The Secret to Learning (Or Teaching) Anything


Eleven years ago I got off a plane in a country where I did not speak the language: South Korea. I moved there to teach English as a second language for two years (it was so much fun, I would really recommend it if you ever get the chance). Now, I am not exaggerating when I say that I did not speak a single word. Seriously. I was young and I figured that I would pick it up along the way. (How? Somehow. I didn't really think it through). Needless to say, it was nowhere as easy to pick it up as I had imagined.

How to Learn Anything



I did slowly gain some competence in the language, at least enough to order food at a restaurant or ask someone for directions. The key was to isolate the essential building blocks of the skill (in this case phonemes and letters, Korean uses a phonetic alphabet much like English). Once you understand whatever that basic element is, you can begin to understand the abstractions at the next level (such as syllables, words, sentences, and eventually higher level concepts).

In language, that essential element is the smallest unit of sound: the phoneme. Once your child understands the sounds of language, they can begin to understand words or connect those sounds to the symbols s that we call letters.

As a shorthand, we can say that knowledge is hierarchical. All knowledge, is an abstraction based on simpler abstractions, or sensory data at the very base (or perhaps some form of instinct in some cases, I'm not sure about that though, but I'm willing to entertain the idea). The idea that you learn today is built upon that which you learned yesterday, and ultimately it is based upon things that you may have seen or heard when you were a child.

Think about learning math. Take a subtraction problem, for example. Subtraction is a higher level concept which is based upon many different “smaller” ideas such as: quantity (being able to measure how many there are of something), representational numbers (the idea that a symbol, spoken or written, can stand in the place of a real world quantity), the idea that a quantity cannot be place both in one group and another (so that when you move an object to a new group, it ceases, to be a member of the original group), etc.

So, then, what is the secret to learning (or teaching) anything? You must look at the educational goal in question and ask yourself, “What is the most simple element of this skill?” Build from the bottom. That doesn't mean that learning it will be easy (sorry, quick fixes do not exist), but it will be doable.

With children, often this means giving them the opportunity to experience the things that may help them form those abstractions. Do you want your baby to be able to be a great reader or writer? Talk to them, a lot. Having that sensory experience with spoken language gives them the building blocks to learn to write later.

Want to teach your child to be a great scientist (or at least a curious person who enjoys science)? Let them get dirty and perform their “experiments” even when they are not the most convenient thing (My three year old daughter is currently trying to turn water white by leaving a piece of paper in a cup at the bathroom sink).

We often try to teach something without thinking about how that new piece of information builds on what comes before it. Often, if you have all of the prerequisite knowledge, you can independently invent the conclusions for yourself.

I hope this has given you some food for thought. I have recently been thinking about this a lot as I am trying to write a math curriculum for preschool which mimics the phonics/phonemic awareness approach that works so well in language arts. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them in the comments down below.

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