I Wish They Told Me This In School

The difference between experiential and conceptual learning.

I Wish They Told Me This In School

When you're young, you're always learning. When you're old, you're learning too, but in a different way. The learning when you're older isn't as hopeful, whereas when you're young, since you haven't learned much yet, you expect what you're learning to be able to help you, to resolve all the problems that you encounter. It's a good mentality, but it's a flawed one, and I wish I knew this when I was younger.

Adults like to hide the truth —I understand it, they feel powerless over the great forces of the world, it's crushing to be a parent and still not feel like you know nothing, but as a parent you have to try to help teach your kids, so you give advice instead of telling the kid you have no fucking idea about anything and you're just taking a stab in the dark —the advice should be prefaced with "I think" and "I'm totally not sure but...", but hey the parent has to say something or this kid is gonna think they're an idiot and start crying or something.

The truth is learning more concepts probably won't resolve any of your problems, in fact, it's likely they'll only make it more difficult —concepts create bloat, when the best solutions don't require any fancy concepts, they just require a willingness to think and test things out yourself. I'll give you an example.

Teach a 5 year old to ride a bicycle. Conceptually: 1. get on the bike, 2. pedal. That's it, pretty easy to understand, and yet, the kid is going to fail multiple times before they are able to ride a bicycle. Why is it so hard when theoretically it's not complex at all? Well, it's obvious —the kid hasn't experienced the feeling of riding a bike successfully. There's some nervousness, there's a bit of a leap, you have to trust yourself and the bike, you have to pedal and keep balance at the same time —and no one can help you here, no amount of advice is going to help past the two steps above, the kid just has to figure it out. In fact, if I added more concepts on top of the first two, I'd probably be making it harder for the kid; they have to master those two steps, everything else is a distraction.

Now intuitively the above makes sense, but how can we break this down and find more "bicycle"-like situations? What are situations in which more concepts don't necessarily help? where reading, learning, understanding, and all that might actually be a detriment rather than a benefit. Why are concepts detrimental to riding a bike? Well, because while you can tell when a kid knows how to ride a bike or not (result), there is no singular, correct way to ride a bike —the process of pedaling (while generally the same) is not the specifically the same between people, nor is the posture the person takes while riding, nor the way they grip the handles, etc. Since everyone's body is different, the "correct" way (process) of riding a bike is different for everyone, even if the answer (the result) of successfully riding a bike (forward movement, not falling) is the same. The success of riding a bike is a personal experience.

The learning we do in childhood is largely trial and error through experience: learning to crawl, to walk, to verbalize sounds, to ride a bike, etc, however around the time school begins, we're introduced to another form of learning; one that doesn't require direct experience, but one that requires concepts, understanding, and abstract forms of knowledge.

This new form of learning also has its difficulties, and it's almost directly at odds with experiential learning. Trial and error isn't going to get you through a math problem, and even if it does, it won't help you consistently get the math problem right. If you understand the process, the concepts that lead to the answer, you'll get the right answer. You don't need to know the answer beforehand, as long as you know the concepts, you can get the right answer.

School becomes a race to see who can become conceptual learners, experiential learning is downplayed, the kid learns about cause and effect relationships, and when that kid becomes a young adult, they've been drilled so much by tests and quizzes, that that is the default mode of solving problems in the future —there's a concept, you got to learn it, study, once you understand the concept, apply it to the test, don't worry about the answer, just focus on the process, the concept, and if you know the concepts, if you study, if you have the right knowledge, you'll get the right result.

It's a convincing story —since it's about the only thing a kid could think of to solve their family, relationship, mental, emotional, or you know... general living problems, but it's wrong. The solutions to most of life's problems are experiential, specific —the process is different for everyone and what's more important is knowing the answer beforehand so you know what you're actually striving for, then you have to figure it out. There's too many people pursuing happiness, thinking if they get the process of happiness right, they'll be happy —these are the conceptual learners (which is most of us), but happiness is more of a biking problem where each person's happiness is arrived at in different ways, even if the result is the same. What's more important is to get a clear idea of what the result should actually be, then to trial and error the way to that result —but I don't see many people doing this; the happy chasers assume that the result of happiness is already known —it's 42 and all they have to figure out is the right combination of x + y to = 42, but there's no guarantee that 42 is actually happiness. Therein lies the problem —what is thought as the answer may not be the answer, so first you have to figure out if the destination is correct, then you can work on getting there in your own way. Happiness concepts aren't difficult: 1. don't try to be happy, 2. that's best done by focusing your attention on something other than yourself 3. that means caring for people, or 4. working on something you care about (project), 5. cultivate good relationships, 6. exercise, 7. don't fear sadness. How each of these 7 things are done, the process is different for everyone; there's no exact concept for cultivating good relationships nor is there an exact guide to exercise; you just got to figure it out, and yes, happiness is a bit more difficult than riding a bike, there's more than 2 concepts, so juggling them all can be frustrating, but you just have to keep trying till you've solidified all of them —adding more concepts will only make it more difficult, you've got to experience true happiness to be able to cultivate it, and that true happiness usually entails quite a bit of suffering.