Elaborative Encoding Must Be Part of Any Peak Learner’s Toolkit

how to optimize learning

For homework, my daughter has to learn definitions by heart. Lots of definitions. That’s tough enough for an adult, now imagine for a kid. Fortunately, her dad knows a thing or two about learning.

The trick here is to use elaborative encoding.

To encode means to convert info into code in order to better retrieve it when needed. More concretely, it means to pay attention and organize the information we wish to remember. The encoding is elaborative when it’s deep and broad.

If you’ve ever rehearsed a speech or a presentation, you know that memorizing sentences (memoria verborum) like my daughter does is about as efficient as a holed bucket. This kind of focusing on symbols (words, numbers, etc.) is called shallow processing. What you want to do instead is go for deep processing, that is concentrate on ideas and meaning.

How can you put this into practice?

As the memory expert Joshua Foer explains, our brain doesn’t remember all types of info equally well. Its favorite kinds of data are images and locations; it can store terabytes of those. So the goal of elaborative encoding is to transform the types of memories the brain is bad at (symbols) into the types it was built for (images).

What does it mean for my daughter?

We took her definitions and divided each of them into logical parts; then she drew one image for each part. It worked like a charm. In fact, it was so intuitive that, the next morning, even I was able to recite some of her definitions although I had made no conscious effort to learn them. Her drawings just stuck in my mind. It’s a really powerful method indeed.

Dr. John Medina says that the quality of the encoding phase (the way you learn) is “the single greatest predictor of later learning success.”

So if you wish to improve your encoding process, do like my daughter. Make the info you’re learning more memorable by using images (real or mental). You’ll be amazed at how effortless your memorizing will become.

How I Still Struggle with The Most Common Communication Mistake

public speaking

As a teacher and speaker, it still happens to me. Almost all the time actually. Even after many years of practice. My Toastmasters colleagues often remind me, but I can’t seem to learn.

In my lectures and speeches, I deliver too much info, I speak too fast and afterwards, I wonder why I can’t manage to fit all the material I prepared.

In his great book Brain Rules, Dr. John Medina calls this practice force-feeding, and says it’s the most common mistake in communication. Actually, the problem isn’t so much the amount the information, but the time given to connect the dots afterwards.

Why do teachers and trainers overstuff their students?

They focus too much on the feeding (teaching) and too little on the digesting (learning). Don’t get me wrong. Lectures and speeches are one of the best ways to quickly communicate knowledge, but the problem is that very little learning occurs while they’re given. Learning is an active and internal process that takes place afterwards.

What can you do to remedy that?

The solution is to prioritize learners, and learners want focus and clarity. Most experts forget what it’s like to be a novice, and flood their audience with too much information.

As a professional speaker once told me, a good speech should only deliver one point, and your audience must be able to clearly identify what it is. Lectures should similarly focus on one core concept.

So how can I defeat that communication demon, and finally become a great communicator?

I must understand that less is more. I must slow down, eliminate needless information, and focus on the one thing I want my class or audience to remember after I stop speaking.

Why The Most Depressing Fact in Education Isn’t That Depressing

how to prevent forgetting

I’ll always remember what our stats professor told us at the beginning of the semester years ago: “You’ll only remember 5% of what you’re currently learning at university.”

As a teacher now, I must bow to the evidence. The battle against forgetting has no end.

And Ebbinghaus’ famous forgetting curve confirms that. Students typically forget 90% of what they learn in class within 30 days, and most of that forgetting occurs within the first few hours after class.

This has got to be the most depressing fact in education, don’t you think?

Actually, not quite. For two reasons. There are two types of forgetting, and each plays an essential role in learning.

The first type of forgetting is active, and acts as a spam filter. It enables you to prioritize information and focus on what your brain thinks is important.

But what exactly does your brain deem important?

Our brain has evolved to retain info and skills that we need to use over a long period of time. Basically, we’re evolved not to waste a lot of energy learning what’s going to be used only one time. What is considered useless gets filtered out.

So for the brain, repetition means usefulness. Rehearsing and repeating tell your brain not to lose track of that info or skill because you’re going to keep needing it in the future.

This leads to the second type of forgetting, which is passive and referred to as decay. Memory fades with time, and that’s a pain, isn’t it?

But here’s the good news. Dr. Robert Bjork’s New Theory of Disuse shows that forgetting actually increases learning. Memory seems to have a muscle-like property; breaking down promotes rebuilding. This means that without some forgetting, you may get no benefit from further study.

As a peak learner, you should see forgetting as what it really is. It is a filter that blocks the background noise so the right signal can stand out.

You should also make the most of it. You want to remember something for a long time? Space your learning periods. This will enable forgetting to strengthen your learning.

Why I Send My Kids to A Traditional School (Old vs New School)

old school teaching

My two daughters attend a good old traditional school. They wear a uniform, learn respect, and have to memorize things. A lot of things. Sentences, formulas, dates, and many other facts.

Is this focus on raw knowledge justified? Is there a case to be made for rote learning? The answer is yes. If you want to become a peak learner, you first need to prioritize memory over thinking.

