Tag Archives: #lifelonglearning

Passive Learning vs Active, fully engaged Learning – maybe a greater challenge than ever during the great Global Pandemic of 2020

Philip: “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The Ethiopian Eunuch:  “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?”
(from Acts 8)

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Let’s be honest.  We forget so, so much of what we take in.

Recently, my wife and I were watching a Midsomer Murders episode that we were both sure we had never seen.  About half-way through, we realized; yep, we’ve already seen this one.

I watch Columbo occasionally.  I pretty much have a handful of episodes memorized.  But others, I watch, and I think I saw them years ago, but, I’m not sure. I can’t remember.

I’ve downloaded sample pages of books I have already read, and start reading, and realize – I’ve already read this.  That is so embarrassing.

It takes work to be an engaged viewer, reader, learner.

I can pretty much quote about two TED Talks.  But I’ve seen dozens.  I can tell you practically nothing from many — ok; most — of the ones I’ve seen.

Now, if it’s a tv mystery, it does not matter that I have forgotten them.  After, all, I was first watching Columbo nearly 50 years ago.  That is a long, long time ago.

But, If I go to the trouble of reading a book, especially a nonfiction book that I want to learn from, I need to up my engagement game.  A smart man with great life observations, who also happens to be an actor, that I follow on twitter (@jamespmorrison), observed that there is a difference between reading and studying.  Reading is one thing.  Studying is quite another thing.

How do you read as a student; as a learner?  That’s the challenge.

There are a lot of book summary services and products out there.  I’m sure that all of them are good.  But, if you just watch, or just listen, or just skim – sometimes, to be honest, while “multitasking” – you really won’t remember much, retain much,…learn much.

To learn, you have to engage.  You have to debate, argue, discuss, with an open mind. You probably have to go through the material more than once.  You have to work at it.

I am biased here, but I think that this is the unique value of the book synopses I present. Though one can just listen, I provide deeper engagement options.  In the old days, long ago when we had live gatherings (three months ago was our last before the shutdown), I would give every participant a physical synopsis handout for each book I present.  People would follow along; I would call attention to item after item on page after page.  Those who “learned” how to actively participate would have their pens out, marking key passages in the handouts, writing in the margins.  I have been told by many that they go back over the handouts later, re-reading them, re-absorbing and re-pondering them.

In other words, they actually study the handouts.

{Note:  in this remote era, I provide the pdfs of the synopses handouts before the event, and people print out their own copies at home.  And, as I look at the small images through Zoom, I see plenty of folks following along, pens in hand, just like the good old days…  But, I think that such full attentiveness may be an even greater challenge in this remote era}.

I can assure you of this:  I cannot prepare a synopsis without studying the book carefully.  I highlight hundreds of passages.  I reduce those to a smaller number (almost nearly a hundred) for my handouts.  I work diligently to capture the best lessons, and then to arrive at my lessons and takeaways.  Every time I present a book, it is almost like I am reading it four times

1st – I read the book
2nd – I prepare the handout, re-reading every highlight I made
3rd – I read over my handout carefully before I present the synopsis, marking up my notes with many underlinings, circling of key phrases, notes in the margin to myself
4th – I present the synopsis, and as I do, I am reminding myself again of the key lessons and takeaways

So, of course, I get the most out of the synopses.  Teachers learn

(Teachers learn, and then teach as well as they can. Remember the old adage:  if you really want to learn something, teach it to someone else. Here’s one version: “If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.” — Yogi Bhajan).

And then, those who are engaged, present, and attentive, tell me they get a great deal out of the presentations.

So… the question for you is this:  Are you simply a “passive learner?”  Just receiving what comes your way.  Or, do you prepare yourself to put aside all distractions, and engage fully in every learning opportunity you decide to pursue?

An engaged, active, attentive learner actually learns more than one who is unengaged, passive; not fully present.

How are you doing?

