16 April 2011

The Myth of the Quick Learner

It is often claimed that some people are quick learners, and some people are slow learners, and that's that.  In many ways this is just a euphemistic way of saying that some people are "clever" and some people are "stupid".

Well, as someone accused of being a "quick learner" or a "good learner" or being "good at" whatever subject we are discussing, I'd like to refute that.

I am not a quick learner.
Learning is about incorporating new information with existing knowledge.
It follows, then, that learning is easier the more knowledge you have to build on.

Here's my learner-life-story in a condensed form.

My parents were both teachers.  My mother chose to be a stay-at-home mum.

  1. As a child, my mum had me playing games that involved counting before I went to school.
  2. She taught me to play simple tunes on the piano.
  3. She taught me to read a little.
  4. She taught me to read the clock.
  5. On top of this, she spoke a very "standard" English, whereas the local way of speaking was a mixture of Scots and English.
So when I went to school, I looked "clever", I looked like a "quick learner", I was "good at":
  1. Arithmetic
  2. The recorder (a horrible little instrument, but cheap and accessible for a learner of music)
  3. Reading
  4. Telling the time
  5. English
I was not a quick learner, I just had a huge headstart.  My headstart meant I had less to learn at each step.  Even when I reached high school, I was still ahead of the pack.

Think about that for a moment: I had less to learn.

How can I be a "quick learner" if I'm doing less than the people around me?


Logically, it's absurd to say that.


In reality, all that happened was that I was given adequate time to learn the material given to me, based on my previous experience.  Many of my classmates weren't given that chance -- they were presented with ever more new information without giving the previous information time or opportunity to be integrated with the old information.

The result is a spiral of passing tests without ever really mastering any information, and it is not the pupil's fault.

It's not really the teacher's fault either, because the teacher doesn't have any control over the students' knowledge before they come into the room, but any good teacher will tell you that it's the student's knowledge that counts, not intelligence.

Even a good teacher will still struggle with this in practice, because it is very different to account for deficiencies in prior learning for the low attainers without boring the high attainers.

So there's no easy answers, but until the myth of the "slow learner" is well and truly scotched, the debate will always be dragged backwards and true progress won't be achieved.

15 comments:

gbarto said...

I think this hits the nail on the head. It also explains the drawback to the quick and simple methods of top language learners - what's contained in the method is only of use if you've already got a strong framework to fit it in to.

I sometimes think the best way to help would be language learners is to point them to a lot of elegant and instructive prose in their own language so they can get in the habit of paying attention to language. If you've got a framework for thinking about how words and ideas go together, that's a lot more useful than a trick for memorizing conjugation tables in the long run!

Thrissel said...

Sorry Nìall, not convinced.

Nìall Beag said...

Fair enough. You don't have to be convinced, but you'll hopefully accept (as I said in a comment on your blog) that even if they do exist, it's impossible to tell a slow learner from someone with poor prior knowledge or to tell a fast learner from someone with good prior knowledge.

Dismissing someone as "slow" without evidence has the potential to do great harm.

Thrissel said...

Yes, I can agree with that (with the caveat that most rules have those 'proving' exceptions and maybe so does this one).

kmart said...

Are you saying that people don't have different levels of natural intelligence? That it's all nurture, and no nature?

Nìall Beag said...

kmart,
I wouldn't say it's all nurture, but that the differences in natural ability are negligible for average people. The differences in nurture, on the other hand, can be pretty extreme -- consider the difference in mental ability of the average Western European child of today and the likely abilities of a peasant boy in 0 AD. The difference is all in nurture -- the human race hasn't really evolved much in the last 2000 years.

Until we can get a better understanding of nurturing intellect, that nurture will mask the relatively minor differences in nature.

But of course, there are certainly exceptional geniuses and people with developmental difficulties, but these are minorities.

The middle of the bell curve, the average intelligence, seems pretty tall and narrow to me.

kmart said...

So, does this doctrine of "equal potential, unequal prior knowledge" pertain to learning physical skills too? There's no such thing as a slow runner - they are just missing the knowledge of running skills that the fast runners have attained?

