Monday, July 10, 2017

Why We Have Known More Stuff but Aren't Getting Any Smarter

When you scroll through Facebook, you can see posts about simple stretches to relieve back pain, how to make a s’mores, and how to be single and happy. Or maybe you’re more like a Youtube person, watching gurus talk about makeup tips, or some Youtubers teaching guitar. I’m sure you read and watch some of these every day.

Technology has brought a surplus of information to our fingertips, but has it made us smarter? How often do you try those stretching exercises? Do you really know how to make a s’mores? Are you making yourself happy being single? Are you good at doing makeup now? Or can you play guitar better?

If more information made us smarter, we’d all be geniuses at this point. But mere exposure to data doesn’t make us better thinkers and learners.

The fact is, we’ve never learned how to learn properly.

No matter how many articles you’ve skimmed through, you are not getting smarter.

How many times have you caught yourself scrolling through Facebook, watching video after video on Youtube, or digging through blog posts? On average, we’re spending 50 minutes per day on Facebook alone.[1] Being exposed to information is not the same as internalizing and adapting the knowledge to make it relevant to us. Even during our formal education, turning what we learn into wisdom that we can apply throughout our lives is uncommon. At school, we acquire knowledge quickly to write papers and take exams.

Our conventional systems of knowledge acquisition fail to make use of the brain’s potential.[2] We don’t often get the chance to apply what we’ve learned.

Instead of trying to grasp tidbits of information from the vast amounts online, you can hack your brain to learn in an authentic way. Unless we use that information, we’re bound to forget it.

The thing is, how we apply knowledge today is too different from that in the past.

The way that we apply knowledge is different today because we are exposed to so much information every day. Traditional learning styles often involved apprenticeship or immediate active application of skills.[3]

If you were trying to learn to ski before the Information Age, you’d likely start by finding an instructor. The experienced skier would help you understand the equipment and act as a guide while you learned the mechanics of the activity. You’d constantly work to apply what you learned by practicing on your own time, the bulk of your learning was done on the slopes. Eventually, you wouldn’t need your instructor, and you’d consider yourself a competent and confident skier.

Today, when you decide that you want to learn to ski, you spend hours perusing the internet for every blog post and article about skiing. You watch videos of people skiing, research the best gear, and join a Facebook group for winter sports enthusiasts.You may feel like an expert in all things ski-related after you dig into these resources, but have you actually learned to ski? There’s a big difference between reading about putting on skis and actually hitting the slopes.

When we learn now, we have to deal with so much more interference from an overabundance of information.

Today, we have sacrificed the quality of the knowledge for quantity.

There’s an imbalance between the knowledge we take in and the information that we use.[4] Your brain is working as quickly as it can to send data from your working memory to your long-term memory, but it can’t retain everything.[5]

We’re also thrilled by the chase for more information. Our desire to keep up sends us scrolling through social media on a frequent basis. We are plagued by our own fear of missing out (FOMO) to the detriment of authentic learning.[6] We are up to date on sensational stories, and we’re sharing like mad on Facebook and WhatsApp, but convenient access to knowledge is no replacement for deep learning through effort and concentration. How much of that easily-accessed information do you apply?

While it’d be perfect to absorb and apply 100% of the information, it’s not quite possible.

Perhaps there are a few hyper-productive individuals who can achieve this level of success. But most of us aren’t Albert Einstein, and we’re pressed for time. We have to be pragmatic about how we approach information if we want it to stick.

If you want to hang onto information for the long-haul, you’ll need to be selective about what you choose to absorb. Without a plan, getting information from the internet is like trying to eat the entire buffet in one sitting. Break the overabundance of resources into easily digestible pieces so that you can give the information time to become meaningful to you.

If we can’t take in everything anyway, how can we really learn?

1. Get your brain a filter — filter out information that won’t improve you.

Scrolling through the internet is a passive form of knowledge acquisition. When we waste time skimming through the latest trends, our FOMO supersedes our drive to acquire knowledge in a meaningful way.

The amount of information that we can access is always going to be more than we can process. To filter the information you take in, focus on what you need to improve. What must you learn to be successful? Taking this simple step enables you to pass over unrelated and tangentially-related information.

As you continue to grow your knowledge and skills, you can update the parameters of your filter.

If you return to the skiing example, you establish your filter by deciding what you need to learn about skiing right now. Are you trying to figure out how to put on the skis properly? Do you know how to stop when you’re heading down a slope? If you are working on the fundamentals, it won’t be valuable to spend time learning about advanced tricks. After you’re proficient in the basics, modify your filter so that you continue to grow your skills.

2. Take information into the real world — do what you’ve read to confirm your learning.

You know that reading about something once doesn’t guarantee that the information is yours to recall at will. Knowledge isn’t useful until you can apply it. If you are trying to learn a new skill, you’ll have to do the things that you’ve read about in your research. Until you’ve made multiple attempts to master the ski-trick you saw on Youtube, you haven’t internalized it. When you can land the trick without thinking or recall information without struggling, it is yours.

It isn’t always easy to take information from your computer screen into the real world. There’s a fair chance that you are going to fail the first time you attempt something.

When you are learning to ski, you are going to fall. You’ll probably fail to execute a smooth turn, and even when you do succeed, you’ll undoubtedly compare yourself to all the other skiers on the slope that day. Giving up when you fall or allowing your brain to spin a self-defeating narrative keeps you from learning. Making mistakes is a potent part of the learning process.[7]

Practice, get feedback; and practice, and get feedback.

Getting into the habit of applying what you’ve learned is excellent, but there is only so much that you can do on your own. You need the input of others to take your skills to the next level.

You can initiate a feedback loop by performing a self-assessment to take stock of where you are in the learning process, but if you want to make more growth, seek feedback from others.[8]

It is easy to stop at the self-assessment stage and convince yourself that you are doing everything well, but you don’t know what you don’t know. Insights from others can help you determine where you should focus your learning efforts next so that you are always improving.

When you start to build new skills, you may be able to process instructions in the moment, but if you don’t continue to practice, you won’t internalize the knowledge. You’ll have to repeat your actions or process until it becomes second-nature.

For example, when you learn a new word, you have to go through the slow process of looking it up, repeating the definition, and using it in a sentence several times. If you don’t use the word, you will forget it, but if you use it enough, it comes to mind with ease.

3. Stay alert to what to learn next — avoid wasting time on unnecessary information.

You can’t take in every bit of information at once, but you can choose to learn more about things you’d like to improve. You’ll retain more information when you target your searches as opposed to mindlessly scrolling.

Take opportunities to reflect on what you have learned along the way. You’ll not only feel better about your progress, but you’ll be able to make use of what you already know when you take on a different challenge.

To refer to our skiing example for a final time, imagine that you’ve mastered the basics of movement. You can turn smoothly and stop when you need to. What do you need to learn next? How will the things that you already know about skiing impact the way that you approach new techniques and challenges?

To get smarter, it’s not about how much you’ve known but how much you’ve brought into play.

To know something deeply, you’ll have to engage with it on a consistent basis while giving yourself plenty of opportunities for self-reflection and objective feedback. Knowledge is cumulative. The greatest minds and most skilled athletes of our time didn’t become that way by scouring social media or reading books — they put in the time to make meaning of their the data that was relevant to their studies.

True learning is not always easy. You’ll experience struggles as you tackle new challenges and wade through the ephemera of the Digital Age. If you can focus your efforts and make deliberate choices about your learning, you can navigate the abundance of resources to make meaningful gains in your life.


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