Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Learning 2/5—Don't Take Notes

This week, I've got a theme: Learning. There are five steps in the process of truly learning something and I'll be discussing one each day.
Choose to Learn | Don't Take Notes | Try it Out | Play with Alternatives | Teach It

Don't Take Notes (Part 2 of 5)
I remember one year in middle school (I think) when the staff took a couple days out of the regular course material to teach us all how to take notes. Those of us who had chosen to learn as much as possible, took the lesson to heart and made a serious habit of note-taking. It makes sense on the surface, write down the things you need to know so that you can study them later as much as you need. Turns out, that's not a very good way to learn.

If you're busy writing notes during a class, even though all the words coming from your teacher are passing through your head on their way to the paper, you're really not paying attention. You're using most of the brain power available to you (after the overhead of listening and writing) to decide which words are important enough to write down. If you're particularly bright, you may process that content on at a low level. That's not good enough.

You want to be listening closely and you want to be thinking about what the things you're hearing mean. You want to be comparing the facts being presented to what you already know about the subject, taking comfort in what jives and notice in what doesn't. You want to be questioning the accuracy of the teacher's statements. Are these opinions or fact? Are they based on hard data you've also observed or are you taking the teacher's word for it? You want to be thinking about how this affects you or how you could leverage this information to make the world better and/or for your own gain.

It is this very act of consideration that promotes true, robust and long-lasting learning.

I'll go a bit further by claiming something a bit more bold: Note taking itself is a subconscious decision not to learn. Why do we love our Google Calendars and our PDAs, smart phones and the internet in general? (Apart from the porn, I mean.) Because all the information we could ever want is readily accessible. Which means that where previous generations would have had to learn the capital of Belgium, remember their anniversary, or scribble down movie showtimes, we merely need to have access. It frees our minds and we spend no energy on these tasks because it would be redundant. Before speed dialing, I knew every phone number I could possibly need by heart and now I know maybe three.

In just the same way, when you take notes during a class, you know you don't need to commit this information to memory now because you can check your notes at any time and as much or as often as you need. The trouble is, you won't. And even if you do, you won't be reviewing what you've learned, you'll just be looking at the words you wrote down while you weren't really listening the first time.

Up until now, I've used 'memorize' and 'learn' somewhat interchangeably. Memorization is not learning. At least, it's not understanding, and understanding is the purpose of learning. Allow me to illustrate this point with a hilarious comedy sketch by The Kids in the Hall: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h15OWCnZVL4

Outside of the classroom, the point is that you can't defer deep and meaningful consideration. Think it through now, while you're in it. Try to apply the lesson to other scenarios in advance to see if it still makes sense or if your hypothesis falls apart and needs refinement or revision. Engage your brain.

PS, you can still write your ideas down to come back and think more about them when you've got the time, but if you wait too long, I promise you won't remember why you thought it was worth writing down the idea.

Check back tomorrow for part three: Try it Out.

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