Make It Stick: What is learning, anyway?

This post is one of an (intended) collection interacting with the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. All in the collection are linked from the Introduction post.

So, I’m thinking and writing about the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. The title itself raises one question that’s worth thinking about: what is “learning”? What does it mean to “learn”?

Learning is most effective when it’s effortful, something we’ll examine more closely later. For the moment, though, that has one simple implication: this post will be most useful for you if you stop and think for a bit before continuing. What does it mean to learn? Why would you want to learn?

I thought of several kinds of learning:

  • The learning of a skill: welding, disease diagnosis, software design, coding in C++.
  • The learning of knowledge: the history of the USA, the mechanics of the immune system, the value of pi.

And a few things that don’t feel like they’re “really learning”:

  • Shallow memorization of facts. This is hard to pin down, but a story from my “physical sciences” class might help. In a section on electricity, the assignment was to wire up circuits in various configurations and record the relative brightness of a bulb tied into those circuits. Wanting to save some time (and, probably, being an arrogant kid at the time), I started writing in some of the results before we’d actually gotten around to doing the experiments, astonishing some of the others in my group. I’m guessing we all “knew” the facts about voltage, current, resistance, and brightness, but in that particular case, cocky-kid-Joel had that knowledge more available for use than the others in the group.
  • Extremely short-lived learning. This is the kind of thing you get when you’ve crammed for a test, did well, and lose almost all of it within days. Or, when you get to the end of an enjoyable lecture or sermon and think, “That was really good! But…um…what was it about again?”
  • Although it’s still learning of a sort, “misdirected learning” is another interesting category. Examples include learning how to read a word in another language when your top desire is to produce it (they’re connected, but different skills), or the ability to remember a fact when asked a question phrased “just right”, but not when you want to use it in real life.

Thinking of those examples, it’s interesting to note their interrelationships: skills usually depend on some sort of base of knowledge, and the ability to acquire knowledge is a skill. Shallow memorization, short-lived memory, and misdirected learning form their own constellation of interwoven cause and effect.

And so, here’s my tentative definition of learning. I…um…don’t remember whether the authors of Make It Stick actually define what they mean by “learning”, but I’m guessing their definition would at least be similar to mine.

Learning is the long-lasting acquisition of skills or knowledge, in a form accessible and useful when such skills or knowledge are relevant.

My first draft of this definition specified that the skills or knowledge should “affect the way one thinks or acts”–but that leaves a lot of ambiguity. For example, if you learn pi to a thousand digits, does that make a difference in the way you think or act? If you know that Laika was the first dog in orbit, does that make a difference? Like Scott Young, I actually like “useless” knowledge and believe that a lot of “useless” knowledge is useless only because one hasn’t yet found a use. Digits of pi can be wonderful if you need a quick proxy for random numbers. Laika’s story is one episode in the Space Race story, a part of what’s shaped Russia, America, and the world. The revised definition lets Laika hang out in the back of your mind most of the time, informing your understanding of Russo-American history and waiting to emerge when she’s needed for a Trivial Pursuit question. It lets the digits of pi wait around as static, “useless” but accessible knowledge that you’ve learned. But, if you’ve “learned” the math of voltage and current but can’t predict that a higher voltage will light a bulb more brightly, that knowledge isn’t in a useful form and thus doesn’t count as “learned”.

What do you think–what does it mean to “learn” something? What categories have I missed? Are there times when it’s worthwhile to “learn” something in a way that doesn’t meet my definition?

Make It Stick: Introduction

I recently read the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. I found the book impressive, and it joins the short list of those I’ll too-enthusiastically recommend to anyone who will listen–especially those who are “learners” or “teachers”, groups which should encompass most people.

