How to Learn

Yes, I remember the day when my 14 year old son said to me: “You’re not like other fathers. “I asked him why. “Other fathers answer their children’s questions — you simply ask me more questions.”

Did I get it wrong? I only know that he eventually became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries.  And a bookshelf in my study is full of his work — Roman Britain, Pepys, John Evelyn. Now in retirement, he is currently working on yet another book. His sister has more than 250 books, mainly on nature, in print around the world.

Where did this start? I like to think it came about because, unlike my classmates, I never went to university. So, in my own defence, I started to study the relevant authors — mainly related to psychology. Not only did this enable me to write books on the practical psychology of everyday business but also on the psychology of morality — in Catholic terms. Later, I was able to help my grandchildren through their various subjects at university.

I had had a personal example of this. At school I required a Credit in mathematics — a subject I had always found difficult. As no teacher was available, I simply worked through previous papers — using my own methodology. Of course, I passed. And I suspect that I know mathematics better than many of my fellows — it has become part of my brain.

Currently, for well known reasons, the young are faced with the problems caused by the practical Covid dangers of the classroom. Is this an opportunity for teachers to focus on how to discover and learn — rather than memorising the facts directly? Their pupils may well find that this sorry situation taught them more than sitting in a classroom. 

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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17 Responses to How to Learn

  1. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes:

    // Is this an opportunity for teachers to focus on how to discover and learn — rather than memorising the facts directly? Their pupils may well find that this sorry situation taught them more than sitting in a classroom. //

    No doubt it is, but I suspect that few would avail themselves of the opportunity, and that of those who would, few would be successful. Different brains are wired to learn differently.

    My brain seems to be very unlike that of the imaginary model student whom education schools in America when I was a child prepared future teachers to teach. I never learned to learn. But I can blame neither the university instructors nor my parents; none of them were prepared to recognize the problem. Private tutoring might have done much, but it was not available. I doubt that times have changed in that respect.

    Quentin, I didn’t realize that Guy was your son. I’m deeply impressed. Thank you.

  2. John Nolan says:

    In the 1970s ‘rote learning’ was disparaged and ‘discovery learning’ was in vogue, with the teacher as a ‘facilitator’. One result was a generation of children who did not know their times tables.

    I put the following to one of these trendy ‘educationalists’. Those who work on the railways need to be familiar with a ‘rule book’ based on more than a century and a half of experience, including lessons learned from numerous accidents. They are not told: ‘Imagine you are running a railway. What rules do you think you will need?’

    Did anyone ever learn Latin without memorizing declensions, conjugations and vocabulary?

    • John Thomas says:

      John – I do agree that rote-learning – and direction of learners, and schematic education – needs to be re-discovered, and that pupils, if just left to themselves, will in the main NOT learn (there will be exceptions, of course); but most important is that pupils, and higher-educaton students, are taught HOW to think, to think for themselves, not, as in today’s ideological world, WHAT to think.

    • pnyikos says:

      All very true, John, but rote memorization can be carried to excess. I switched from being a zoology major to mathematics because the biology department was pre-med oriented and served as a kind of triage for weeding out students who couldn’t memorize huge numbers of facts from being eligible for medical school. One of my daughters, totally independently of me, had the same experience, except that in her case, her switch was to geology.

      I still remember one mnemonic in our zoology class: “On old Olympus’ towering tops, a Finn, a German, vinned some hops.” The first letters were also the first letters of the names of the cranial nerves. I only remember four of them, because three of them were the only ones we learned anything about in the course: olfactory, optic, and vagus; and the “odd man out,” oculomotor, went nicely together with optic.

  3. ignatius says:

    I may have said elsewhere that for the past 15 years I was Senior Clinical Tutor on a Bsc(hons) Msc Osteopathy degree. My job was to oversee the clinical education of students of an average age of around 30, many of whom had professional jobs and first degrees, some had nothing much beyond a couple of A levels and good aptitude. My preferential approach was one of Socratic method-which was to answer one question with another. In other words to get to the root of the ‘why’ rather than just spoon feed a response. Most of my teaching was in small group tutorials of up to 9 students. I found that the method was quite novel to and rather challenging of many students who didn’t much care to have their underlying knowledge base questioned when they were in the midst of trying to show off to their peers!! I was recognised as an excellent tutor by most students and absolutely loathed and detested by a few. Not everyone takes to the pursuit of understanding as well as we might imagine and I was constantly surprised by the way grown adults in often responsible jobs were simply unable to grasp the notion of critically reflective thinking as a formal discipline.

  4. galerimo says:

    In reply to your question, did I get it wrong? Let me ask you – do you see becoming of fellow in a distinguished academy and the writing of books, as evidence of good fathering?

