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  • Writer's pictureHugo Menard

A meandering approach to learning

When we think of learning and working in an effective way, we often think of having structure to the process. We think of courses that say “first you’ll learn step one, then once you’ve understood that you’ll move onto step two etc in a carefully laid out, well thought through curriculum.” Or at work we’re told first you have to do action item “A” and then once that item is checked off, then you move on to action item “B”.

Learning and working in a structured way gives us a sense of security, of certainty, of predictability. It gives us a sense of support and assuages our angst about the unknown. It makes it feel more official, reliable, and comprehensive when there’s a linear logic to it, when ideas build one on top of the other, when there’s a curriculum we can stand behind.

Structure gives us a way to organise all our thoughts, all our action items, and it makes things easier to find and tick off our to do list. If there’s something we didn’t understand we can more easily find where that specific piece of information was to be able to review it.

The structured approach has a more obvious discipline to it and we tend to admire people who can stick with a structure and do it regardless of how they’re feeling (and rightly so, as it’s a tremendously valuable skill).

Despite all these benefits, it’s not always the most effective, (let alone natural) way of going about things. The feeling of safety and certainty we get from linear structure may be more of a hindrance than a benefit. A meandering, spiralling, non-linear approach may serve us better.

A meandering approach is more akin to having a great teacher who doesn’t give out physical material or have a specific lesson plan written up for the year, but just shares what they know in an organic way. They listen to their students and observe how they respond to see what they might benefit from the most, tailoring the teachings moment to moment. They may revisit previously covered material rather than assuming their students have all remembered everything perfectly. This approach is far more ancient: it seems more like the kind of teachings that the Buddha or Jesus would have given.

Even today, people at Church don’t say “we’ve already read this section of the bible, so no need to go over it again”. Rather there’s a repetition, a process, a cycle, of deeper and deeper understanding.

Structure doesn’t always lead to better comprehension. It’s not the antidote to the confusion and struggle we often experience when learning something new. Have you ever learnt something which was taught in a structured way, which was designed sequentially, but when you were learning it that structure and logic went completely over your head? Despite all that well thought through linear logic, you still felt lost at some points, you still felt confused and you were in the muck of figuring it all out?

While that linear approach gave us a sense of safety that we were in good hands, and likely gave a similar sense of safety (and perhaps pride) to the person who had developed the structure, it didn’t amount to much when we were in the arena.

The trophy given to sequential structure creates an environment where there’s an underlying pressure to understand everything right off the bat and not miss a single element, because otherwise you’ll be lost for the rest of the teaching. An environment of pressure, of having to get it right this exact moment, is not conducive to learning and absorbing the information - let alone remembering it long term and repeating the process in a sustainable way. Think about how well you did in practice tests at school or university, and then how well you did on the real test or exam. The added element of pressure likely made you go blank at some point or not think clearly (even if just for a short while).

It also unconsciously encourages the idea that you should learn something or do something once and then move on. It leans the process towards action items to be completed “correctly” and away from genuine curiosity and questioning fundamental principles. We go to school and university, we do what the teacher asks and then we’re done with that education and we don’t look back.

And so, the very structure that gives us peace of mind, can steal the sense of curiosity and exploration that is so vital for learning and bringing novelty to our work.

When there’s less emphasis on structure, and a greater focus on learning whatever the teacher is about to share (and that teacher can be a book or a course), there is inherently going to be more curiosity because we don’t know what’s coming, so we will be more attentive and open minded.

With a meandering approach, there’s a compassionate, human understanding that you won’t fully understand everything right away, and that’s OK, that’s human, that’s natural. That natural quality, engages our human qualities of interest and curiosity, of open minded thinking - all of which are incredible for learning and working more effectively. So rather than trying to demand that you become a robot, acknowledge the power of going over something you may already know and being curious to discover more.

I’ve noticed that people who are at the top of their field, are often very good at articulating the fundamentals, and do so with passion, curiosity and an open mind. They seem to come at it from a place of being open to learning more and the possibility of being wrong. A singer doesn’t stop doing vocal warm ups of scales, a boxer doesn’t stop practicing to punch. They repeat, they hone it more, they discover the next layer of nuance.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

Bruce Lee

If you go over something you already know, you may get a deeper understanding of how it fits into the bigger picture or vice-versa. Plus, repetition allows it to get into long term memory, into an automatic response, into an idea that you act upon rather than one that remains in your head. The powerhouse of our subconscious mind is one based on repetition, not single actions. Repetition is a very powerful tool especially when done from a place of revisiting with genuine curiosity and intrigue.

There’s a cycle whereby things start off as sounding simplistic, as you delve into them they become complex, sophisticated and filled with nuances. But then ultimately, the test of a true master, is when that complexity becomes simple and clear. Where that complexity can be conveyed directly, with clarity and simple language. And that doesn’t come from doing or learning something once and then only focusing on more advanced things, but rather from revising the basics, meandering around in what you’ve learnt, spending time being curious and asking questions.