Make It Stick is a well-woven collection of stories and hard data on what the science actually says about how best to learn.This includes a number of things that run against our intuition, or even standard study advice. A few examples:

  • Always retiring to the same quiet place to study may actually hurt learning.
  • Learning something “easily” probably means you’re going to lose it soon.
  • Repeatedly re-reading a text (or presumably, re-listening to a lecture) is terrible in terms of learning power.
  • Tests are good–at least, if approached in the right way.
  • One of my favorites: spaced repetition is really powerful.
  • Reflection–digesting, re-stating, connecting, and applying “learning” is fairly powerful in facilitating actual learning.

And so…I plan to take the book’s advice to heart and “reflect” in writing on its contents. The benefit is primarily my own: if you wish, you can buy the book, or search for its title and find any number of summaries. I’d encourage doing both. In writing about these ideas, I hope to “learn” them, making them part of my own mental toolkit. If someone else benefits as well, I’m even happier!

For a longer preview of the ideas presented in the book, see this article. And then–start thinking about how to apply the ideas presented, and join me in the conversation!

Posts Inspired by Make It Stick:

Musings on learning Bangla

These days, I’m spending a lot of time studying the Bangla language, also known as Bengali. Bangla is the basis for the country of Bangladesh’s name: Bangla (বাংলা) is the name of the language, and “desh” (দেশ) is Bangla for “country”. Thus, Bangladesh is simply the country of Bangla—an especially meaningful fact given the nation’s bloody transformation from East Pakistan to Bangladesh, in part through the Bengali Language Movement and its emphasis on the Bengali language and culture.

Despite being the sixth-most spoken language in the world, there’s a great dearth of language-learning resources available for Bangla. Pimsleur? Rosetta Stone? Fuhgeddaboudit. That being the case, I thought I’d mention some of the resources and techniques that have been helpful to me or that I plan to use, in the hope that others will find it useful. As background, this comes from someone who studied 10 hours a week for 4 months with a Bangla tutor 5 years ago, but hasn’t done much formal study since. I’m also pursuing the Dhaka dialect of Bangla in preference to the Kolkata dialect. Thus, consider how your situation differs from mine and adapt accordingly.

A great starting point for your journey is the Everyday Language Learner’s site. It’s an excellent blog, and his $20 “guide” is well worth the money. He has an excellent list of blogs and one of “getting started” resources—see especially the “Language Learning Programs” section.

I’d consider the core resources for getting started (if not living in Bangladesh) to be:

  • Complete Bengali: A Teach Yourself Guide, by William Radice
  • The free Anki flash card program, available for most computer and mobile platforms (with synching). Anki 2.0 is currently in beta, but includes a number of substantial improvements. I’ve been using it, and happily recommend starting with that version. The AnkiDroid beta is available here, the Windows version of the beta is here, and the documentation for 2.0 is here. Get at least somewhat familiar with Anki’s features, as you might find them helpful in designing cards that fit your learning style.
  • Input software to enter Bangla. Many in Bangladesh use the Avro phonetic input software. Based in part on advice from a linguist friend, I’m using a re-mapped Bangla keyboard from If you’re in Bangladesh, you might want to consider the “Bangla Unicode” layout or the “UniJoy” layout, as they’re similar to layouts popular in Bangladesh. I started using the “Inscript” layout, and have been quite happy with it—both the other layouts and Avro periodically “glitch” for me when entering Bangla into Anki. (The main reasons for using a Bangla keyboard rather than going through English phonetics: you’re “thinking in Bangla”, which should aid your language acquisition, your fluency in typing, and your awareness of how words are spelled. Basically, you’re developing the Bangla side of your brain in preference to the English side.)

Go through all of the “script” lessons of Complete Bengali—learning the script is essential if you’re going to go far. Create flash cards for the characters and words in these lessons. Radice’s transcription is great, but for ease in typing consider using “O” for “অ”, “o” for “ও”, uppercase letters for retroflex “D” and “T” sounds and lowercase for dental, and rolling your own transcription for the “æ” or “a as in cat” sound—I often just use “ae” without the special IPA character. If you want the special characters, use Character Map (hold down the Windows Key, then press R; type in “charmap” and hit Enter; then select the character you want, hit Select, and hit copy). Note that there’s a wide variety in systems to transcribe or transliterate Bangla words into characters in the Roman alphabet (or related to such characters).

