Have you been strengthening your weaknesses?

One of my biggest interests is becoming a better learner. The future is uncertain. And the future of the economy is uncertain.. No one knows what skills would be in demand even 10 years from now, and no one knows what would be obsolete. In yesteryears, driving a horse-cart was a valuable skill. Today, all horse-carts have retired. Given this uncertainty, I am convinced a key skill you could teach yourself today is learning how to learn.

So with this article, I intend to start a series of posts on becoming better at learning. What you learn is not my focus, what matters are the underlying principles of learning itself. The hope is that understanding these principles will illuminate better ways of learning new skills. Today’s post is about what I believe to be the most important component of learning: feedback.

Dog’s take the treat as feedback to learn what you want

Feedback is how all animals learn, without exception. When you reward your dog with a sweet bite after he obeys your command, that’s giving him feedback. When your teacher gives you an A+ score, that’s her giving you feedback. In fact, even computers can learn on their own as long as we tell them what counts as feedback. If you’ve ever wondered how Amazon knows which book you’d like, it is because it has been taking all your clicks as feedback. 

This brings me to a revelation that my decade plus of schooling never brought: the quality of feedback dictates the quality of learning. And unfortunately, the typical learner never gives any thought about improving their sources of feedback. 

Let’s take an example. As a student in school, most of us were probably encouraged to work hard. Well meaning parents, teachers, and adults told us that hard work would bring us good grades. The only easy way to measure hard work was to measure time spent working, and so the message was, the longer you work the better you learn. In other words, the hours you clock are your feedback.

This is, obviously, problematic. We know from decades of brain research that whatever you practice becomes stronger. If you put in your hours in the wrong things, you will get better at doing the wrong things. Instead of learning and improving, you will be strengthening your weaknesses. 

That’s why top students often study less than their counterparts. Typically, we think that these children are just gifted, However I think that the toppers have simply figured out better sources of feedback. Sal Khan (the founder of Khan Academy) has repeatedly demonstrated that with good feedback, children at the bottom of the class can rise to the top. Those supposedly‘bad at math become as good as anyone.

As some of you might know, I have been learning to play the guitar. The first things most guitarists learn are ‘open chords’ (pictured below). As I started learning them, in about a couple of weeks, I had them nailed.

guitar open chord image
An example of an open chord. The name open suggests there are some strings which are unpressed, or are ‘open’.

Or so I thought. Four months in, I was uploading a practice video to a facebook guitar group hoping to get some encouragement and feedback. However just watching the video myself gave me major feedback. The moment I saw the video, I found that my fingers, instead of all landing together, were landing two at a time (pictured below). This is a problem because you get a slightly different sound than what’s desired.

Notice how my first two fingers land much later than the last two. As a result, I get the desired sound a few beats later than desired.

Now mind you, I knew that my fingers should land all together. In fact, it felt to me as if they were indeed landing together,. In reality though, my feelings were deluding me. The moment I got better feedback from the video, I was able to identify the problem and was on my way to fix it. A very good example of how good feedback improved my learning. Had I not received this feedback, I would have practiced and mastered the wrong thing.

This is what a good chord transition should look like. All fingers land more or less at the same time.

So in wrapping, I suggest you audit your own sources of feedback. What are you doing repeatedly without questioning if it’s serving your purpose? Are you practicing your weaknesses? Can you get feedback through a different source? Remember: the quality of your feedback dictates the quality of your learning.

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