"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education," Mark Twain supposedly quipped.

It's a catchy witticism, but while many of us remember the quote, far too many people still fail to make the distinction between "schooling" and "learning," engineering professor, master teacher, and author Barbara Oakley believes. And that is holding us back from becoming successful lifelong learners.

Learning doesn't always look like what you did in school

This insight comes from a fascinating and lengthy post on blog Farnam Street, which digs into how our unexamined beliefs about learning prevent us from gaining as much knowledge as we could. Too many of us, writer Shane Parrish insists, drag emotional baggage from our school days into our adult efforts at self-improvement, slowing us down significantly.

What sort of emotional baggage? The kind that associates "learning" exclusively with the focused reading, note taking, and reviewing we did as students. Any other approach to nourishing our brains tends to make many of us feel a little guilty. If we're not staring at a book or a page of notes, we're slacking off, we tell ourselves.

At some point along the way, in other words, many people come to associate learning with nose-to-the-grindstone concentration and a distinct lack of fun. And this belief is preventing us from being the smartest version of ourselves possible.

Newsflash: learning can be fun (and relaxing)

"When mastering a subject, our brains actually use different types of processing... 'focused' and 'diffuse' - and both of these are valuable and required in the learning process," Parish writes, citing Oakley.

The first mode is the mode most of us think of as learning. It's what you and I both probably did for long, boring hours in high school and college (I still shudder at the sight of an overhead projector). "Read, dive deep, absorb. Eliminate distractions and get into the material. Oakley says 'the focused mode involves a direct approach to solving problems using rational, sequential, analytical approaches,'" Parrish explains.

But this sort of traditional studying is only half of the story. "We need time to process what we pick up, to get this new information integrated into our existing knowledge. We need time to make new connections," asserts Parrish. For that, "diffuse mode" learning is essential.

"Diffuse-mode thinking is what happens when you relax your attention and just let your mind wander. This relaxation can allow different areas of the brain to hook up and return valuable insights," Oakley writes. In practice the activities that Oakley names as promoting diffuse mode learning can look a lot like slacking: go to the gym, walk, play a sport, go for a drive, draw, take a bath, listen to music, meditate, sleep.

The takeaway here is that learning involves not only focused concentration but also the time and space to mull over what you've ingested. Breaks from busyness are key for fast, efficient learning. (This is true of learning physical skills like playing a sport or musical instrument as well as book knowledge, research shows. Exceptional performers don't only practice more, they also rest more.) 

So think about that next time you feel guilty for "taking a break from learning." Taking breaks is learning. If you don't leave some slack in your schedule, you're definitely not getting as much out of your efforts as you could.

Published on: May 1, 2017
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