Wednesday, December 06, 2023

The Art of Studying

I had never studied until I reached about 7th grade. At least I didn't think I had. Studying, I was told, involved sitting down in a "quiet spot" with "good lighting," preferably at a desk or table, and hanging your head over a book with a highlighter, drilling yourself on math equations, or memorizing scientific trivia. Teachers were expected to give us homework as an incentive to study a little bit every evening. We all knew we were getting ready for a test, which was when we would be expected to study in earnest, an anxiety producing process everyone knows as "cramming."

By the time I got to university, I had developed my own study system, which was in keeping with the advice of my academic advisors. I was up a 7 a.m. with a cup of coffee (the beginning of a lifelong habit), followed by two hours at the books before the well-lit desk in my dorm room. After classes, I headed to the science library, which was known as the quietest of the libraries at my university, where I studied until dinner. Then there was often another couple hours with classmates at the student union where we sat around tables together with our books brag-griping about how much work we had to do. I did this Monday through Wednesday, which was usually enough to feel like I was ready for my tests. This left me with my "three day weekend," which ended Sunday afternoon when I was back to the books to get a running start at my study week. I don't know how much of the subject matter I actually learned, but I had definitely mastered the art of studying as I understood it, a skill I've not used since I graduated.

Of course, now I know that I've been studying my entire life. Indeed, the stuff that I was told was called "studying" only superficially resembles the definition of the word that I use today.

I recently watched a boy who had taken an interest one of the battered toy construction vehicles that are typically scattered across our playground. It was a bulldozer sitting on a tread-mill style drive train of track chain running over rollers. He started with it on the ground, but then lifted it onto a table, putting the "wheels" at more or less eye level, for closer inspection. He drove it backward and forward slowly, head tipped in concentration on that drive mechanism. He was, in fact, making a study of it.

The goal of studying, as I've come to embrace it, is simply the pursuit of the answer to one's own question, no desk, light, or solitude required. What I did in school, in many ways, was the opposite of study, which was to take an interest in answering other people's questions, test questions, which merely required retaining information long enough to regurgitate it. As Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer puts it, "Memorizing is a strategy for taking in material that has no personal meaning."

That's not learning, of course. It's more in the nature of jumping through hoops. Real study is what this boy was doing with the bulldozer, rigorously pursuing a genuine interest, with knowledge, not test scores, as his reward. I can make a guess about what he was teaching himself through this study of a toy bulldozer, I suppose, but only he knows, only he will ever know, and in the end it's really none of my business. In fact, he probably doesn't even know what he was learning: it's too recent, too fresh. It might be years before he's able to articulate what he learned from pushing that bulldozer back and forth on a table top, because this might just be a moment in a study of a thousand small steps.

This boy wanted to know more about this machine and without retreating to a quiet place, without drilling or highlighting or tanking up on coffee, he made his study, on the spot, answering his own questions about How and What and Why?

The great John Dewey famously wrote: "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." A few days ago, I found the same boy in the same place, but this time instead of the bulldozer, he had placed an old iron on the table. He was pushing it backward and forward slowly, head tipped in concentration, making a study of it. Study is not some artificial thing we must learn to do: it is life itself.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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