After learning the script and some basic vocabulary, you’re ready for the next phase. This is mostly based on what you want to know, but here are some of the things in my “phase 2” pantry:

  • Hanne-Ruth Thompson’s books.
    • Her Essential Everyday Bengali is a great intro, but is out of print.
    • The phrasebook has a lot of useful straight-to-Anki content (topically organized sentences with meanings and phonetic transcriptions, a smattering of grammar, and a glossary). I’d suggest not trying to memorize items from the glossary directly—without context, it’s quite difficult. See below for more on vocabulary building.
    • From what I’ve seen of her Comprehensive Grammar, it’s well worth even its frighteningly textbook-ish price. It’s a great reference for “why do they do that” questions, and also includes a huge number of sentences for use in the “sentence method” (see below).
    • I haven’t seen her “practical dictionary”, but have one on its way. I’m hopeful that it includes example sentences—as Essential Everyday Bengali does, but the recent phrasebook does not.
  • The online dictionaries on the University of Chicago’s site are invaluable—they’ll even have a pronunciation dictionary soon! Nevertheless, you may still need to steel yourself for a fair amount of frustration in looking up words. Be aware of the “dictionary form” of verbs and of common suffixes.
  • Google Translate can sometimes help when the other dictionaries can’t.
  • Be aware of the four main language skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Consider what balance is best for you. Go back and read some of the articles linked from EverydayLanguageLearner’s “Programs” section.
  • If you don’t have any connections with a native speaker of Bangla, try to figure out if there’s any way you can connect with one who’ll answer questions when you get stumped—perhaps as a friend, perhaps as a paid service. Check out the South Asian groceries/restaurants in town; perhaps someone there knows someone who might help you. Hit the Net.
  • Especially for unassisted study, multilingual resources are great. Bangla translations of books are great, but can be hard to find if you aren’t in-country. One book, of course, that is available in most languages is the Bible—a Bangla version of the New Testament with audio is available here. Add in a contemporary English translation, and you have a trifecta—Bangla text, parallel English text, and Bangla audio for pronunciation, speech rhythms, etc.
  • NHK World Radio has a Bangla-language podcast. I’m also hoping that the Bangla Golpo podcast and the BPA’s Bengali Audio Books podcast have content that will be helpful. Prothom Alo, if I understand correctly, is a Bangla-language sister publication to the Daily Star, and may contain similar articles. is a hosting site for numerous Bangla blogs—I don’t yet have personal experience with it. Also, of course, there’s the Bangla-language Wikipedia!
  • Buy books from Bangladesh anywhere in the world through or You can also get a number of government-published school-books free in PDF form from the latter site.
  • Unicef Bangladesh has a collection of “Meena” videos in Bangla and English. Great for early listening practice, with relatively basic vocabulary and understandable speech. Some Bangla-dubbed movies and cartoons are also available through in-country purchase or on YouTube.
  • With most of the audio or video sources, you’ll probably get the most from making a number of passes through, each time trying for maximal understanding (and perhaps even transcribing) and noting as much of what you don’t understand as you can for later lookup.
  • The Learning with Texts software is free, open source, public domain, and does a wonderful job of offering “assisted reading” of texts and integrating with Anki for review. The downside is that installation takes a bit of “geek work”, but I don’t think it’s impossible even for non-geeks. 🙂 If you use it, define Bangla as using as your Dictionary 1, adding “।“ (without the quotes—that isn’t a pipe |, but a Bangla end-of-sentence character) to “RegExp Split Sentences”, and setting “RegExp Word Characters” to “a-zA-ZÀ-ÖØ-öø-ȳx{0980}-x{09FF}”, again w/o quotes.
  • One book available from is a pronunciation dictionary, “Bangla Uchcharon Ovidhan” (বাঙলা উচ্চারণ অভিধান). This should be especially useful when studying Bangla out-of-country.
  • A friend of mine recommended Humayun Ahmed’s book “Sera Humayun” (সেরা হুমায়ুন by হুমায়ুন আহমেদ), an anthology of his works. Apparently, Ahmed writes using fairly simple language, and includes a lot of spoken-language patterns in his writing. This book is apparently available from the above boi-mela site.
  • If you have Bangla-speaking friends, get them started with,, and If they’re studying another language, they’ll benefit—and they’ll help others to learn Bangla!
  • So You Want to Learn a Language has a much-more comprehensive list of Bangla-learning resources than this one.
  • The “sentence method” seems like a powerful tool for vocabulary and grammar acquisition. See AJATT’s articles (1, 2, 3), Japanese Level Up’s posts (1, 2) on how (for Japanese)…and Living in the Middle Kingdom’s great “nuts and bolts” article on building useful sentence cards and on integrating Learning with Texts and Anki. Also see an interesting (and somewhat controversial) relevant article from the Mezzofanti Guild.
  • It’s interesting to see other people’s take on learning Bangla—a couple of such blogs are A Tangle of Wires and My Bangla Diary.

