Learning PathI heard a quote the other day that really got me thinking. “A three year old is not half a six year old.” The thought being that, on average, at six years old a person is not double a three year old in any capacity.  Not in height or weight, but also not in knowledge.  So, this begs the question, why isn’t a six year old twice as smart as a three year old? The answer has to do with the sheer amount of knowledge a newborn gains between the ages of zero and three.

To put this into context, let’s take a broader look at how learning occurs. People sometimes think that the rate of learning (skill, knowledge, wisdom, etc.) is fairly linear. They picture a line moving steadily upward as a person learns. This faulty image forms the basis of many misconceptions.

Learning isn’t linear. Not only does in come in fits and bursts, Eurekas and realizations, but it is also extremely front heavy. Most new skills or concepts require an immense amount of foundational knowledge. To play the guitar, for instance, one must first learn strumming, fret work, chords, rhythm, etc. This isn’t to say that it’s easy to master the guitar (or any skill for that matter) once you have achieved competency, just that the initial learning involves accumulating much more new knowledge. Once competency is achieved the process becomes much more about refinement. Instead of a line moving steadily upward, imagine a line moving sharply upward at the beginning before leveling off and then rising very slowly. To bring this back to the quote I began with, the amount of knowledge a newborn gains before it turns three (walking, speaking, etc.) is significantly higher than the amount of knowledge gained between three and six. That is to say, the foundational information one must gain to be a human is staggering compared to the refinement that comes later.

So how does this apply to you?

Never forget the amount of new knowledge that beginners will have to learn, process, and internalize before they reach competency. Learning something new can be an intimidating process. Learning professionals know that when you design a course for an absolute beginner you have to craft it differently  than you would for a more experienced learner. Not just in terms of the information but also in the way it is presented. Beginners need more encouragement, more step-by-step instructions, and understanding instructors who remember what it was like to be a beginner.  It can be difficult for experts to pare down their knowledge of a subject to just what is necessary for a new learner.

Here’s a link to an excellent TED talk by Josh Kaufman on the first twenty hours of trying to learn a skill. It was a partial inspiration for this article.  The first 20 hours — how to learn anything | Josh Kaufman | TEDxCSU.

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