There was a man in Japan named Suzuki who discovered that song birds learn to sing by repeatedly listening to a master song bird, and then repeating what they hear. When this process is repeated enough times, each bird is able to sing like the master song bird and then creates their own variations from that level of mastery. In other words, birds (as well as humans and just about every animal), learn first by copying what others do, and learning by osmosis.

You don’t give a baby a book on grammar so that they will learn to speak. You start out by getting them to copy what you’re saying. They may learn a “complex” word before they learn a “simple” word, but that’s a natural process of their curiosity, it’s a good thing. You don’t say “hey, stop that, don’t say that complex word again, you need to master all your basic words first!!!”

Suzuki went on to develop a method of teaching people music based on this discovery. Rather than giving his students sheet music, he would play something, and then they would play that back to him in real time. After some level of skill is acquired, the student then learns how to read music, just like a child learns how to read words after being able to speak. As their skills progress, students revisit songs they have previously learned in order to add the nuances they have since acquired. This has become a highly successful and popular approach that is still in practice today.

Getting people to learn something that’s structured with “infallible” logic doesn’t seem intelligent because we don’t even fully understand how the brain and body work. But we do know that our brain is not made up of a square, logical, sequential grid. It’s a complex array of interconnecting circuits, each influencing multiple other areas simultaneously. Our brain affects the rest of our body and our body affects our brain. There’s much more interconnectedness than we tend to think, and it’s not linear.

Perhaps working and learning in a non linear way (a way that mimics this non linear, non sequential working of the brain and body) would be wise. We would be mimicking the natural world rather than contriving to make things fit in a way that makes us feel in control.

We can also see this spiralling approach when it comes to healing trauma. When trauma is particularly intense, a person may never fully overcome it. Recovery is not something you start and finish and then move on with the rest of your life. Rather, the healing of trauma is more like a spiral. You keep working through layers of the trauma, and you keep finding more nuanced aspects to heal. It can sometimes seem like you’re back at the beginning “haven’t I dealt with this already?!!!” but it’s not a circle, it’s a spiral. You’re back at the same point but you’re one layer in. It’s a process not an event. And so while originally the trauma may have caused you to completely lose control and take days to recover, now you just notice that you’re triggered and you can calibrate yourself within a few minutes.

Our behaviour is one of repetition. Unless we work on ourselves, we tend to have the same unconscious reactions to the same things that happen in our lives. We have emotional patterns that we play out unconsciously. We wonder why we keep making the same mistakes, why our new year's resolutions never come true no matter how many years in a row we write down that this time, this year, is going to be the year we get in shape/make more money/start that project/finish that project etc. We tell ourselves we’re over past wounds, but feel a sting when someone mentions one of our exes, or a mistake we wish we could take back.

And so, learning in a spiral, where you revisit things you already know, where you cultivate that habit or pattern at a deeper level works with our nature of being creatures of habit.

We say that the shortest path between two points is a straight line. But the wise indigenous people didn’t travel in straight lines, they meandered, walking over rolling hills and the natural curves and bends of nature. They told stories to teach lessons, stories that may have had details that weren’t “necessary” to the lesson, but those details make the story memorable. So is it really best to give dry facts in the most logical succinct way when they are often forgotten after the test or task is done? Or is it perhaps better to tell an engaging story that is remembered generations later?

As the Buddhist's say “nothing is permanent”, and so our desire for structure may be a desperate attempt for some order, for some permanence in a world filled with chaos and uncertainty.

All of this is not to do away with logic and linear sequential learning and check boxes to make sure we get all the right things done. If you’re building a bridge, logically you put the supporting pillars before laying the road/footpath on top. But with many things, we can work with both modes and intertwine them. You can structure revision, you can go over what you’ve learnt in a sequential ordered way, or you can do it in reverse or at random.

Let’s not be so arrogant as to say that we (or someone else) won’t understand a higher concept until they’ve understood a more basic concept. Perhaps that higher idea is what holds more intrigue, is what will stretch the brain, is what will ignite curiosity to revisit something more fundamental. If you think that maths is about figuring out the area of a triangle or finding “x”, inspiration will be scarce. But if you find out that it can be used to launch rockets into space or help you understand how nature works, that’s much more likely to make someone want to learn more. Perhaps learning something in the “wrong” order will ignite a fresh idea, perhaps doing something differently will uncover a priceless gem.

I remember reading about a famous script writer who would write the scenes he was most intrigued by first rather than writing the scenes chronologically. He found this very liberating, and so might you if you apply the concept to your work. Be curious. Next time you have to learn something or do something, perhaps follow what interests you most rather than feeling like you “have” to do it a certain way. It’s OK to get it wrong, it’s OK if that different way doesn’t turn out to be effective. Embrace the uncertainty of learning by discovery. Revisit something you already know, approach learning and work from a place of curiosity rather than “just doing the same ol thing.”


Mind map handbook by Tony Buzan

EFT nation podcast by Alina Frank and Craig Weiner. episode 11: “Traumatic memories; when is our work done?” interviewing Suzanne Fageol

Sand talk: How indigenous thinking can save the world by Tyson Yunkaporta

The Suzuki Method Compared to Traditional Method by Levine Music:

Photo by YIFEI CHEN on Unsplash

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