The best way to learn something depends on what you're learning. Broadly-speaking, the things you learn can be divided into thinking/doing and conscious/unconscious. We can thus break the learning landscape into four kinds of learning: conceptual learning, rote learning, kinesthetic learning and discipline.
- Conscious thinking = Conceptual learning is critical thinking. It includes all kinds of critical thinking such as higher math, dialectical reasoning, puzzle solving and philosophy.
- Unconscious thinking = Rote learning is mindless memorization. It includes times tables, vocabulary, geography, the alphabet and the dates of historical events.
- Conscious doing = Kinesthetic learning is everything you do. It includes the raw act itself of drawing, slight of hand, marksmanship and dancing.
- Unconscious doing = Discipline is about training unconscious habits like attention. It includes meditation, lucid dreaming, perseverance, determination, obedience, self-sacrifice, pain tolerance and addiction recovery.
In the American school system I grew up in, conceptual learning is prized, kinesthetic learning receives lip service and rote learning is derided. Discipline is taboo. This might have something to do with living in a free society. Critical thinking has good connotations because it's impossible to coerce. Discipline is simple to coerce. Coerced discipline is called "brainwashing". Ironically, this emphasis on conceptual learning runs opposite to compulsory schools' strengths. As coercive institutions, they're better at teaching discipline than critical thinking.
For each type of learning there is an optimal way to do it.
- Concepts are best learned by discussing them in debates, teaching and writing. A free, egalitarian atmosphere is conducive to conceptual learning because it creates the conditions for good feedback.
- Rote learning is about scheduling. The best way to memorize simple information is via spaced repetition. It's so mindless you can do it with software.
- Kinesthetics are learned by doing them over-and-over again. Quantity of practice is the name of the game. Using your skill in the real world is usually (but not always) the best way to get these hours in.
- Discipline is learned via habituation. It's about minimizing the time you aren't disciplined. Sobriety is about how infrequently you drink. Not how often you don't.
What follows are a few examples of how I apply this framework to learn different things
I started learning Chinese with a little kinesthetic practice to learn the pronunciation. Then I delved into rote learning for a long time to amass vocabulary. Now that my vocabulary has reached a basic level of utility it's time I dial back the spaced repetition and so I can practice the kinesthetic skills of reading and conversing instead.
Until recently, the best way to measure my progress was by the size of the vocabulary I'd amassed. Now the number to optimize is how many hours I'm absorbing information in Chinese.
When I first started learning to draw, I prioritized developing my conceptual toolkit of how artists look at the world. Now that I've got the hang of line, value and form it's time to shift into kinesthetic mode. It no longer matters so much how hard I think about what I draw. I just need to put in the hours.
Conceptual, rote and kinesthetic learning can do nothing more for me here. It's all about creating the right habits.
I've long ago mastered the kinesthetic sense of misdirection. If I wanted to improve my magic act I'd have to go back to studying on a rote or conceptual level.
I haven't read many books recently. This has made me uneasy because I associate books so strongly with learning. But books make the most sense for rote and conceptual learning. The things I'm learning right now are primarily kinesthetic and disciplinary, a place books can't help me.