    And because this question comes from your own son then in particular does it or does it not affirm you in your role as a parent?

    Perhaps he was comparing you with other fathers, something that he would have learnt from his peers.

    Did you learn anything from your son’s question? Was his a cry for more useful engagement from you with his learning– was he expressing a need for more answers than questions? A criticism or maybe a praise?

    As you reflect on this moment why does it take you back to your own journey into education and learning? Is your personal experience the measure?

    Would your life have been totally different had you chosen authors other than mostly psychology ones?

    Or is there no difference to our lives that depends on our first entry point into education?

    Was there any joy for you in those early stages of learning? They sound full of obstacles that needed to be overcome. Battles to win.

    Was being conscious of the education that others received at university a motivator for you? Competitive, joyous in personal advancement?

    Of course none of these questions have answers that are correct or wrong. The value questions have is to support the journey into knowledge. To give confidence and nourish a curiosity that advances a deeper acceptance of self as learner.

    I fear for the mental health of all who are forced to be without their usual supports in education because of covid 19. No doubt there will be opportunities for some.

    In my life I have learned to value solitude.

    Privacy is a much-neglected value in our “in you face” world. We need privacy to grow into persons. I feel that if solitude is forced on people it will lead to an unhealthy loneliness. Destructive even.

  5. galerimo says:

    How to learn?

    With the support of someone who loves you.

  6. John Nolan says:

    ‘I do not love thee, Doctor Fell …’. No doubt the absence of affection was mutual, but I don’t think it was an impediment to learning.

  7. galerimo says:

    Imagine listening to bird song and as you journey across country putting together the sounds of the different regions based on these beautiful notes and thereby creating a map to give clear direction.

    These lines (Song lines) criss-cross the whole continent of Australia. They come from as long ago as 60,000 years.

    The learning methods of pre-literate societies are vast reservoirs of human skills and many are instructive too of the natural environment with which our world has lost important connection.

    Song lines told of how far you had to travel in a certain direction in particular country before you would find water or food. A truly sophisticated scientific body of knowledge that was learned in a very studied way. We call it primitive!

    In the men’s’ business and the women’s’ business designated leaders passed on to selected others what they needed to know to stay healthy and grow as a community.

    This took place during times and seasons when other bodies of knowledge were also passed on to be learned for that particular season and region.

    In our local Aboriginal culture, there are six seasons. Birak is the current one and it is the season of the young. It is dry and hot and the time to selectively burn country for regrowth.

    Just one example of agricultural learning in pre-literary times.

    The handing on of knowledge was not just to selected ones but also for the whole community.

    When it came to which plants or fish, insects or birds to select or how to prepare them as well as the right time to eat – this too was part of traditional pre-literate learning.

    Ours is a world where we become infected by animals who can introduce disease into the human community because we have forgotten what we need to know as humans living on earth.

    Just as in these traditional ways we could benefit too from how to learn things that important to all of us for good health and survival.

    We crowd animals together and doze them with antibiotics and use methods of mass food production, no longer with any healthy social distancing, in order to survive.

    No wonder our cancers and viruses continue to abound.

    When you think how it is alleged that our current pandemic came from a food market
    There is good reason to ask your question about How to Learn?

    If our methods of acquiring and preserving knowledge are not inclusive of our natural world and promote respect for it then our scientific methods and technologies ultimately can all work against us.

  8. John Nolan says:

    Fair enough, Galerimo, but I for one would not want to live in the Stone Age, and neither I suspect would most Australians.

  9. galerimo says:

    The Japanese violinist and pedagogue Shinchi Suzuki has achieved remarkable results in his method of teaching his young students all over the world how to learn and quickly master the violin.

    Maria Montessori was another renowned teacher whose method of learning for the young still flourishes after making her first approach towards the task as far back as the early 1900’s.

    Other methods too have emerged in our educational systems and they are not confined to private schools.

    Many of these are based on the principle that a child can reach their potential if the focus is on the individual and the basic approach is child centred.

    Given the freedom to do so in the right environment children progress rapidly in their learning.

    The challenge for learning during these Covid times is the loss of the learning environment and the need to design that space within the home where many will have to continue with their learning.

    On the plus side is the availability of “e-learning” and the media tools of our electronic age.

    Early results, so far are very encouraging. Local schools and colleges are reporting very good outcomes for students after their stint in lock down. Both schools and the home support are to be congratulated for this.

    Indeed ! There is a good chance that our schools will learn different ways once the data are all collected and analysed

    -not only pupils but those involved at every level “well find that this sorry situation taught them more than sitting in a classroom”.

  10. David Smith says:

    galerimo writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/01/05/how-to-learn/#comment-62538 ) :

    // The challenge for learning during these Covid times is the loss of the learning environment and the need to design that space within the home where many will have to continue with their learning.

