How to Learn

Listening is not active.

Maybe you’re a good listener.  Maybe you take the time to sit down next to someone and really hear what they’re telling you.  That’s active, because that’s a conversation.  It may be largely one-sided, but it’s still a conversation and you’re still contributing, whether by body language or word whiskers (mms and aahs).  If you needed to, you could jump in and state your side, then go back to listening.  That’s active.

At times, however, we’re all bad listeners.  The TV is on and you’re hearing it, but you’re looking at the little news ticker on the bottom of the screen for lottery numbers rather than listening to the news.  Or you were having a conversation with someone, until they hijacked it for their own complaints, and now you’re just nodding along to make them think you’re a good listener.  That’s not active.

Here’s the thing: listening itself is not active.  It’s what you do alongside listening that makes it active.  Maybe you’re taking notes as a teacher is talking.  Maybe you’re trying to understand things from another person’s perspective, and interjecting into the conversation once or twice to clarify, or give your own experiences.  Jumping rope while listening is not active listening, despite both being active and listening.  If you’re taking what you hear and making something out of it, you’re actively listening.

Reading, on the other hand, is generally active.  If you’re actually reading, you’re putting the words together to form a message in your mind.  You translate it from word to thought, you understand it, and you store it for later use.  This is how you usually read.  However, when you feel you have no need to store the information, you don’t.  You don’t work to understand it.  You barely translate it from word to thought.  Your mind wanders as you scan the words, and you’re halfway into the acknowledgements before you realize you passed the final chapter.

If you chose to read a book, however, you’re probably looking to absorb some of what it says.  You want to enjoy it, or savor the words, or learn from it.  You will automatically read actively this way.  If someone else told you to read this book and you don’t see the point…  That’s a different story.

This counterpoint between listening and reading means that you will almost always learn more by reading than by listening.  People who don’t read but listen learn a little, but not that much.  People who read but don’t listen much can learn a lot, but not as much as others.  Many people have realized this, and read as much as they possibly can throughout their lives.  At the same time, they make sure to listen when others are talking about the same topics, expanding their knowledge even more.  Many others, however, don’t understand this.  Reading and listening are equal, they claim— in fact, listening is better because more than one person can hear it at a time.  Not everyone can read the same things at the same rate, and learn the same way.

This idea stems from the history of literacy; namely, that it didn’t exist for most people until rather recently.  If someone wanted to learn, which was better?  The method that required years of study, reading?  Or the method that everyone learns from birth, listening?  Naturally, those who could read in centuries past were at an advantage— but those who couldn’t read could still learn through listening.

Because of this tradition, modern educators find themselves ignoring the power of reading.  Yes, these days everyone learns how to read.  Yes, libraries hang that one poster with an apple and a bespectacled worm sitting on a book, showing how great and special it is for you to read— so easy a blind worm could do it!  But no, educators don’t seem to get the hint.  Which of the two will teach people more, a lecture or a book?

Well…  That question isn’t so easy, as you might have guessed.  Imagine this: an educator with a mind to change the system introduces something revolutionary.  In his class, he requires everyone to read a couple chapters in the textbook beforehand.  During the class, he’ll answer any questions they have and briefly go over the topic.  Since everyone read the book, the class should be simple.

But no.  When you assign a book, the activeness of reading dies.  The student forgets why it’s necessary.  I’m required to go to the lecture, he muses, but not required to read the book.  Both will say the exact same stuff.  Therefore… no book!

Over the years, teachers have developed different styles to engage the student and make listening more active.  Quizzes, for example, are remarkable motivators; the Socratic method usually brings in a good crop (ask so many questions that the student wonders if the teacher actually knows any of the material); and many more.  Nevertheless, in most classes, the student could sleep through the lectures, read only the book, and get an A in everything except class participation.  That’s the way the system works.

The student who reads the textbook hates the lectures and gets a good grade.  The student who doesn’t like to read but takes notes during the lectures gets a passing grade, but not a good one.  The student who doesn’t like to read and hates the lectures will probably stay up all night before the final— but what are they doing?  Are they listening to the lectures again?  No.  They’re reading the textbook.

Textbooks are better teachers than the teachers, in general.  A teacher can go back and clarify something she said.  The textbook doesn’t have that chance— if it confuses the reader, it’s not a good textbook and the author won’t get any money.  The textbook is often easier to understand than the teacher.  Similarly, you can read something in a textbook a second time, a month after you read it the first time.  This reinforces it over a longer period of time, rather than flying in one ear and out the other.  You can’t replay a lecture you had to figure out that fact that you vaguely remember and know will be on the test.

Reading is active.  Reading teaches more than the best lecture possibly can.  Listening is passive.  Assigned reading, when the student doesn’t understand why they have to read it, is also passive.  Passivity is the least efficient mode of learning.

