As a librarian and lifelong learner, I am fascinated by the very concept of learning. Eight months ago, I wrote a post, “On Learning” – specifically, about the purpose and beauty of learning. Of course I love learning new things, but I also love thinking about the concept of learning in general, and *how* I learn. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and how really, everything I’ve done and experienced in my life has taught me something and thus impacted who I am as a person. This got me to thinking about some of those specific methods by which I’ve learned. In this post, I’m not going to discuss nearly every method of learning (’cause that’d take forever, and I only have a very finite lunch break in which to write this post) – but I’m going to look into a few that I’ve been specifically thinking about lately.
Learning through books
This is probably typically what people think of when they think “learning”. Books are wonderful and incredibly useful tools for learning a wide spectrum of topics. A great thing about them, is that they don’t just teach you about the subject areas in which they’re written – they also by their very nature teach 21st Century skills such as vocabulary, literacy, and critical thinking – and even empathy. You all know this, so I’m not going to get into the value and importance of reading and studying books any further. Whether fiction or non-fiction, books are exceptional learning tools, and the world knows it.
I’m a librarian, so you probably expect me to push up my glasses (which I don’t have), make a stern expression (I’m not sure I know how), and praise books as the ultimate and only true method by which to learn. However, because I enjoy smashing your expectations, I’m actually going to tell you that I do NOT believe books to be the best form of learning (I can hear your *gasp*s through the computer screen). Before you declare sacrilege and excommunicate me from the world of book-lovers, let me again assure you that I am indeed a book-lover myself, and that I fully recognize the power of books. What I meant by my above comment, is that while books do have the power to teach certain skills exceptionally, their static nature also renders them unsuitable to teach other skills. While there is a lot to be learned through it, book-reading alone is not enough – and I believe that when it is perpetuated as being all there is to learning, and the only “best” method by which to learn, there is a big problem. This problem is what really prompted me to write this post in the first place.
Learning through games
I have quite a lot I could say on this subject, stemming from the fact that I worked at MidAmerica Nazarene University’s Center for Games and Learning for nearly two years and read numerous articles/books on games & learning to help write an annotated bibliography on the subject. If that sounds like a fascinating read to you, by all means request it through their site.
There are thousands of excellent games that not only teach various content areas, but also teach many of the same 21st Century skills that books teach – literacy, critical thinking, problem solving, etc. However, there are certain skills that games can teach that books simply cannot. As I mentioned previously, books are static – games, however, are dynamic. Also, while reading/studying books tends to be a solitary activity (unless reading aloud), games are often very social activities. These differences allow for a greater range of skills to be taught – including skills such as collaboration, leadership, and communication. Playing games with people teaches you a lot about them – games allow people to function in a variety of situations that you otherwise might never see them in. Playing games with people also allows you to practice communication skills such as bluffing, persuasion, and public speaking in a safe, fun, no-pressure environment. While my list of game recommendations would be nearly endless, here is a great list of games to explore, sorted by the 21st Century skills they teach: http://www.mnu.edu/resources/center-for-games-and-learning/games-list.html.
Now, thus far, I’ve only discussed board/card games, or “analog” games – so, I want to briefly talk about digital ones. Within some circles, digital and video games are seen as wholly noneducational and not valuable to learning. Based on my own experience, as well as the experiences of countless other players and scholars of games, I have to argue the contrary. Video games can also be collaborative, but even independent digital games can teach a wide variety of similar skills to books and analog games, with the addition of computer literacy – a very important skill in this day and age. This isn’t to say I don’t recognize that there can be dangers to video games, especially when they are consumed in excess – but really, I think that’s true of just about anything. Just because something has the potential to be dangerous does not mean it doesn’t also have the potential to be beneficial – it just requires discernment.
Learning through digital media
There are many arguments against consuming digital media, and I definitely agree with some of them. Digital media can be harmful in early years, when every second spent learning basic skills matters – it is necessary for children to spend their time learning those skills that are crucial to their development. I am very thankful that I restricted my own consumption of digital media for much of my youth, because it allowed me to use that time for fostering other skills, such as music, writing, reading, and critical thinking.
However, there came a point in my life (around 17) where digital media was actually highly beneficial to me. This is because, just as there are skills best taught through books and games, there are skills best taught through television and films. Watching quality television stories (such as Doctor Who, in my case) helped me gain a confidence, charisma, and interpersonal competence that I was sorely lacking previously. There is something quite different about actually viewing other people within a story – their mannerisms, expressions, and personalities – as opposed to just reading about them. Both are important, but both have different benefits. I am very grateful that I engaged in limited digital media when I was young, but I am equally grateful that I started engaging in more digital media when I got older. I wouldn’t be who I am today without it.
Learning through conversation
If I had to choose one method of learning that I consider to be the most important, it would definitely be this one. While any method of learning can be social to an extent, reading a book aloud or playing a game is different from having an actual conversation. Just as we can learn specific skills through books, through games, and through digital media, there are some that we can only learn through conversations with other people.
When I read a book, I *am* learning from material written by another person – but at that point, it is still a one-way discourse. By engaging in actual conversations with others about what we learn, we are able to learn the value of different perspectives and ways of thought besides our own. My own opinion on a book, or a philosophy, or a political issue will always differ from those of others. Engaging in meaningful, open, friendly dialogue with other people (both those who agree AND those who disagree with us) opens up the door to significant mutual learning. Everyone comes from a different background, and everyone has different learning experiences – so it only makes sense that we will learn much more when we share our unique perspectives with each other through conversation.
Learning through thought
Sometimes, the best way to learn is simply through solitary thought. Our entire life is a collection of learning moments – what we read, what we watch, what we listen to, what we experience, and the interactions we have with people. It’s important to give ourselves time to reflect on all of that, and to think about what we are learning. Learning is to some extent involuntary – and so it’s important to critically process it and recognize how every aspect of our life is impacting who we are as people.
I could now get really into a conversation about cognition and metacognition, but my lunch break is now over, so I’ll save that for another time (breath your sighs of relief here).
In brief summation:
Learning is a part of everything that we do, and it’s essential to who we are as human beings. But learning is not limited to books, or to anything else. In order for us to be well-rounded human beings, it’s important to engage in a variety of learning methods, even the ones that don’t fit into our preferred learning styles. It’s also important to engage in conversations with others about what we learn, and to at least periodically think about the process of learning itself, so that we are aware of how we are learning and what we can do to learn better.