And why do some people never "catch up" even to a lower level that the "prior knowledge" person had previously achieved ? To explain a bit better - I started using a particular computer application on the same day and in the same way as a colleague - we were new employees doing the same job. I had, it is true, prior experience using a similar application so it is understandable that I grasped it quicker, and after a few weeks was completely conversant with the application, and helping my colleague, who was still learning. However, after 8 years of using this application, my colleague was still unable to use it to the level that I had acquired after about 6 months. By this time, he had achieved far more "prior experience" on this application than I had had at the time it was introduced to us. During our years working together, we were several times introduced to new computer applications, which were completely new to both of us, yet on every occasion I could understand and use the systems more quickly and effectively and with an understanding that my colleague never obtained. What other explanation is there, other than that I was a "quicker" learner of computer applications?

Nìall Beag said...

First, about your computer programs...

You can use and adapt to them well because you understand the process logic. Is your colleague inherently incapable of understanding the process logic? Unlikely.

What is more likely is that he has never been made to examine the process logic, and has instead been simply following a script. He has never been given reason or the mental tools to examine the process logic.

I do not believe in learning by induction. I do not believe in learning by exposure. Your colleague will never spontaneously start thinking about process logic, but if he is trained to, he will start to see it everywhere. The menus on a mobile phone will not be a series of options, but a single coherent (or sometimes contradictory) system.

Second:
The sports analogy has a pretty simple flaw:

There is only one Olympic gold medal winner in any given sport/discipline in every 4 year period. Of the 6 billion people on the planet today, there can only be only about 15-20 100m gold medal winners. That's a third of a hundredth of a thousandth of one percent of the world's population.

When you're talking about a vanishingly small proportion like that, yes, the outliers do win. When there is a definitive "winner", a small inherent advantage can make all the difference.

Consider the winning time of the marathon in the first modern Olympic games, in 1896.

Spiridon Louis finished in 2 hours 58 minutes and 50 seconds.

In the 2011 London Marathon, 939 people beat his time.

Are they all inherently better than Louis? No, they've just got better technique and better training regimes.

Technique trumps talent.

Pete said...

With regard to the marathon-runner scenario; if you believe in the theory of evolution, then this should be of little surprise. Humans are already taller than they were many years ago. We have physically evolved. Why should our brains have not evolved in the same way? This relates to your comparison of a 21st century person of "average intelligence" to a person from 0 AD. If evolution is accepted, then it would make sense that the knowledge/intelligence of the 21st century person is much greater.

I do agree with some of your points though. I too had "prior learning" at home and found my early shool years easy-going. I also struggled through college/university as I had become complacent during my secondary (high) school years.

I do believe that everybody has the capacity to be a "quick learner", it is whether they choose to use that skill, or not, which determines whether they are a "quick" or "slow" learner. I am quite a lazy person by nature, so I am generally a slow learner. If something excites me, I will learn it pretty quickly. If, however, something is of less interest to me, then I really struggle to get the topic to stick in my head. If I focus hard, I succeed well, but this is hard for me to do. Mostly, my mind wanders within minutes (sometimes seconds) of beginning a task and this makes learning a very hard thing for me.

In this way, I found the film "Limitless" to be based on an interesting concept. I'm sure if I could maintain focus, my learning ability would be immeasurable and potentially I could become hugely intelligent. Alas, this is not the case, and I'm not one for taking mind-focusing drugs (which I gather are pervading universities these days), so I will have to settle for being the mere mortal that I am!

So I guess to summarise, I feel the difference is more about "focused vs. unfocused learner" as opposed to "quick vs. slow learner".

Nìall Beag said...

Pete,
The increase in average height isn't really down to evolution, but more to do with the modern lifestyle. Average height was pretty much stable for ages, but really only shot up in the last hundred years or so.

Industrial food production means a better diet, and kids can now go to school unit they're 16, which means they're putting their energy into growing rather than burning it all up digging coal.

Natural selection has been increasingly sidelined in modern society -- royals and aristocrats with serious genetic defects caused by inbreeding could spread their seed pretty widely while healthy genetic specimens were left to rot in squalor or sent to die in battle.

This isn't just a European thing -- the most prolific father in history is considered to be the last emperor of Morrocco, with approximately 800 children, while the Emperor of China lived in a private city inhabited by concubines and eunochs.

Things got worse for natural selection in the last century or two. The strong were taken from Africa and many died at sea, in the fields or in the mines. Many of the former colonies lost lots of young, strong men in their struggle for independence.

