Difficult is good
Struggle is the mother of learning. And not in the "I'm never drinking again" moment of hangover pain kind of struggle and learning - cos we know that doesn't work. More in the struggle to understand a subject that we are intrinsically motivated to learn - be it for the information itself or as a means to an end. The means to an end one is far, far harder, but still works.
Rather counterintuitively walking away and leaving the struggle after some effort is a good idea. Intuitively I think we get this. A writer needs a walk after an hour of writing. We all understand the 'clear the head' mentality, yet so often we don't do it. Walking away and spacing your information gouging attempts allows you to digest what you have been eating up from the books or internet or classroom.
We see this in coaching for instance when using deliberate practice methods. If we really want to excel or even learn a skill in sport we need to put a lot of focus into it. Deliberate practice has to be focused, intense and has to have difficulty. Then it pays to walk away for a period of time (as in a couple of days) and go back to it, or add a slight variation. We will talk about it down the road, but that need then for retrieval is absolutely critical to the learning process.
In real life I have applied this to reading. After finally deciding to stop buying books and start reading them all I came up with a bit of a system. Up to 4 books on the go at any one time. One in the car, one in the laptop bag, one by the bed, and one at work. But I would stick to one chapter at a time, as in finish a chapter of whichever book, before moving to another.
For most books, but not something like a biography, I will take notes as I go. At the end of the chapter I write down what I can remember of the chapter, then go back to the notes and see how well I remembered. It is slower, and it does stretch the brain at times when I have stopped for 3 days due to work or life and I return half way through a chapter - but it works.
I have adopted similar approaches to coaching, and have seen an accelerated learning of things like principles of play, strategy, new skills. I don't assess the players in the same way, it's far more casual, but I am using those methods.
That is retrieval practice. And the harder the retrieval, the harder you have to think about it, the better the consolidation.
In our rush to satisfy the demands of the ever-so-wonderful Instagram and life healers on Twitter tell us “10 pages a day”, “a book a week” kinda nonsense. Is anybody actually reading all the books? And what’s being retained? Learning science would suggest not as much as we might think.
New learning is shaky. Different theories have slightly different takes on it but basically we need some form of consolidation. In sport skill development we talk about motor learning versus performance and interestingly there are some references worth noting here, too, in relation to exam study:
Studying for exams is similar in that if we cram for exams we can scrape through our assessments based on cramming, but we won't retain much or any of the crammed material. Where as if we steadily studied all along using spaced, interwoven, and retrieval practices (could be small tests) then we will much more readily retain the material.
But we also learn deeper when we attach our learning to other knowledge we have picked up in the past. That is going to give even more rootage to our learning.
Its weird, but forgetting is good, as long as we reach back again for the learning before its too late. But sometimes forgetting is part of learning something new. Like if we try to learn French late in life we may have to try and forget the Irish we learned back as a kid as there may be interference. A more probable example we will all encounter is changing from an iPhone to Android or visa versa. It's so hard, for a while, to work the iPhone because we have become so accustomed to the patterns of usage on the Android.
But if we want to master any field or excel on a subject, getting deeper with associative subjects will help our greater understanding. Like if we learn about human behaviour from the perspective of a neuroscientist, our grandad, a master coach, our school teacher, and from economic psychology - its the crossover of important and consistent information that we will retain, and be able to verify, on the subject of human behaviour. This is broadly the idea of conceptual learning. We get broad concepts of a subject from various angles.
The interweaving of all the different types of information kinda bring us to a deeper place. My experience of this would be, say, matching S&C with previous coaching field sport experience. I was quickly able to see some of the things in the text book didn't match with reality so I was able to interweave my experience with this new information.
Then I started layering skill acquisition and that started tearing off some of the old coaching practices that neither my anecdotal, trial and error coaching experience along with Sports Science had not taught me. Skill Acquisition introduced me to deeper knowledge and reading around pedagogy and learning science. In recent years I've been putting a frame on things (and actually ironically) with more information - simplifying things. That’s interleaving on a long term basis.
There might be some relation here to motor learning and tactical intelligence that occurs in athletes who play multiple sports, some ideally on a casual basis. Some players have even reported believing they figured out tactics playing FIFA for soccer. While years ago this may have been scoffed at, there might be something in that. The interruption of casual basketball, or even competitive basketball could have an influence on someone becoming a better hurler. Or even the struggle of trying to beat your older sister in 1-on-1 soccer in the back garden could help with the technical, motor skill and tactical ability to side step someone playing Gaelic football years later.
It's also brought me to books about wayfinding and how the people of the arctic found their way around, and the origins of Islam and how that emerged - but that's for another day ;)
So from this there might be a pause for us if we are studying a subject or trying a new thing, how can we relate it to what we already know?
What might we have to un-learn?
What other subject could I casually read about in tandem that won't feel too much like work or studying?
If you are a coach starting out, how does my job mirror coaching? How would I behave in the office and what might make me behave differently on the pitch? What have I read about leadership that I use in the corporate world that can help me coach?
That’s it for this week, in next week we will broaden the desirable difficulties chat to priming your mind for learning, using other strategies for creating desirable difficulties that may help coaches, discuss a generative difficulties, the myth of errorless learning, and finally undesirable difficulties.
Have a great week.