The supporters of the modern curriculum like to quote Montaigne, who famously preferred a well-made rather than well-filled head. They also argue that facts quickly become obsolete, are easily forgotten, and memorizing them is often a waste of time since so much info now lies at our fingertips. So learners should instead hone their reasoning, creativity and critical thinking.

No doubt, such skills lie at the core of what peak learning is. Relying on rote learning alone would restrict you to solving past problems.

But developing your thinking without a solid mental database is like starting a building without having all the necessary material. It’s counterproductive, and the best planning and building skills can’t make up for the lack of material.

As Hirsch notes in his famous essay “You Can Always Look It Up”, a simple definition can only be understood if you already know a large part of what you read. Ironically, you learn what you already know. That’s why experts are peak learners. They learn more, better and faster, precisely because they have access to a rich repertoire of knowledge.

Like in all things, balance is key. Learning without thinking leads nowhere, but reasoning and analyzing without having a good grasp of the facts will often prove as sterile.

Do you want to be a peak learner? Do like my kids. First master the fundamentals; then the higher levels of thinking will come naturally.

What Is the Origin of Learning?

learning in human evolution

« We are here to learn. » This is what one of my friends says when he relapses and commits another alcohol-related blunder (don’t worry; he doesn’t read this blog).

That remark has always puzzled me. What exactly do we need to learn and for what purpose? But when you think about it, his assertion has a second meaning. Maybe my friend means that learning is the purpose itself, that we are born to learn.

According to brain scientists, such a view is dead on the money. The human brain comes pre-packaged with a level of flexibility that impels learning.

All living beings follow their genetic code. For example, moths are drawn to candle flames because they’re hardwired to navigate by the light of the moon; they’re unable to change with experience.

But a few species have been able to detach themselves from that programming, and rely on experience to survive and reproduce. We can say that learning was born the day an organism managed to override the primal instructions of its DNA, and respond to its environment on the fly.

How have humans become expert learners?

Essentially by being born prematurely, before their brain is ready. As Doctor Medina explains, if the brain completed its development inside the womb as expected, the baby’s head would be too big.

So our species have become peak learners because after birth our neurons, instead of slowing down, continue to multiply like crazy. Did you know that a 3-year-old’s brain is twice as active as a normal adult’s?

All and all, my friend is totally right. We’re biologically built to learn. The brain has the incredible chance to test drive its environment while under construction. That cerebral flexibility gives us the opportunity to map the world in real time and adjust to circumstances on the spot.

Knowing how to quickly detect opportunities and dangers, and adapt accordingly is what a peak learner is all about, isn’t it?

Why I Turned Off Talk Radio and Tuned In to Music

music vs talk radio

Until recently, I looked down on people who listened to music while commuting.

What a waste of time. Why not make the most of this downtime by getting fresh news and opinions. Don’t you want to be the most informed person in the room? It’s enticing, but no thanks. As I’ve come to realize, such input gets you nowhere.

Yes, you guessed it. I’m a new convert of the low information diet. Here’s why.

Whenever you commute or operate on autopilot, your brain is on one of the three following modes. You either focus on what is in your head (deep thinking), on your environment (info receiving), or have no focus at all (mind wandering).

There’s no way you can become a peak learner if you don’t develop your thinking power, and that means making more room for the first mode.

No doubt, the acquisition of new information is crucial. As Benjamin Bloom showed, higher-order thinking skills feed on it. But a peak learner must filter and limit incoming information.

Tim Ferris nailed it when he said that a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. And guess what? Attention is the fuel of deep, clear and creative thinking. So any new information that doesn’t make you think should be sorted out as entertainment. 

Finally, our third mode of thinking, mind wandering, shouldn’t be dismissed as totally worthless. For starters, it’s our brain’s default mode of operation (we typically spend almost half our time there). But more importantly, this mode is highly conducive to creative insights, as it fosters idea associations.

During downtimes, try to reduce information input and daydreaming, and engage in effective thinking (i.e. leading to an outcome), such as problem solving, problem finding and planning (for your next blog post for instance).

So next time you’re driving, do like me. Tune in to music (or turn off all noise) and start thinking.

Happiness Is An Empty Head

thinking optimization

One of my colleagues lives in perpetual bliss. Do you know his secret? He keeps his mind in the present and won’t let his pre-frontal cortex interfere with his life. Of course, such a strategy has the downside of severely limiting your growth, doesn’t it?

But recently, I’ve found a way to reach his level of happiness without sacrificing my future.

You first need to understand that our brain was originally programmed to live in the present. Our memory basically works as an adaptive mechanism, and our planning skills seem to be quite recent. But if you try to follow nature and don’t have tenure, our result-oriented world will eat you alive.

So how can you reconcile your psychological makeup with the demands of your environment? The key is to regularly empty your head into a bucket (i.e. your system). As David Allen brilliantly puts it, your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them.

Next, you need to schedule time to think; otherwise, you won’t ever think. Seriously. Thinking doesn’t feel natural; it requires time and energy. Most people regurgitate and play back stuff in their mind and call this thinking.

Once you do regular brain dumps and develop effective thinking habits, you’ll be able to afford to walk around with an empty head like my colleague. Such peace of mind will increase not only your happiness, but also your thinking power.

After freeing up some psychic space, get ready to receive your best ideas.

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