So…to a substantial degree, you’ll need to figure out what works for you. For myself, I’m expecting over the next year to use a smattering of audiovisual consumption, trying to transcribe and understand what I hear from various movies and podcasts. I’ve done some skim-reading of Thompson’s grammar, and expect to do more of that, occasionally drilling into one section or another. But most of all, I hope to mine Thompson’s books, Humayun Ahmed’s stories, and other online Bangla sources for real-world texts. I’ll then plug these texts into Learning with Texts, make sure I largely understand them, and then add the learned vocabulary to Anki—with its context—to ensure I retain it. I’ll try to run my transcripts of audio through LWT/Anki as well to ensure retention. By including Thompson’s books in my “mining” of sentences, I hope to gain a fair amount of grammar—both through initial exposure as I enter the sentences in Anki and read the relevant info, and through the subsequent magic of a spaced-repetition system.

Any other great resources or tools? Let me know in the comments!

Synthesize, don’t harmonize.

It goes by many names–the false dichotomy, the either/or when you should be thinking both/and, first things and second things. We have a mental weakness–we’re fine with exposure to various ideas, but we want them to combine into perfectly harmonized chords.

Perhaps we should be trying to synthesize ideas rather than to harmonize them. To synthesize literally means to put together; we’ve added a connotation of putting things together in a way that makes sense. To harmonize ideas is to make them fit together. The problem is, ideas aren’t always mutually consistent in themselves; they may each be true within specific contexts or in specific ways. Sometimes, we simply need to hold several mutually inconsistent ideas. Don’t force them to premature consistency; don’t stop asking why they seem both true and inconsistent, or on what underlying framework they both might fit.

When two ideas are in conflict, consider that the “opponents” may actually be on the same team, but playing by rules you don’t yet know. You have a deep framework, a network of ideas that makes up who you are. Some ideas are easily wired into the structure; others require a lot of reorganization. As your framework gets more complex, you gain in ability to process ideas. Apparent conflicts are a gift, forcing you to increase your mental abilities in order to handle them. Embrace this chance to grow.

One Big Thing

Part of the reason that I am/will be blogging about books I read is to force myself to process them more deeply than I often do. Today, I thought of another tool that might be helpful: the “One Big Thing”.

“One Big Thing” is a phrase stolen from Immunity to Change. That book tells the story of a group of people who knew that they needed to change, but who didn’t each know exactly what needed to change. Rather than trying to change many things at once, they found it most helpful if each person decided, with others’ input, what was the One Big Thing he or she needed to focus on.

