Element 3: Learning is Doing
“When you do it you learn it.” We’ve probably all had an experience of really learning something only when we started to apply it, to do it. We speak of “book learning” and “learning on the job”. It doesn’t matter whether it’s medicine or plumbing. You can learn things in principle, theoretically and then you have to address real applications. It is the latter that is most meaningful and which can translate into excellence. Indeed, it is the latter that is the measure of success. Does every person who gets straight As become exceptional in their field? Of course not, just like every exceptional person did not necessarily get straight As – some were actually very poor “at school”.
I don’t mean to suggest that theoretical learning is unnecessary or a waste of time, far from it. My purpose is to underscore the huge value of learning by doing, where actual meaning-making takes place.
Many successful people are “self-taught” – they simply did the doing, probably in flow. Historically more people have learned what they learned this way that in today’s top-down approach. I suggest that we need more experience in schools, more doing, more applying. We need schools where students discover and arrive at conclusions rather than being fed information – “answers”.
Consider a typical situation. Geometry class. We’re studying area and come to figuring the area of a triangle. The typical approach is to give the students the formula and have them work through examples, plugging in numbers, etc.
A decent teacher will show how the area of a triangle relates to the area of a rectangle and thus how the formula is derived.
A much better approach would be to give the students actual rectangles and triangles and let them explore with them… allowing them to see for themselves how the two shapes relate and then what the formula for the area of a triangle must be. In this manner you have engagement, a quick feedback loop and the resulting formula will be “owned” by them because they figured it out: that’s called learning. Learning is distinctly different from remembering.
The truth of the matter is that “teaching” should never mean “telling”. You can’t teach very much if that is your approach because learning requires doing. Doing with engagement, affect, is what real learning looks and feels like. The rest is “remembering” and often leads to forgetting. Real learning, that stuff you taught yourself, figured out on your own, that will not be forgotten: it has been incarnated into the fabric of your being. This should be our goal for learning.