The first time you attempt to do something there’s always a small struggle to figure out the correct way to do it.
This happens when you first tie your shoes or when you first look at a word problem. As an adult it happens when you get a new task at work, or pick up a new hobby. No matter what the topic, that initial experience is always the same.
When you start learning something new it’s often very tempting to look for how-tos, flip to the answer, or Google the correct solutions, but that’s not always the best approach to cultivate deep understanding.
These things certainly have their place, but for skill acquisition there’s nothing quite as powerful as struggling with the problem.
The Value of Trying
No one ever starts something new knowing exactly what to do. This is a small but objective truth about the world: at some point, no matter what you’re doing, there will always be a first time you’re doing it.
These experiences grant us something that can only be had once. No matter how hard you might try, you only get one shot at seeing something totally new. Whether you notice it or not, these initial passes on things are critical and often handled in wildly different ways by different people.
What’s your go-to method?
When you are doing something new for the first time do you fiddle around and try to figure it out or do you immediately look up how to do it?
There are no wrong answers.
If you said you looked things up most of the time, you’re in the growing majority of people around the world. This certainly makes sense too. Never before has humanity had so much access to so much information at the click of a button. If you’ve never done something before, a how to or walkthrough is only a quick Google search away.
If you said you try and fiddle around with things and figure them out yourself, you’re not an outlier either, but as it gets easier and easier to look things up in our digital age you’re more likely to be one.
So what’s the big deal? No matter what, you get things done. You learn the correct way to solve the problem in either case, and arguably anyone who looks it up gets there faster.
However, the difference actually happens in our brains.
The Difference Between Understanding and Memorizing
Memorization is an important part of everyday life. A good memory is a very highly sought after trait in school, business, and day to day life, but memorizing something is not the same as understanding it.
These two things go hand in hand, but memorization is simply knowing the answer while understanding something involves knowing how to get to the answer from a different starting point.
There are plenty of kids out there who have memorized their times tables, but don’t know how to multiply yet. This might seem odd, but the issue comes up more often than you might think and is one of the issues that teachers and tutors have to struggle with on a daily basis.
When a tutor first works with a student they have to go about figuring out what the student knows and what they don’t. If the student gives quick answers and seems to have an understanding of a topic, they might, or they could have a great memory for answers they’ve seen before without being able to reason out why those answers are correct.
So if understanding is so important, why memorize anything at all?
The short answer is for speed.
Once you have understanding you can always get back to a correct answer, but memorization means you can recall problems you’ve already worked out faster. People who are good at math typically have a strong understanding and a good memory for it.
If you’re trying to work out more complex equations it helps to have the simpler parts memorized to speed up the process. While memorization is valuable in this sense, it is no substitute for understanding.
If you really want to understand something the best way to do so is to try and figure things out. When you ask for or look up an answer, you limit the amount of insight you can gain from trying to work through the problem yourself. This is true in almost every subject.
Maths and Sciences rely on this ability to think about a problem and make educated guesses about what the correct answer should be (this is the cornerstone of the scientific method). Even in art, you learn more from attempting something than you do from listening to someone tell you how to do it.
What this really comes down to is a need to practice without being afraid of failure. Understanding isn’t something that you get automatically when you come to the right answer; it comes from knowing why the answer is right. This ability to guess and check is a skill that forms a critical tool in your learning toolbox.
One of the best things that a tutor, or any educator for that matter, can offer a student is guidance on how to practice to achieve understanding. A good mentor will help a student develop the system to evaluate their own work. Even better a student might learn to use both inductive and deductive reasoning through this kind of practice.
Inductive and deductive reasoning as learning skills
Inductive reasoning is what we think of as the classic scientific method:
1. An observation leads to a pattern
2. The pattern leads to a hypothesis
3. A test confirms if the hypothesis is correct.
Deductive reasoning is similar, with the difference being the process starts with an idea, then moves to the observation. This is what happens when someone confirms a theory that already exists.
Both of these skills help foster understanding in an individual, and are at the core of real learning.
Practice and Repetition
To really understand anything you need practice. Very rarely do concepts just click into place without practice.
To really memorize something you need repetition. You often won’t memorize anything on the first pass.
While these two statements might look incredibly similar, they have a major difference. Practice and repetition are not the same thing.
Examples of practice vs. repetition
Think of two people working out. Both go to the gym every day and lift weights.
The first person does a set of 20lb lifts every day. The second person starts with a set of 20lb lifts and gradually increases the weight over time.
The first person in this example is performing repetition. They are getting good at lifting that single weight.
The second person is practicing by increasing how much they can lift.
While that’s a very simple example, it illustrates that practice requires increased challenge and has a structure. Repetition takes place in practice, but the problems and ideas have to change within the structure to improve your understanding and expand the capacity at which you can learn a topic.
Let’s look at another example that requires a lot of practice and repetition: learning a new language.
Languages require a high degree of both understanding and memorization. To really learn a language you cannot just memorize a list of words and their definitions – that’s only part of the process.
To really be able to understand, you have to practice putting those words together, understanding the context in which they are used, and continue challenging yourself to put them together in new ways. Best of all with learning a language is that the goal is to be able to communicate with others, so it necessitates practice through use.
How Do I know What I Know?
One of the great challenges with understanding through practice is that you need to check your work. You might get the right answer, but the moment you look it up, you have essentially halted your learning process and instead began the memorization one instead. This is only natural, and one of the things that often requires other people to help you with.
A great value that traditional teachers can provide is the ability to check work without revealing the answer. They can ask students probing questions that get them to think about and explain what they did to arrive at the end.
This is often quite difficult though as any great teacher knows that you have to be careful not to ask leading questions that give the answers away and disrupt the learning process altogether.
If you don’t have a teacher helping you with something, you should consider getting a tutor, but barring that, the next best thing you can do is try to explain what you learned to someone else and see if you can teach them how to come to the answer. If you have gaps in your understanding, they become obvious when other people ask you questions.
This method of checking your reasoning against others was famously codified by Richard Feynman. Feynman, a Nobel prize winning physicist, would test his understanding of new concepts by pretending he had to explain these concepts to 6th graders. By attempting to simplify the material to a point that a novice could understand it, he was forced to identify gaps in his own knowledge where he was unable to simplify sufficiently. When he found a gap he would return to the material and try again.
Not everyone has the luxury of an audience who wants to listen to your explanations, let alone one that is at a 6th grade level of understanding, but the principle works just as well if you pretend you have to teach someone else. As long as you are honest with your simplification and really try to break core concepts down, you can fairly reliably test your own knowledge.
Learning Through Practice and Trying
It bears repeating: you can learn a lot from just trying things.
Failure is a teaching experience.
You can get things wrong, and just try again.
What’s most important is that you persevere. That you practice. Trying to do something on your own or with a tutor will yield results if you value the method more than the answer. The ability to work at something without simply looking it up in our highly connected digital age might seem hard to achieve. The temptation is always there. However, you’re really only costing yourself understanding when you rely on having the answer at your fingertips at all times.
So now that you know the value of figuring things out, what are you going to learn?
There are so many skills you can try and pick up and all it takes is a little time and a little effort of trying to puzzle something out.