Is the Upper Limit of your mind lower than it used to be? – Why you may not be Reading, or Understanding, Books – Insight from David Brooks

A personal note:  this could be significant.  Please read it carefully…

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Let’s just start with the excerpt from David Brooks.  It is important. Here it is: 

My worry is that, especially now that you’re out of college, you won’t put enough really excellent stuff into your brain. I’m talking about what you might call the “theory of maximum taste.” This theory is based on the idea that exposure to genius has the power to expand your consciousness. If you spend a lot of time with genius, your mind will end up bigger and broader than if you spend your time only with run-of-the-mill stuff.
The theory of maximum taste says that each person’s mind is defined by its upper limit—the best that it habitually consumes and is capable of consuming.
A few years ago, I was teaching students at a highly competitive college. Simultaneously, I was leading seminars for 30- and 40-somethings, many of whom had gone to that same college. I assigned the same essay to both groups, an essay on Tolstoy by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The college students found it easy to read; it’s not that hard of an essay to grasp. The 30- and 40-somethings really struggled. Their reading-comprehension ability had declined in the decades since college, and so had their ability to play with ideas. The upper limit of their mind was lower than it used to be.
David Brooks, A Commencement Address Too Honest to Deliver in Person—The Atlantic, May 13, 2020

If you search out the statistics, you will discover that people kind of quit reading “serious” books after their college years.  Not all people.  But many people; too many.  Especially men.

Yes, I know the argument in favor of good novels.  But, I am mainly speaking about serious nonfiction books, and substantive essays here.  Books that take you on a learning journey; that teach you things that it would help you to know; or, maybe, even simply teaching you how to think about ideas.

I have long believed that there are book readers, and non-book readers. The comments from David Brooks maybe helps me understand the why behind this.

When you are in college, you pretty much have to read the assigned readings.  Books; essays; academic journals.  I know that I never read as much in as short a period of time as I did when I was doing graduate work at the University of Southern California.  It was a whole other level of reading.  Hundreds, thousands of pages assigned. I read, and read and read…

I remember when I first started my graduate program, it was a new field to me:  Communication: Rhetoric and Public Address.  I did not understand what I was reading.  One of my professors, a great professor, told me to just keep reading, and it would slowly begin to sink in.  He said it could take about six months, and then, I would understand as I read.  He was right.  I got acclimated to the vocabulary, to the ways of thinking.  I understood what I was reading.

I am lucky, in a sense.  I have found a way to make my living professionally by doing a fair amount of serious reading. I read books and present synopses of the books I read – somewhere around 40-50 book synopses a year. (I read more books than I present).  Business books, mainly.  But also books on social justice.  Some of the books are “popular.’’ Some are more academic.  But, my work requires me to take a deep dive into the books I present.

What David Brooks is saying is this:  use it, or you will lose it.  If you don’t keep reading, and discussing what you read, you will lose the ability to read with deep focus and understanding. And the result is that you will, in his phrase, drop down in the “theory of maximum taste” path: The upper limit of your mind will be lower than it used to be.

It’s a really alarming, and sad, insight, isn’t it?!

If he is right – and I think he is – then a whole bunch of folks need to get back to doing more serious reading.

When I present my synopses, I prepare multi-page, comprehensive synopsis handouts.  I make sure that every audience member has a copy, and I encourage them to follow along with pen in hand.  I read a significant portion of my handout aloud.  And the first section of the handout includes the best of my highlighted passages from the book.  I am, in a sense, helping my audience members read enough that it feels like something of a direct encounter with the book; with the author’s own words and ideas.

I add my own lessons and takeaways.  But, my audience members are active participants.  They are not simply watching slides, or passively listening; they are engaged with my synopsis of the text.  They are…learning.

So, what about you.  What are you doing to keep learning?  Would you be able to read a serious text, now, and discuss it intelligently?  Or is the upper limit of your mind lower than it used to be; lower than you want it to be?

Of course it would be better to read the book for yourself.  But, this is not nothing.  Maybe this could be a start to help one get back on the higher portions of “the theory of maximum taste” path.

Maybe it’s time to get back at it!

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