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Cramming Facts vs. Learning Experience

With some training, good will and modern technology I think it is pretty safe to state that anyone of us can become really good at learning facts and therefore basically any topic. Flashcards are a great mean for this style of learning and start-ups in that sector are popping up like mushrooms.


The basic premise of most of those platforms is that the service uses some kind of spaced repetition / Leitner algorithm to transform the things studied into things learned and to keep the things you learned already always fresh and transfer them step by step, repetition after repetition into your long term memory.

Thanks to services like these learning got more efficient for sure but it might also lose some if not a lot of its magic.As I said, we learn the facts, may it be dates and names from history, vocabulary and grammar rules, rules of physics or business administration. To me it’s a bit like the early form of the kind of learning we saw in the Matrix movies. You need to learn martial arts or how to fly a helicopter? Just load the information into your brain and off you go.

What we miss here are the cultural aspects and history that are an essential part of all the information that is around us. As Tyler Crowley once put it in one of his great insights during the This Week in Startups webcast: “It’s like Japanese Jazz.”

He experienced that Japanese artists tend to play Jazz perfectly note for note but it seems that they have a lack of cultural understanding for the emotional depth of the music and the variations to it. It’s the recreation of pure facts without the cultural aspects that Jazz artists learn when they are surrounded by places and people that make the whole culture around the music. And it goes even further into history and sociology. Of course the same is true for someone trying to play classic Japanese music without emerging into the culture and society.

In a society where degrees are the things that count it is obvious that the cramming approach that preps you best for an exam is the weapon of choice when it comes to learning. But we cannot deny the rising importance of life long learning either. For our grand parents it was quite clear that most of them would be working their whole lives in the job they had once learned. In our global economy a job that exists today might be gone or outsourced tomorrow and we need to adapt to new situations very quickly. Cramming facts won’t bring us far in this world, at least not as only mean of learning.

Besides the real world and interaction with great teachers, tutors, experts or whatever you want to call them, the Internet offers us the best place for learning experiences that can take us on a journey. Interesting enough I find, the Internet today is still not living up to its full potential. There are not enough cross links available to take us deeper into a topic. Some people call it “getting side tracked” but to me that’s what a true learning experience is all about. The crossroads along the way that can take us into a whole new direction we did not know it existed. The journey is the reward!

Picture: The Matrix, Warner Bros. Pictures 1999

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