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Learning to learn

June 01, 2018


TWO weeks ago, I had written an article discussing how the poor quality of education we are giving to most of our children is impacting their ability to find gainful and fulfilling employment. In the piece, I had asserted that a lot of students are not even able to read and comprehend an article, and writing a coherent and well-argued article is just too much to ask.

I received quite a few emails, mostly from young people, saying that they did have such issues and asking my advice on how to address these. I am not an expert in the area of learning in general. I have taught economics for two decades. I will share some ideas that have worked for me and my students. I hope they are of help.

Learning is a slow process. Developing skills is also a slow process. And it requires a lot of effort. So, if you are looking for permanent and extensive change, be prepared to work on issues for long periods. You will start seeing results soon, but they will only get better with time and effort. Eventually, some of the practices that work for you should become a part of your personality and way of being.

The importance of developing the habit of thinking independently can’t be overemphasised.

There are two somewhat overlapping but distinct issues that we need to deal with. One has to do with learning a language: in this case English or Urdu. A certain level of familiarity with a language is a prerequisite for reading and writing in and comprehending that language.

The other issue has to do with understanding. If your English is weak, you need to improve it. Taking formal courses is probably the best way of doing this. But make sure these courses are of decent quality. Online course are also available for this.

However, if taking a course is not possible, here are some tips for self-learning. Start reading the editorial pages of a good newspaper. Spend 30 to 45 minutes doing this each day. Make sure you understand every word (keep a dictionary with you) and sentence you read. If this means being very slow in the beginning that is fine. After you read something, do try to summarise the content in your own words, or make an attempt at clearly articulating what you think was the argument in the piece you read.

 Start listening to conversations in the English language. Watching English movies is one way of doing this but even watching news channels will help. But, again, this has to be done in a way where you understand every word and sentence that is uttered. If you have an audio or video file on the computer, replaying sentences can help.

Start speaking the language you want to learn. Practice helps with usage and it develops one’s level of comfort and confidence. You will make mistakes in the beginning. But that is how we learn ie by making mistakes. You just have to be comfortable with the idea of making mistakes. But make sure you learn from the latter.

Start writing in English. Start with sentences and smaller pieces. And slowly move towards longer pieces.

For all of this, mechanisms must be created with a view to getting feedback, especially from people who are better than you are in this area. This is crucial to ensuring progress. Just as poets get feedback from teachers on their poems, you need to get feedback on your reading, speaking and writing skills. It is sometimes hard to organise this. For those who cannot organise feedback, learning takes a bit longer; however, if feedback is possible, progress can be more rapid, organised and documented.

Though comprehension is separate from language acquisition, the great thing is that as you acquire more facility and a greater degree of familiarisation with a language, the same methods that you are applying to achieve this will help in comprehension as well.

When you read an article or watch a movie, summarise the main arguments. This summary should be in your own words only. If you want to go beyond a summary and write on any topic that you have read about, make sure you spend a day or two thinking about what you have read before you write anything. This is extremely important. You need to internalise what various authors have said. This is done when you are reflecting on what you have read. But you need to acquire a certain distance from each author as well. This is to ensure that your voice as a writer can emerge.

Spend a day or two thinking about a topic and what you have read on it before you start writing. This helps in a) synthesising your reading and thinking, b) facilitating the development of your arguments, and c) ensuring that your voice can emerge as a distinct one, separate from the authors that you might have read.

One cannot overemphasise the importance of developing this habit of thinking independently and as a distinct person. If your argument is just the argument that you read, it is not your argument. If your argument does not take into account what others have said on a topic, it is not well informed. So, read, understand and internalise what others say, but write or speak what you think. This is how your identity will take shape.

Developing reading, speaking, writing and thinking skills takes time and effort. But it can be achieved at any stage in your career. It is easier if it is done when a person is at a school-going age; it gets harder as we become more set in our ways of thinking. But the human brain is very capable of learning at any stage as long as one is willing to put in the effort. One hopes that this column, not exhaustive by any stretch, provides a good starting point for people who want to learn about learning. 

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2018