Add to that two world wars that took all of the healthiest, strongest men in Europe -- modern man is mostly the descendent of the runts with poor eyesight who were considered unfit to serve.

And yet we're still taller than our ancestors. It's not genetic.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to argue this. =)

I am a quick learner. I believe that some people do learn much more quickly than others. This does NOT mean that their smarter or more intelligent than other people.

Here is a few examples of my ability to learn things quickly:
- I picked up drawing blood MUCH more quickly than the rest of my nursing class. I also picked up on the material in class quicker. I had to study much less than others because I understood it faster. In high school I was a C and D student - I never tried in school. No one ever taught me how to study. No one in my family is in the health care field. But I learn fast.

2) I managed to play piano and guitar very quickly. My fiance's mother plays guitar and my boyfriend learned how. I did what took him weeks to do in a matter of days. I never had any previous experience with it, or anything related to it that I can think of.

3) I picked up on drawing and painting quickly.

4) I pick up new card games quicker than other new players

5) I was potty trained at a very young age - much younger than both my brothers.

6) My fiance's mother is German (and fluent), and my fiance took college classes to learn. I'm studying on my own and learning much more quickly.

BUT! Here is the catch. All that sounds all great, but there is a negative. I can't stick with anything. I learn the basics to it very quickly, but then I get bored and move on to something else. So I'm not amazing at anything. I'm just good at a lot of things. I have a good friend who learns and understands things much slower than me, but she is an amazing artist! I can't compete, granted I spend very little time doing art. My art is better than many people, but can't compete with her's.

So, yes... people can learn faster. It's because they understand it faster. But boredom comes on much faster too. It's easy to lose interest in something when it doesn't feel challenging.

Nìall Beag said...

Consider this... the more breadth you learn, the more prior learning you have when you approach a new subject or activity. If you enter into every new endeavour with more prior knowledge than your peers, isn't it a foregone conclusion that you'll pick up the basics quicker...?

Unknown said...

I just don't agree I'm sorry if this were true there wouldn't be so many prodigies in the world. There are children literally born learning how to play and draw beautifully and while prior knowledge may be to blame I find it unlikely for a child to posses enough prior knowledge to match that of a master pianist or star track star. Don't get me wrong I do agree that prior knowledge is important but to say practice ALWAYS trumps talent is untrue. Sure if someone were given enough time it could definitely be true unfortunately there isn't enough time in the world. For example no one other taught me mathematics and as a child I spent my days trying to get a better grasp of history but for whatever reason I picked up mathematics easily. There was hardly anytime to think of numbers because I was always playing or watching TV buy I understand mathematics so easily. Science on the other hand I've taken various various classes and have tried applying other class information to make learning a current class easier however I still find myself spending a ridiculous amount of time trying to understand concepts despite the breadth of basic scientific knowledge I already know while adults in my classes which are first years are easily grasping chemistry despite the fact we took the same class's and I was at a better school.sorry if that's lengthy but I just disagree not completely though after all all those courses cut the time by a few hours.

Nick Carballo said...

I just don't agree I'm sorry if this were true there wouldn't be so many prodigies in the world. There are children literally born learning how to play and draw beautifully and while prior knowledge may be to blame I find it unlikely for a child to posses enough prior knowledge to match that of a master pianist or star track star. Don't get me wrong I do agree that prior knowledge is important but to say practice ALWAYS trumps talent is untrue. Sure if someone were given enough time it could definitely be true unfortunately there isn't enough time in the world. For example no one other taught me mathematics and as a child I spent my days trying to get a better grasp of history but for whatever reason I picked up mathematics easily. There was hardly anytime to think of numbers because I was always playing or watching TV buy I understand mathematics so easily. Science on the other hand I've taken various various classes and have tried applying other class information to make learning a current class easier however I still find myself spending a ridiculous amount of time trying to understand concepts despite the breadth of basic scientific knowledge I already know while adults in my classes which are first years are easily grasping chemistry despite the fact we took the same class's and I was at a better school.sorry if that's lengthy but I just disagree not completely though after all all those courses cut the time by a few hours.

Nìall Beag said...

Child prodigies are a vanishingly small proportion of the human race -- outliers that skew the graph. A couple of years ago, I saw a claim that innate intelligence counts for two IQ points on average, meaning learning is 98% of intelligence.