One of the biggest challenges we face in learning from text is that we process it in a dry, cognitive way. In other words, information processing (from knowledge resources) is highly cerebral. It involves language, reasoning, and relatively simple perception. Yet somehow we need to “compile” such very abstract information into low-level perception and motivation, so that we can use it to act. More generally, we need to program and connect very disparate areas of our mind.
Let’s make this more concrete. Suppose you read about the concept of “bids” in a book by relationship expert, John Gottman. Gottman found that in healthy interactions amongst closely related people (e.g., spouses, family, good friends), many bids are exchanged. One might simply tell his “other half” that he would really like to attend Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance with her. A husband might ask his wife to pass the salt. He might ask for help doing the laundry. She might stare at the lawn mower and say how tired she is (meaning, would he please help her?)
Gottman tells us that how people respond to bids makes all the difference. One can turn away, against or towards bids. Turning way could involve ignoring the bid or changing the subject. Turning against might involve making a criticism. Turning towards at a minimum acknowledges the bid. Suppose Jack is married to Karen. If Jack repeatedly turns away from Karen’s bids for connection (by ignoring her more or less explicit requests for help with chores), she surely won’t be satisfied. She will grow frustrated. She will eventually give up. Karen, in turn, might turn against Jack’s bids for connection. When he wants to talk about his issues at work, she might blame him for them.
In degenerating relationships, couples systematically turn away or turn against bids for connection. In contrast, in healthy relationships, members tend to turn towards each other’s bids. They can do this with more or less vigour, from a positive nod, or “I agree”, to a large expenditure of energy, like “You need a break. Let me do the laundry.”
Most people who read about Gottman’s concept of bid are not interested in it as a purely factual construct. They’re not merely studying for an exam. They read Gottman’s books in order to build better relationships. Every day is an exam. Their grade is the quality of their relationships.
To benefit from Gottman’s books, one needs to change one’s day-to-day perception of one’s own behaviour and the behaviour of others. We need to learn to see each other’s actions in terms of bids and responses. But it’s not just a matter of perception, either. We also need to respond to bids with the right “affect”, i.e., the right evaluations and motives. One’s whole mental machinery needs to change such that one behaves differently. That is, one needs to learn to turn towards instead of against or away from bids. But how on earth can one do this? Fortunately, Gottman’s books are loaded with practical exercises that one can use to effect these changes.
I use this example from Gottman because it is easy to tell, in this case, that the entire mind must be engaged in learning. It’s a prime example of using knowledge to become more effective as a complete human being.
My claim is bigger than this, however. I contend that mastering the concept of bids is a good example of productive learning in general. Many knowledge gems offer deep potential value to us. To actualize this value, we need to change ourselves deeply. Think of the most important readings you have done, whether it be in university, in your personal life, or in your career. Look at the last few years. Did you gain most from isolated facts? Or from deep concepts and principles? Were you transformed by this knowledge? Or did you use just use it for localized problem solving? As with mastering the concept of bids, your learning probably involved changes in how you perceive, think, talk and act.
The problem is that most of what we read is not written the way Gottman writes. It’s not loaded with examples and exercises. We must figure out how to program our minds to get the value we seek from our reading.
My first book, Cognitive Productivity, looks at learning in this way. Thus its subtitle: The Art and Science of Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective.
In order to use knowledge productively, it helps to have an idea of the major components of our minds, and how they need to change as we learn. My book gets into this.
Cognitive Productivity also provides an updated way of thinking about some of the major components of the mind, such as its motive processing engine. I describe a little known, but powerful, way of thinking about emotions, as a perturbance. That way, you’ll have a better idea of what needs to change (in your mind) as you learn.
Cognitive Productivity provides tips to help you use knowledge to change the way you perceive, think, feel, and act. It’s not a silver bullet. But it may help you redefine and hit your target.