Of The 3 Domains of Learning, Which One Is Yours?

bloom's three domains of learning

I’ve been going to that new coffee shop in my area, and this place has two doors side by side, but you can only open one of them because the other is kept locked. Each time I leave the building, do you know what happens? I go for the wrong door (on my left) even if I know it’s locked.

Doctor, why can’t I learn faster? Breaking stupid habits should be a piece of cake for peak learners, shouldn’t it?

The thing is, learning is a big concept that applies to many situations. Of course, it always involves some change or adaptation, but that’s about where the common denominator stops. So you can easily be a peak learner in one domain and an average joe in another.

As it turns out, all things learnable can be sorted out into three big domains. As the education expert Benjamin Bloom showed, you can either make a change in what you know, in what you feel, or in what you do.

In other words, learning can occur in:

  • the cognitive domain (head)
  • the affective domain (heart)
  • the psychomotor domain (hands)

The cognitive domain includes knowledge recall and mental skills; it’s really about things you learn in school. In my posts, I may seem to be biased toward this domain, but that’s because I’m a teacher and I can’t help it (sorry).

The affective domain involves emotions, attitudes and behaviors; so it covers everything from being aware of your environment to internalizing values that will determine the way you act. This domain is often overlooked, but it’s everywhere in your life.

The psychomotor domain is about manual and physical skills; so it includes manipulating objects and moving your body to perform tasks found in most jobs. Here, you learn by doing, either through imitation or mental representation, which often requires System 1 (see previous post).

Even if it’s possible to reach peak learning in solely one domain, try to take a holistic approach and get the three domains involved whenever you can.

Creating as many neural pathways as possible is the ultimate goal of peak learning.

The Two (Almost Opposite) Ways of Learning: System 1 and System 2

humans' dual cognitive processor

In my recent posts, I’ve insisted on the importance of deep thinking. I even said that there’s no peak learning without effective thinking.

Well, this is not exactly true.

In some cases, thinking can actually hamper your learning. The popular Malcolm Gladwell even wrote a whole book (Blink) to show that deliberate thinking often reduces performance.

Really? How can that be?

That’s because humans have two separate learning mechanisms, often called System 1 and System 2. In fact, this idea of a dual process is applied to many cognitive functions such as memory, attention, social cognition, reasoning and decision-making.

By the way, the prominent psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for his research on this topic, which he summarized in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

System 1 is fast, automatic, intuitive and unconscious. It’s an old system based in the limbic system and shared by all animals. Thanks to this system, babies learn languages, you fine-tune your movements when playing a sport or musical instrument, and you update the map of your city without being aware of it.

System 2, on the other hand, is slow, effortful, logical and conscious. It’s located in the prefrontal cortex, and enables you, for instance, to learn foreign languages, change a behavior and operate a new machine.

Of course, we take pride of System 2, which has produced most of our culture, knowledge and expertise. In comparison, we often look down on system 1 as primitive and prone to error.

But brushing aside System 1 like I’ve done so far in this blog is wrong. This system is fast, powerful and most of the time reliable. Unlike System 2, it can process tons of information at the same time.

Many studies have shown that experts mostly rely on pattern recognition (S1) rather than analysis (S2) to solve typical problems. That’s why experienced doctors, chess masters and top football players are so quick at spotting the best solution, and that’s also why musicians’ and athletes’ performance suffers as soon as they start thinking about it.

In certain domains, peak learners need to move beyond academic learning, and turn their system-2 analytic skills into system-1 intuitive expertise.

Why the Gap Between the Educated and the Illiterate is Growing

people no longer read

Recently, I attended a conference on the future of the book. The speaker made the distinction between two kinds of readers, namely shallow and deep readers.

Shallow readers typically grab information on the go and consume it on electronic devices. Deep readers, on the other hand, practice slow reading and like to pause to reflect on the text they’re reading.

One type of reader, the speaker said, is growing in number, while the other is in sharp decline. Can you guess which is which?

Deep reading is losing ground for the most part because it’s increasingly hard to find distraction-free spaces (and yes, those are getting scare because deep reading is less popular). Even university libraries seem to shy away from guaranteeing the three prerequisites for deep reading, namely withdrawal, attention and silence. Rather, the big trend is for multimedia areas, team rooms and coffee shops.

What’s the consequence of this shift?

The speaker at the conference wasn’t the timid type. He argued that the old divide between the educated elite and the illiterate masses is making a comeback. People are losing the necessary skills to integrate written knowledge effectively.

Yes, my friends, you’ve read me right. The ideal of the democratization of education is taking a blow.

To me, this is overly alarmist. Neither do I agree with Nicolas Carr that Google is making us stupid.

That being said, there’s room for concern. Whether this is a modern problem or not, few people fully engage with written knowledge. Most are merely interested in getting information.

Deep reading enables you to transform information into knowledge.

Knowledge is information that has become part of your understanding and experience. If you don’t take the time to connect the dots and integrate what you read, you’re not really learning.

So find a quiet spot, dive into your reading and become a peak learner.