This doesn’t mean we, as students, can just refuse to learn because the teaching method is flawed.  That’s like workers shutting down an entire bridge because half of it is under construction, even though the other side is usable.  Instead, we have to learn in spite of the challenges.  How to do that?  Read the textbook, if it has anything to do with the actual class.  Find different books on the same topic and get another perspective.  Stay awake and take notes during classes.  Answer the teacher’s questions.  Just because lectures are inefficient doesn’t mean they can’t help you.

Learn every day of your life.  No matter if you’re in a classroom environment or not, someone will try to lecture you about something.  If you’re at all interested in it, it’s your job to learn it to the best of your ability.  Read and listen as actively as you can.


14 thoughts on “How to Learn

  1. THANK YOU. You said it all. This, I think, is why homeschoolers end up doing so well–because many of us learned from books, not someone talking.

    I’m curious, though. What would you say about “different learning styles”?

    1. Also, I will note that my chemistry class this year is very much like the scenario you described. We read the textbook at home, then in class we (ideally) go over things people had questions about or problems with and do the labs. That’s all. In fact, it’s so efficient that our teacher, sadly, often feels the need to fill the space by going over every single problem, even the ones no one had trouble with…which is indeed quite boring. Oh well. I get a lot of knitting done that way.

      Another point that I thought of: Some textbooks aren’t meant to be self-standing. In fact, I daresay most school textbooks aren’t. Perhaps you’ve heard of the A Beka school curriculum. Apparently quite a few homeschoolers have used it. Well, I tried their Algebra 2 book this summer, and it was horrendous. The “lessons” only had about two sentences of explanation for each topic. The teacher’s manual, apparently, was what contained the real information. The same with their grammar curriculum, which I’m currently doing the worksheets for as a review. No lessons in the “handbook.” More like basic points. Which is usually okay, since I’ve already learned grammar, but would be impossible for someone still going through objective complements and demonstrative pronouns.

      1. From what I know of the A Beka curriculum, it is all about teacher involvement. They have crazy lesson plans and lots of stuff, and yeah, there’s no way you can go through it by yourself. That being said, I also know A Beka is supposed to be pretty advanced and most kids who go through it from the beginning will often be ahead of their public school counterparts.

        There are definitely some textbooks you can do by yourself, though. My favorite science books, for example are… I think they’re Apologia Science. Or maybe I’m getting them mixed up with something else. They’re written by Dr. Jay Wile, though, and they’re definitely books you can go through independently.

      2. Yes, the Apologia books are specifically written with homeschoolers in mind, so that all you need to know will be right there in the book.

        The math curriculum I’m using now, Teaching Textbooks, is also designed for “self-study.” So yeah, there’s certainly many textbooks you can learn a lot of stuff from, I was just pointing out that not all of them are written in a way that makes that easy or even realistically possible.

  2. This is why homeschooling is often such a good option. A very good post Liam and a very good reminder. I have now used up the permissible number of times the word “good may bee used in message and must be quiet.

  3. Huh. Okay, give me a moment to think about this because my brain doesn’t usually like to think at this hour.

    That’s interesting. I actually just made a comment to my mom the other day about how the only reason I think I’ve learned anything in my English class so far is because of the textbook, not because of the teacher. Then again, she doesn’t really lecture lecture. The closest we’ve had were some tirades and some class discussions. One time, I had tirade.

    I’d say, though, there is a little more to it than just reading and listening, though. Or, well, there can be. For example, my brother is a very hands-on learner, and he loves visuals. If he can touch it or see it, he does way better than reading about it. And he enjoys it more, too, I think.
    I’ve also learned I positively suck at taking notes. I can take notes from a book okayish, but during a lecture? Ha. However, if I then explain what I learned to somebody else, I both understand it better and remember it better. Assuming I keep my words straight and don’t jumble everything, it works really well for processing things I’ve listened to.

    Also, I’ve found that sometimes listening and reading at the same time are helpful. (Assuming, that is, what I’m listening to is the same as what I’m reading. Like if I were to listen to an audiobook and then follow along at the same time.) I sometimes pick up on things better. My only issue with that is nobody reads aloud at the same speed that I read in my head, so I have to force myself to slow down, and that can be a little annoying.

    Good post!

    1. I tend to learn the very best by watching someone do something, then trying to do it myself while they correct my errors. That’s how I learned to do my job as a cashier at Chick-fil-A in two days (and, ha, someone figured out I was a homeschooler on that second day).

      And then if I was reading something or listening, explaining it to someone else is definitely what cements it for me. Or even just what I’m doing with my chemistry textbook this year–I read a section, especially the example, then rewrite it in my own words. That seems to do the trick so far.

      1. Oooh, yeah, rewriting it is probably a good idea. I need to remember to do that for my physics (because sometimes physics is hard to process, hehe, and I think that’ll help).

      2. Yeah, you should definitely try it! It’s helped me a lot. Chemistry students are dropping like flies…we started with nine, we’re down to five, and I’m the last girl. Sigh.

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