One thing I’ve learned in my experience teaching adults is that we don’t often stop to ask ourselves when we have learned something. This is one reason I think that people tend to sign up to take a class. They want someone (hopefully an expert) to tell them that they don’t know something. They want the expert to have the secret answer to knowing that subject. People think of knowledge as something like a book. It’s like a physical object you can just pull off a shelf.

But teachers – the good ones anyway – know that’s not the full picture. Taking a class, joining a school, or embarking on any learning endeavor is often about the story one tells oneself. “I didn’t know this thing, then I did x, after some efforts I learned it.” Knowing something, learning a skill etc, can be measured by a milestone in time, but what’s happening in the brain?

plane models by Bill Abbott

Plane models by Bill Abbott via Flickr

Mental Models

To understand how learning works in the brain, it’s helpful to dive into systems thinking a bit. We might start with the idea of a mental model. Think of an airplane. Now think of a model airplane. The model is a good replication of the real thing. You can pick it up and hold it in your hand. You can turn it over and pull it closer to you and look into the cockpit. You can set it down on a desk and stand far back. From this model, you get a pretty good sense of what the airplane is like but of course that model isn’t the airplane.

The boundaries of your mental model are the limits to which you know a particular topic.

This is sort of how mental models work as well. The late Jay Forrester from MIT Sloan said “Nobody in his head imagines all the world, government or country. He has only selected concepts, and relationships between them, and uses those to represent the real system.” I noticed this in students wanting to learn certain coding concepts. “I want to learn JavaScript,” one might say. “I know a little but I don’t know it as well as I’d like.” But how can you know if you know something? Before I learned about mental models, I wouldn’t really know how to answer that.

The boundaries of your mental model are the limits to which you know a particular topic. As a model, it is never going to be fully complete but as Forrester says you aren’t ever going to carry the whole world in your head anyway. So if you know a topic but don’t feel like you know it as well as you’d like, what can you do to fill in the gaps? Enter Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate and expert instructor. (There is a great book on Feynman’s life and work written as a graphic novel that I’d recommend checking out) There is a technique credited to Feynman that is fairly intuitive and shows the power of teaching even when teaching oneself.  

The Feynman Technique

Choose a topic you’d like to focus on and then write out everything you know about the topic. Use plain language. Don’t overcomplicated it. Note down what you know about the topic but also be sure to note when something you don’t know stands out. These are the gaps in your mental model. What you’re going to want to do is go back to read up on those gaps. Then go back to writing. Make sure you aren’t paraphrasing either. In the way that you’re cycling back and forth through the material, you’ll start to fill in your mental model.

Richard Feynman

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” Richard Feynman

If you’d like to get a more detailed explanation of the technique check out this blog post by Matty Ford. I’ve used this technique in classes as a way to help students wrap up the end of a class topic. For example, I might ask students to “explain JavaScript like you’re explaining it to your grandmother.” In using simple language and in breaking down the concept, you’re forming a more complete mental model. You’ll connect those networks of concepts just like putting the pieces of the model airplane together. When you find you’re missing a piece, you’ll have a better sense of where to look.

Learning a new skill from scratch can be difficult but just as the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, you aren’t going to learn new, large concepts in their entirety. You’ll need to break them down into smaller tasks and focus on your areas of interest. This is the positive way to growth through learning.

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