What Can You Learn from the Knowledge of Others?

Who would argue with this: “Learning is good in itself. The quality of performance —in work and personal endeavours — depends largely on prior learning”? Hence we should learn deliberately, and optimally. Now, if we are to devise better ways of learning, would it not help to have some explicit understanding of the different ways in which we can learn, or develop? I think so.

Whether you are a scientist or anyone else who wants to rigorously understand some aspect of reality, you need to be able to see the world through different, not necessarily integrated, models. For instance, physicists are able to see light through the prism of several different theories (electromagnetic, wave, quantum, etc.). Same goes for learning. One needs to be able to look at ‘learning’ from many different theories; and one needs to be able to relate them, at least to some degree.

With respect to understanding learning, the first set of distinctions one needs to make, I think, is between three different “worlds” that can, to a certain extent, deliberately be developed and improved. In Cognitive Productivity, I proposed a taxonomy that modernized Popper’s three world ontology.

  1. World 1: Physical world, including both the inorganic and organic (such as in the brain).
  2. World 2′ (World 2 “prime”): The world of virtual (computational) machinery (including the mind). Alas, World 2′ is very complex and somewhat opaque. We all have theories about it, which are, for the most part from folk psychology. But cognitive science (in its many different forms) attempts to improve upon and replace folk psychology.
  3. World 3: The world of artifacts, or products of the human mind. This includes physical stuff (e.g., a chair), and abstract artifacts (such as money, songs, lists, concepts, designs, and theories). This is more transparent. Though knowledge is complex, it is designed to be understood.

Chapter 2 of Cognitive Productivity mentioned several purposes of learning, which map onto different types of learning. Part 2 of that book described a model of the human mind (World 2′), and ways in which it can change. It also presented Bereiter’s concept of understanding as a set of relations between World 2′ (oneself and the information processing mechanisms that make us who we are) and World 3, particularly objective (public) knowledge.

I will later update this blog post, or link to a new one from it, to provide a collection of taxonomies of learning, drawing from several theorists. (Minsky, Sloman, Ericsson and others).

But for now, I’m putting questions out to you, my readers.

  • Look backward on the ways in which you have learned from great books and other abstract artifacts in the last year.
  • Look forward to the ways in which you would like to learn from the work of others in the next year. (Never too early to prepare resolutions for next January 1.)

In answering these questions, you may wish to consider two different sources of knowledge:

  • Non-fiction,
  • Fiction.

This post is also a setup for my next blog post (today), which has to do with what we can, but typically don’t, learn from the fiction we process.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity . Cognitive productivity consultant and public speaker. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. See About Me for more information.

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