When was the last time you said something along the lines of, “Wow. That guitarist is so talented! If only I’d learned guitar when I was a child.” For some, you may be wishing for skills as a hip-hop dancer. For others, you wish you could speak a new language. Whatever the talent or skill, we wish that we had learned it as a child because we believe instinctively that it would have been easier then. Well the good news is that even though someone can’t step into a time-machine to their childhood to learn Judo, algebra, or Rubiks cube, you can still apply many of the same learning principles of young children.
Here are 6 insights that children teach us about accelerated learning:
- They Are Willing to Get it Wrong
Have you ever seen a toddler beating themselves up for falling over as they were trying to walk? If they were crying, it was probably in response to the gawking adults freak out, and switch from smiling to exasperation in half a second. Or they bumped their butt on the floor. Generally, though, they aren’t sitting in a corner after attempt number 17 and thinking “I’ll never achieve this. If I can’t walk by now, I’m never going to get it.”
- They Are Endlessly Curious
Everything is new for a child. For example, it may be the very first time that they ever saw a person riding a unicycle, and they are in awe of this strange skill. As we grow up, we gain fluency in engaging with the world by assigning things to separate categories. We transition towards being extrinsically rewarded for assigning the correct name for something, rather than intrinsically motivated by pure discovery. Our parents praise; “Yes, darling! That is a flower! Good girl!” We are conditioned to try our best to always be correct. To break this cycle we need to stop looking at things in order to be correct. “To see, is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” Try it out for yourself. The next time you notice a flower, instead of instantly trying to name what type of flower it is, simply ignore what it’s called. Observe it deeply, and notice something about it that you’ve never seen before. Perhaps you’ll discover something for the first time.
- They Are Always Asking Questions
Questions are essential for learning. Once you stop trying to gain a greater understanding, your mind has switched off. Children incessantly ask questions, because it’s still socially acceptable for them. What if you broke past the cultural pressure to seem as though you already had all the answers? Imagine how much you could learn in a day if you asked twice as many questions. When you ask a probing question it actively engages your mind.
- They Try Things Out Straight Away
When a child learns a new word, you will often hear them using it straight away. Sometimes in a completely wrong context, but the fact that they are willing to try ensures that they are cementing their learning. They learn by doing. On the other hand, have you ever heard someone tell you that they can fly a plane because they merely read the instruction manual? I hope not. However as adults, we often fool ourselves into thinking that we can hear something once or twice and then we “know” it.
- They Believe That Anything is Attainable
“No Bobby. You can’t be an astronaut when you grow up. Only a small fraction of people are ever accepted into NASA, and the odds are greatly stacked against you.” Just imagine if you overheard a mother talking like that to her 4 year old son. And yet, it’s the way we speak to teenagers and adults. If possibility is still on the table, humans are capable of incredible things. Some may argue that having a “realistic” perspective is a better approach, because if someone doesn’t achieve their dreams, then they won’t be disappointed. This may have some truth to it, however wouldn’t you prefer to see what is possible? The current world chess champion Magnus Carlsen believes that massive self confidence has been a decisive factor in his success. His relentless confidence causes him to continue looking for possible chess moves, even when he’s losing a match. This has led him to find brilliant moves that otherwise would have been overlooked. On the other hand, a more “realistic” perspective would simply accept the impending defeat.
- They Tell the Emperor When He’s Naked
In Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a couple of weavers trick the emperor into believing that the outfit they are making for him is invisible only to people unfit for their position, or hopelessly stupid. In fact, there is no clothing. It’s just an elaborate mime to trick the emperor. When the emperor is walking in a street parade, everybody feels obliged to play along, not wanting to speak up for fear of being seen as stupid. Eventually, it’s a small child – lacking any concern for social decorum – who shouts out that the emperor is not wearing anything. The masses agree, and begin to raise their voice. Sometimes it takes a child’s lack of filter, to cut through the crap. While the adults were so concerned about what others would think of them, they were lulled into a social stupor. Kids don’t care about social politics the way adults do. So they ask incisive questions, and don’t double-guess their observations. Their lack of awareness of the status-quo gives them a fast track towards truth.
While these characteristics tend to be more prevalent in children, they are in no way limited by age. If you’re willing to look a little foolish, and adopt the mindset of a child, you may just find that it gives you the accelerated learning benefits that children enjoy. The next time you catch yourself saying “If only I’d learned that as a child,” remember that you can. Learn it as though you were still a child, and your retention, understanding, creativity and ability to find answers will skyrocket.