The power of ideas as a starting point

The power of ideas as a starting point

Learning ideas are useful to a point. To make a general idea useful, some key obstacles need to be overcome:

  • We need to notice the idea in other contexts. Research found that people tend not to apply patterns they learn to different domains unless prompted.
  • We need to change the idea to suit our current purposes.
  • Knowing about an idea is not the same as using it.

Ideas help, but it is just the start. Easy ideas in a field may be the only visible tip of deeper knowledge.

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Earlier theories of the mind - like the formal discipline theory - assumed that things like reason, language and attention were like muscles and that any activity strengthened them. It led to views that learning Latin and geometry was essential even though few students would use these skills.

Edward Thorndike disproved this theory in 1901. He formed a new theory known as the identical elements theory, which suggested that two problems must share common elements for one skill to apply to another.

How to build general skills

People that develop expertise in multiple areas are able to solve a wide range of problems.

The key is to gain broadly valuable skills:

  • Breadth comes from specificity. General skills are built from large libraries of specific knowledge.
  • Deeply understanding more abstract ideas extends the range of your knowledge.
  • Visible knowledge is built on invisible ones. The easy facts depend on skills that are harder to spot.
  • Practice in various real situations because knowledge is not always expressed.
Ideas influence thinking

Thorndike's replacement theory was not correct. He was wrong in thinking that only the superficial elements of a task needed to match.

An idea, as an abstract concept, can influence your thinking more on a broader range of problems than only memorising some steps in a procedure.

How to build general skills

General skills not only help you with a narrow problem but can be used repeatedly to solve other problems.

But building general skills can be challenging because it is built from many specific ones. If you're prepared to do the work, you can find better ways to learn that can make breadth possible.

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RELATED IDEAS

Expose Yourself Multiple Times to the Same Information

If you can be exposed to a fact, idea or procedure multiple times, you’ll retain it far longer than if you experience it only once.

The 10 Essential Strategies for Deeper Learning | Scott H Young

scotthyoung.com

Real activities on real projects, real work, or real results are more effective than substitution or preparation work.


Some examples include:

  • Advancing your career by doing projects at work outside your current abilities.
  • Pairing study with real-world use through apprenticeship programs.
  • Focus on training relevant to you rather than an unrelated activity that strengthens your mental muscles.
  • Speaking a language rather than doing language exercises.


However, there are arguments against doing the real thing.

What are the Best Arguments Against Doing the Real Thing? | Scott H Young

scotthyoung.com

Consider at what speed you should try to do things in order to improve performance.
We can often learn something quickly, but without attaining a master level (like getting good at estimating answers to math problems. While you might get within close proximity, you'll seldom get to the exact answer.)
Learning to do something with precision will require a different technique and can take much longer to master.

How Fast Should You Be When Learning? | Scott H Young

scotthyoung.com

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