Sink or swim: how to become a better learner

​Sink or swim. Immersion. That’s how you learn best, right? 

Immersion comes in three forms. To learn something, to truly and deeply learn something, you have to nail them all.

Here they are:

Theoretical. Conversational. Practical.

Theoretical means formal knowledge. It means books. It means traditional styles of study.

Practical means using the skillset in a live environment. It means working directly with the skillset on an actual problem.

Conversational means talking with others trying to learn the same thing. Or speaking with mentors and teachers about the ins-and-outs of the skill.

(I formulated my version of immersion after reading some of Grace Witherell’s work. She separates the three into book smarts, street smarts and stream smarts. I encourage you to read about it.)

Theoretical knowledge on it’s own is sterile. Practical knowledge on it’s own is inefficient. Conversation on it’s own cannot capture the subtleties and depth of a skill.

One of the three is not enough. Two out of three might work. But three out of three is the realm of complete immersion. This is where sustainable, long-term learning happens.

I’ll give you an example. Say you want to learn French. Here’s a brief road-map:

Practical immersion:

– Practice talking and listening to other people in the language.
– Read French books. Start off easy with children’s books, progress to novels and then onto literature.
– Listen to podcasts, interviews and audio in French.

Theoretical immersion:

– Learn about the grammar and underlying structure.
– Don’t just learn about it, learn why it’s that way. The more fluent you are in the theory, the easier it becomes to translate that to fluency in practice.

Conversational immersion:

– Write letters and emails in French.
– Practice translating from English to French and French to English.
– Join a community and talk with others about overcoming problems and specific issues. Ask for help and give guidance where you can.
– Teach what you’re learning to another. Or if you’re too shy to do that, use the Feynman technique and your imagination.

Obviously, the categories overlap. Translating requires understanding of the theory, the practical ability to use it, and contact with others to overcome vexing sentences.

Or look at a platform like Duolingo. It includes elements of the theoretical, the practical and has outlets for conversations with other learners. 

If it’s a skill like accounting or horse riding, the three categories may not be so conveniently packaged. You’ll have to work a little harder to bring all three components together.

But bring them together you must. An understanding that is missing one leg of the stool is incomplete.

Whatever skill you’re trying to learn:

Read about it. Talk about it. Work with it.

That’s the most effective way to learn it.