Pulling the “One Big Thing” into a different context, I hope to ask that question of each book I read: what is the “One Big Thing”, the unifying idea or the typical gem that defines this book? Why is the book worth reading (if indeed it is)?

Digital Reading

I’m a convert. I’m an evangelist. And…I’m a skeptic. I’m rapidly going digital in practice and preference, and yet I’m wistful about the things my Kindling leaves behind.

Several years ago, I was working overseas for a number of months. It was then that I realized how much I missed my reading materials. Sure, I could still order books from Amazon, at $10 shipping per book. But, delivery time was measured in weeks rather than days–a trial for someone who likes to have his resources now. My magazines…well, they were still faithfully delivered to my address in the States. My 18 pounds of CFA curriculum? Ditto.

It was during this time that I learned of an amazing new product. Amazon had released the Kindle, a device with an e-ink screen and a battery that lasted for weeks–a device that would let you buy and read books anywhere in the world, almost instantly! Moreover, I wouldn’t have to use precious luggage space for the books I “might want”–I could have access to my entire digital library, from anywhere!

It was a while before I was completely hooked. After returning to the States, the Kindle’s $400 price tag was a luxury I wasn’t sure I could afford. And, as convenient as it is to “own” digital books in the cloud, I didn’t like the idea that Amazon controlled all of my access to books I’d bought and paid for–and that my library could, in theory, vanish into thin air if Amazon ceased to exist, if they erred or my account’s security were breached, or if I simply lost access to Amazon’s Kindle-reading devices and programs. I even thought about the evanescence of digital data: it’s not efficient to inscribe knowledge on clay tablets and fire them, but they’ll last for millennia! The same isn’t true of a Kindle, though the underlying data might last (see the Library of Congress for more information).

Despite a slow start, I’ve now sold out to Amazon–surprising myself at the speed of my dive into digital, for good or for ill. I still have reservations, but the benefits of digital reading hold sway:

  • Portability. I’m contemplating quite a bit of overseas travel and living in the next while. The thought of being able to take almost all of my library with me in a few ounces, rather than trying to figure out which books should take their part of a 50-lb weight allowance, is a strong selling point.
  • Accessibility. This is partly a consequence of portability. Beyond that, though, the ability to pull out my phone in a bit of “dead” time and read real books, thoughtful analyses, novels, or even “mind candy” is huge.
  • Searchability. It’s easy to pull up that quote I know I saw somewhere in the book. Moreover, it’s a lot easier to search my archives for a book than to search my shelves for the “dead trees” version.
  • Instant gratification. A number of times recently, I’ve needed information in the near term, and have either known what book contained it or found a promising book by searching. Moments later (and a few dollars later), I was reading the book. The Web is great, but book-length treatments are still often the most valuable.
  • Integrated dictionary. My vocabulary is relatively large, but I still find it useful to read with an integrated dictionary. Recently, reading William Styron on Kindle, I found myself luxuriating in his use of language–but frequently looking up the words he used. Had I needed to a separate dictionary (whether digital or paper), I’d have been much less likely to look them up and expand my vocabulary.
  • Sales and freebies. Amazon occasionally runs sales on their Kindle books. Many of them are books in which I have no interest; others are opportunities to acquire interesting books at a fraction of the normal price. There’s a lot of flexibility in pricing a product with a unit price that approaches zero, vs. the costs of physical production and distribution. Many classics are available for free in digital form, and promotional “freebies” of other books often are available (and, admittedly, worth that price a good portion of the time). Though it takes sorting through some dross, discounted or free Kindle books do add to the value proposition.
Though I love digital reading, I’m still wistful about some of the costs of giving up paper–and suggest you “count the cost” of doing so.
  • Thanks to DRM (digital rights management), you’re locked into a single company or set of companies. You can’t read Nook books on your Kindle, or Kindle books on your Nook. You can, though, read Google Books on your Nook, and any of these formats on a smartphone, tablet, or computer. That “lock-in” also means that if the company with the key goes away, your books are vulnerable. Fortunately, many out-of-copyright and other books are not “protected” (as in, protected from the purchaser!) by DRM.
  • For similar reasons, the selling company and the publishers decide whether and how you can “lend” e-books. For the Kindle, some books allow a single loan per book.
  • I’ll sometimes leaf through a paper book to get an idea of its contents. Though the ability to preview Kindle books is nice, “leafing through” an e-book, even one I own, doesn’t seem to work very well. The same is true for a “skim reading” of a book.
  • While in college, I realized that part of my mental “indexing system” is spatial: though I may not be able to pull up a fact or exact quote I vaguely recall, I may remember that it’s about 2/3 of the way through the book, at the top of a right-hand page. This is one small part of richly encoding information in my memory, but it’s unavailable with an e-book. I’d love if an e-book vendor could re-create such mental cues.
…and now, though this post may not yet be perfect, I’ll listen to Godin again…and SHIP.

