222: Learning to paint, Part 1

Dream of Light, 44″ x 44″, close-up

In the book Make It Stick authors Peter C. BrownHenry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel explain how we learn. And many of the answers are not the intuitive ones advanced by many new-economy gurus. Many popular ideas about learning are either poorly researched, or worse, simply intuitive notions.

Two of the three authors have exemplary credentials as scientists and I found their ideas compelling. They outline how we actually learn and it’s NOT by following the dictum practise, practise, practise that many theories advocate.

So how do we learn? According to the aforementioned book we learn not by cramming or incessant repetition but by a process involving exposure, retrieval, interleaving, spacing, and testing.

In an experiment that demonstrates the counterintuitive nature of the learning process two groups of kindergartners were asked to throw beanbags into boxes. One group had the box placed at three feet. The other group had two boxes placed at two feet and four feet. The children practised tossing the beanbags into the boxes for an hour. The children were then tested an hour later to see which were more adept at hitting the target at three feet. Not surprisingly the kids who practised at three feet were better. But two days later when tested again the kids who practised at 2 and 4 feet scored better than the kids who practised at only three feet.

Why did this happen? One reason is that the repetition of throwing the beanbags into the three foot box did not challenge the brain in the right way. For learning to take place myelination must occur in cells in the brain called axons. Without the right kind of stimulation myelination does not occur. In the aforementioned experiment the repetition of tossing the beanbag into the single, three foot box did not provide the proper stimulation to create maximum myelination. The brute force of Practise, practise, practise is not a superior learning method.

In a previous blog I wrote about what I called creative contrast. This is actually a proven method of learning known as interleaving. Although my intuitive approach worked to some degree the method can be enhanced and tweaked, which I will elaborate on and formulate a regimen specifically for painting in future blogs. Read part 2 here.

Brad Teare–March 2015

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Updated: 13th July 2024
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