listen too! Whether you're introverted or extroverted, self-talk can help you better think about your thinking.
While there is plenty of debate about "learning styles" (Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic) and whether they're real or not, there is no debate that the act of reading—or watching, hearing, and doing, for that matter—has been helping people learn for ages. We typically do a lot of reading in order to even get to the drawing part of our work.
"Active reading is a planned, deliberate set of strategies to engage with text-based materials with the purpose of increasing your understanding... But active reading also applies to and facilitates the other steps of the learning cycle; it is critical for preparing, capturing, and reviewing, too."
Reading seems to be the easiest and most accessible way to learn about things we can't or haven't yet experienced for ourselves. That said, reading about something complex like a piloting a plane is a very different experience from actually flying, so it can only get you so far.
Writing goes hand-in-hand with reading, but can manifest in more ways. Note taking. Instructions. Narratives. Lists. Even making mindmaps is an extremely valuable, low-impact way to wrap your head around something by writing and sorting. Mind maps also help you explore and expand creatively if...
"you are looking to improve your memory, plan your business strategy, become more organized, study for an exam or plan out your future..."
Writing and mind maps especially help us to to break down complex information, understand and memorize it, and see connections between what at first might appear to be disparate ideas. Many of our highly visuals projects begin with writing, so we can capture and confirm the most important parts of the story that eventually will need to be drawn.
We all remember those days in school when the teacher showed a movie or a video. It felt less like learning than a boring lecture, right? And we liked it that way. But it also was less like learning, simply because of this outlook. When you watch video with the intent to learn, it's a different story.
"Students today are utilizing educational videos as a tool for learning everything from changing a tire to the latest dance craze. Remarkably, millennials make up 92% of the digital video viewing audience. Abstract topics that once seemed difficult to teach and learn are now more accessible and understandable thanks to the availability of educational videos."
How-to videos on YouTube and lessons on Kahn Academy have proven the power of "watch and learn", and scientists have even identified the neural interactions necessary for observational learning. And you don't have to be a millennial to benefit.
Yeah, it's obvious that there are lots of ways to learn or understand something new or complicated, and like anything, each way has its strengths and weaknesses. One proposed weakness of the "styles of learning" model is that those methods [(Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic)] aren't actually the way people learn, it's more about how they prefer to communicate: “You can like something, but be good at it or not good at it ... [preferring a particular learning style] tells you about how you like to communicate. It tells you nothing about the quality of that communication.”
So if you want to improve at or understand something better, maybe try a little of everything: Do, Draw, Think, Talk, Read, Write, Watch. Then maybe you can fly.