    On the plus side is the availability of “e-learning” and the media tools of our electronic age.

    Early results, so far are very encouraging. Local schools and colleges are reporting very good outcomes for students after their stint in lock down. Both schools and the home support are to be congratulated for this. //

    That is encouraging for children who live in domestic environments well suited to this form of teaching. Most, by far, I suspect, do not. Also, consider, please, the goal that centralized education has of socializing children to adapt to living in a common culture composed of many different kinds of individuals. Fail there, too. Thanks for your thoughts, but I decline to share your optimism.

  11. galerimo says:

    A frequent criticism of Christianity is Jesus not having written anything directly of his own.

    No more valid than accusing Socrates of the same – yet his influence on Plato did not come from books. Plato worked with the man himself.

    And apart from Jesus, Plato probably is most influential for the way we have received the Christian response to Jesus in Western culture. Augustine would have been lost without him.

    Clearly, as you point out, the Socratic method of questioning still carries its value in the psychology of learning today. Generating unfolding dialogue.

    In today’s liturgy the Church points to Jesus as he responds to questions. “Where do you live”?– “Come and see!”. And Jesus’ story is full of questions that open into learning. Word and deed.

    Does he ever do anything without first asking something? “Whom do you seek”? “What is it you want”?

    A very instructional method for the work of evangelization!

    If our author’s lineage has French influences then he is in good company. Another distinguished English teacher, St Anselm, had a “penchant’ for asking questions. “Cur deus homo” in the 11th century. Yes – why did God become man?

    It was Aquinas’ method too in his Summa; except he took it one step further by also addressing a contradictory position to any question on which he expounded.

    Luther’s 95 theses on the door of the castle church were invitations to debate (I don’t know if it took place?) in response to positions challenging the understanding of scripture as well as church practice. What does “repent” really men?

    But fools being able to ask more questions than a wise person can answer is a sound observation.

    Asking the question is really a science in itself. Asking the right question is what lies behind this method of education. The question needs to have intent and subtle direction implied in it.

    Like a blessing, the purposeful response to one question by asking another gives acknowledgement to the questioner and honours their dignity as an intelligent enquirer after truth. Let’s share this road as we interrogate the truth together?

    A covid lockdown can have the adverse affect of removing the one who can ask the right questions of the student. After all it takes two to dialogue.

    “At school I required a Credit in mathematics — a subject I had always found difficult. As no teacher was available, I simply worked through previous papers — using my own methodology”.

    – Well done Quentin! That’s what I call resilience. Having the ability to manage a challenge profitably by drawing on available resources, personal and other.

    If resilience becomes a practical outcome for other enquiring minds during this time and others too find “their own methodology” then surely that’s progress!

    • Quentin says:

      “When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke to his fellow bishops on the subject of conscience and law in 1991, he referred to Socrates, the pagan, as being, in a certain respect, “the prophet of Jesus Christ”. So perhaps we should think about the part Socrates played in the history of human thought. He is not easy to pin down, for tradition tells us that he wrote nothing. We only know him through writers such as Xenophon and Plato; and Plato, his student, undoubtedly extended his master’s teaching to fortify his own philosophy.”
      (https://catholicherald.co.uk/science-and-faith-the-greek-prophet-of-the-gospel/)

  12. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/01/05/how-to-learn/#comment-62555 ) :

    // https://catholicherald.co.uk/science-and-faith-the-greek-prophet-of-the-gospel/ //

    From that article:

    // He might have escaped execution through bribery but, arguing with his friend Crito, he provided a classic apologia for the implicit contract between the citizen and the state, to which he had to defer. He was true to his principles and drank his hemlock. //

    If the story is true – and no one can know that it is – it sounds as though Socrates was rigid in his belief that the state had a right to kill him. Or perhaps he simply realized the futility of arguing against power and had no desire to waste energy on a foolish endeavor. In contemporary “scientific” jargon, he may have given in to self-destructive tendencies.

    • milliganp says:

      I am inclined to feel that Socrates was rigid in his belief that, for any society to endure, it must have a consistent system of governance. I suspect he regarded his own execution as unfair but allowed it for for the greater good; we would call it martyrdom.

  13. David Smith says:

    milliganp writes

    // I suspect he regarded his own execution as unfair but allowed it for for the greater good; we would call it martyrdom. //

    Or suicide:

    // Egoistic suicide occurs when an individual has a low level of integration into society, while fatalistic suicide occurs in a highly regulated, social environment where the individual sees no possible way to improve his or her life. Altruistic Suicide is a suicide committed for the benefit of others or for the community. //

    http://www.sociologyindex.com/egoistic_suicide.htm

    Martyrs no more. “Science” de-humanizes everything.

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