4 Kinds of Learning

by lsusr3 min read8th Mar 20204 comments

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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[1]. Discipline is taboo[2]. 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

Chinese

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.

Drawing

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.

Lucid Dreaming

Conceptual, rote and kinesthetic learning can do nothing more for me here. It's all about creating the right habits.

Magic Tricks

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.

Books

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.


  1. As usual, medical school remains an exception. ↩︎

  2. Individual variation in discipline are not taboo. The acknowledgment of discipline as a trainable attribute is taboo. ↩︎

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4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:25 PM
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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.

I thought it was interesting that books weren't on this list.

Hello. I checked the titles of your articles on lsusr.com and lesswrong but I didn't see anything about lucid dreaming. I am really passionate about it, read a dozen articles, and read an e-book too, but none were effective. To be honest, I didn't do exactly as they said but I wonder if your experience would be of help for me.

I appreciate it if you share some tips for lucid dreaming. 

You didn't miss anything. There is no material about lucid dreaming on my blog.

Lucid dreaming isn't complicated. More reading probably will not help you. There are no magic bullets. If you want it to work you should do exactly what they say. If you're not doing exactly what they say then that's probably your problem. You should at an absolute minimum fill out your dream diary every single day with as much as you can remember.

Thank you for your attention.

I do write down - to be precise, type - most of my dreams. I say most because many of them are too blurry that I forget them as soon as I wake up. And many of them are lost because of my own negligence. 

Considering your strong emphasis on filling out a diary, perhaps I should go back to the old-school way and jot down my dreams in a notebook. Perhaps it serves the purpose more effectively.