Immunity to Change

…fully titled Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey.

Immunity to Change is like many of the “personal growth” books I’ve read: the big ideas of the book make it worth sorting through the fluff. Like a number of books of this kind, it spends a lot of time telling you about why the ideas are worthwhile. But, the many stories and examples do help to bridge from “head” to “heart”.

The big ideas of Immunity to Change are:

  • We have the ability to grow, increasing our ability to process complex situations, throughout our lives.
  • Our environment brings an increasing need to deal with complexity. The book looks at three levels of complexity, and intends to move its users to higher levels on the spectrum. The first is the socialized mind, who relies on others for direction. Next is the self-authoring mind, an independent person who  has a vision in mind, holds himself accountable to it, and recruits others to it. Finally comes the self-transforming mind, who uses the tools of the self-authoring mind but seeks to continually learn. He can hold competing ideas in his mind, and is aware that efficiently achieving the wrong vision is of no value. He learns from others, and is interdependent with them. He is able to look at some of the mindsets that he could previously only look through.
  • Some problems can’t be solved by technical learning, but must be approached adaptively. Most of us know how to lose weight (the technical solution): eat fewer calories and burn more of them. Many of us, though, need to adapt–to change who we are and how we think–in order to actually lose weight. We need different tools for adaptive solutions than for technical ones.
  • Most problems requiring adaptive solutions come from a mental “immune system”, which is protecting hidden goals. For example, you might sincerely want to lose weight, but your eating habits reflect that you just as sincerely want not to be perceived–by others or yourself–as “a health nut”.  Those commitments in turn are driven by assumptions, which you can test–and in so doing, possibly change the way you look at the world.
  • Part of the book’s value is in the processes it lays out–processes for engaging in adaptive change. It’s easy to say “yeah, I need to change the way I think about this”, but it’s hard to actually make such a change. Immunity to Change lays out a process for figuring out what your “competing commitments” and the assumptions beneath them are, and then for figuring out whether they’re valid.
  • Both individuals and groups can have “immunities to change”. The processes for figuring out immunities are similar, but looking at group immunities and assumptions does need its own process–which the authors describe separately.
Overall, I do recommend this book. It feels like it could be trimmed down quite a bit, but its core ideas of “immunity to change” and of developing mental complexity make it worth reading. The concrete steps for figuring out your own or your organization’s immunities to change, how they may be harming you, and how to change them if they are are invaluable. The book’s premises echo the ideas in Carol Dweck’s Mindset, and you’d likely find synergy in reading the two together. I also found A Sense of Urgency, by John Kotter, to be a synergistic read with this book (with a similar blend of “fluff” and substance). I hope to write about both books in the next while.
This post exceeds Godin’s minimal “paragraph a day” for the last few days. I really do want to write sustainably, so I’ll try to pace myself–i.e., it may be a few days before the next post.