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You Can't Hack Learning

There are many promises to be able to bypass essential moments of the learning process, each claiming that because they have the knowledge and expertise then they are able to take you straight to the result that you desire. And this sounds fantastic! Who wouldn't want to be able to put all those hard lessons to the side, have an easy and comfortable journey and simply exploit the lessons that others have learnt through their own hardship. Or was that actually the reason that were able to reach the position they have. The hardships have provided the learning that was essential for their success, or more precisely the learning and knowledge that came from these.

Why can't we do this? Research shows that these aspects are essential to a full understanding of the final outcome and that there is a clear process that you must undertake. For example, John Hattie's visible model of learning works through a process of:

  • Surface acquiring

  • Deep acquiring

  • Surface consolidation

  • Deep consolidation

  • Transfer (extremely difficult)

We can also reference this to Solo Taxonomy. A system designed to demonstrate how depth of knowledge and understanding can be broken down in stages for reference. A combination of these two models would look like the following:

Visible Learning Model

Example (Adult Learning a New Skill)

SOLO Taxonomy Link

Surface Acquiring

An adult learner memorizes the basic steps for using a new software program but doesn't understand the underlying functionality.

Unistructural - Recalls a single fact or definition (e.g., memorizing button functions).

Deep Acquiring

The adult learner explains the steps for using the software by connecting them to the program's overall purpose and design.

Multistructural - Relates multiple steps and functionalities within the program.

Surface Consolidation

The adult can use the software to complete routine tasks but struggles with troubleshooting or adapting the program for more complex needs.

Relational - Identifies relationships between specific program functions (e.g., applying a formula within the software).

Deep Consolidation

The adult learner not only uses the software confidently but can also explain its core principles and adapt it for various tasks. They can identify and troubleshoot issues and explore advanced functionalities.

Extended Abstract - Integrates functionalities into a comprehensive understanding, generalizes it to solve new problems within the software or similar programs.

In simple terms, our starting point is building the basis for the knowledge that is to come. We learn things at a superficial level initially until we have sufficient knowledge to progress to the next stage. Imagine a dartboard that only has the bullseye and you are standing two meters away. This is a pretty tough target. Our first step is to build the dartboard sufficiently to allow a greater target for our darts to hit. Breadth of knowledge on the topic is useful here, as we won't always know what will be relevant in starting or as we deepen our understanding. Is also clear that there are three aspects that are in consideration, acquisition, consolidation and application (we will get to transfer another time). As you build your dartboard, you also have to consider your throwing technique to develop consistency in this. We can't simply take the experience of a veteran on the darts scene, but we can learn from them.

Over time, certain skills will be more relevant dependent on our circumstances and experience. Once the dart board is established, this is fixed and no longer changes. What the consolidation process allows us to do is hone and refine the use of the dartboard, being selective as to what combinations will net us our desired outcome. This means the ability to zoom in and focus on parts of the board that are going to provide the relevant result are enhanced over time. We can see this in learning an instrument from an expert, it still takes time to understand key aspects and the practice (particularly deliberate practice) are what allows the execution of this learning to shine.

We could also consider where we are on this pathway of learning through a staged approach:

  • Beginner

  • Novice

  • Amateur

  • Competent

  • Expert

We would understand that moving from beginner to novice requires a certain level of knowledge and the ability to discern the relevance of that knowledge will increase through each stage. Our consideration of the expert is that they have been through each of these stages and it is unlikely for themselves that they bypassed any of these steps. More so, the level of expertise likely becomes more niche as they progress and is relevant in their own context. In this case, an expert advising a competent person in such as process will lead to greater results as there is a clear foundation established. The expert advising the beginner will need to also consider the starting place that the beginner is in, and whether there is a true establishment of learning that takes place or an exploitation of the promise of this learning.

And that also brings us to transfer. Transfer is the ability to use existing skills and knowledge in a new context. Continuing on our dartboard theme, a near transfer would equate to playing 501 vs Around The World. 501 is a game where each individual or team is allocated 501 points and must wipe these off by scoring the corresponding numbers with three darts. The first to reach zero wins. Around the World requires players to hit each number sequentially from 1-20 and then finish with a bullseye. Both require the same skills with an application of different rules. The point is that the skill to master one is different to the skill required for the next. The further we move away, such as darts to baseball (they both throw a projectile in a competitive manner) we can acknowledge that the skills are diverse enough to not allow a direct link. It can be easy to believe that our success in one context is transferable to another. And it can be. It will simply take time to develop the knowledge base and skills to take this on.

Finally, people who understand the learning process in more depth will be able to better leverage this, potentially giving the impression of "hacking" learning. The quicker you can establish your dartboard and refine the skills required to extract the relevant parts of this then you too will find you can progress your learning in a deep and meaningful way.


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