Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything
August 08, 2017
Ulrich Boser has written a great guide on the science of learning, and developing the "ultimate survival tool" of the 21st century—learning how to learn.
William Jeffries recently told Audie Cornish of NPR that "nobody loves lectures more than I do." And he meant it. He has even written the chapter on lectures in two medical education textbooks. But, as the Dean of the Larner College of Medicine, he is leading the effort to put an end to lectures for medical students. The reason is simple: they don't work.
As Ulrich Boser writes in his book, Learn Better:
Students in traditional lecture-based courses are 50 percent more likely to fail, according to one recent study. One Nobel laureate told me that he thought that traditional lecture courses were simply "unethical."
If lectures don't work, what does? That is the subject of Ulrich's book. And it is focused on the individual, rather than any institution, so it is applicable to everyone reading this sentence.
We usually chalk up our academic and professional success (or lack thereof) to whatever innate intelligence we were born with. As someone who struggled mightily in school as a child, Boser knows that learning is more complicated than that—and, paradoxically, more simple when we understand that fact. There has been a wealth of cognitive science research in the past few decades, and what it points to is that we can (and have to) learn how to learn. Rather than being a passive accumulation and memorization of knowledge and facts, learning should be viewed as a form of mental doing that we take part in and ownership of. It is, indeed, a process we can master, and in a digitized world where information, once scarce, is now freely available at the push of a button, it is of paramount important to that we do:
We have to realize that in a world filled with data, when facts and figures flow as freely as water, when even cars are driving themselves, we have to be able to acquire new forms of expertise quickly and effectively. Learning to learn is what experts call the "ultimate survival tool," one of the most important talents of the modern era, the skill that preceded all other skills. Because once you know how to learn, you can learn almost anything, and as a society, we need much richer forms of education, where information and knowledge work to foster the problem-solving skills that ultimately matter.
Because facts now "flow freely as water," there is a danger that we not assign them their proper value. But acquiring knowledge is still important, and "memorization remains a powerful learning tool," even in an era when we can look anything up in a matter of minutes if not seconds. Simply put, facts still matter. "Knowledge," Boser insists, "serves as the bedrock of learning."
But knowing the facts is just the start, and when people engage in learning, they also need to understand relationships, to identify cause and effect, to see analogies and similarities. In the end, the goal of learning is about shifting how we think about a fact or idea, and when we learn, we aim to learn a system of thought.
So if you work for an advertising company, one of the key skills might be explaining how a client can take advantage of what's in the news that morning. If you're a stockbroker, it's making sense of how weather changes might impact the sales of grain.
Boser comes from an educational policy background. He is currently a senior fellow at a think tank in Washington D.C., where he works on education issues. But this isn't an academic or an issues-based book. It is a practical, process-based guide to help us understand and manage our own learning. Their are six steps of learning, or learning how to learn. You must learn to Value, Target, Develop, Extend, Relate, and Rethink what you are learning. Learn Better is structured around these six steps in six successive chapters, but Boser is clear that these steps don't always happen sequentially or evenly when learning something in real life. But it is a process, emotional as well as an intellectual, that you must engage in. And, if you're a manager or leader, you must engage others in that process to help them grow and develop these thinking skills. The tools to do so are all here. It simply requires us to take part:
When it comes to learning, meaning isn't something that finds us. It's something that we need to uncover on our own.
Of course, it helps if you have a good teacher, and Boser is definitely that. The steps are richly illustrated with a wide variety of stories, and he knows how to tell them in a way to make the reader immediately invested in it—to find the value in it. (He knows how to employ his own steps.) Relating the story of a pilot error that led to a 1987 plane crash in Detroit, he first tells you about the people on that plane—not just the pilots. Most of us have never flown an airplane, but almost all of us have flown in an airplane. By dedicating a brief paragraph to the passengers, putting something of their stories into the narrative, it becomes instantly more relatable and less abstract to us. We're more invested in finding the solution, which he then offers. He uses that story to teach us about the importance of situational awareness, and to demonstrate that it is a learnable skill. All that has to be done is to think more effectively about how we think, and how we gain new skills. We have to learn how to learn. Learn Better is a great guide to that process.
We have 20 copies available.