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  Reading: Elaboration

THE SCIENCE OF LEARNING TO LEARN


READING: ELABORATION

In 1936, the painter Jackson Pollock signed up for a workshop in New York City. Pollock was twenty-three at the time, with handsome looks and a rebel swagger. In his mind, he was a subversive cowboy with a stubby paint brush, and Pollock would roam the streets of Manhattan wearing a cowboy hat and boots, often drinking and brawling, breaking windows and insulting strangers.

The painting workshop was held by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros. A muralist—and dedicated Socialist—Siqueiros was more of a rebel than Pollock. Between stints in art school, Siqueiros took up arms with a Marxist group. Later the muralist even tried to gun down Soviet exile Leon Trotsky with machine guns and grenades.

The aim of the Siqueiros workshop was to help young artists like Pollock experiment with paint as a type of medium, to repudiate what Siqueiros saw as the dominance of the easel. In his classes, Siqueiros argued that brushes were little more than awkward sticks. As for the narrow confines of wooden frames, Siqueiros didn’t think much of them at all. Art wasn’t pretty—it was real—and in his studio, Siqueiros would wear overalls splattered with paint, sprawling himself across the floor while lecturing his students.

“A painter should work the way that a worker works,” Siqueiros argued, and in throughout the year-long workshop, the Mexican artist encouraged students like Pollock to experiment with different painting methods. Sometimes Siqueiros would have the students drizzle paint over the canvas like children. Or the young artists would be encouraged to pour oils straight onto the cloth. Sand or dust or dirt on the canvas might help, too, giving more grit and depth. Siqueiros called art a type of “controlled accident.”

Like a set of squabbling brothers, Pollock and Siqueiros would disagree. Before Siqueiros left New York City the following year, for instance, the two sparred at a party, hands wrapped around each other’s throats. But the workshop experience undoubtedly influenced Pollock. His work on a Siqueiros float was a “grand thing,” Pollock once wrote. Siqueiros respected Pollock, too, and the Mexican artist sent a letter to Pollock shortly after the workshop was shuttered. “Be patient,” Siqueiros advised. “Our workshop will open again.”

Siqueiros’s workshop did open again—at least within the recesses of Pollock’s mind—and Pollock expanded on the drip and pour approach to painting pioneered by Siqueiros. Driven, dedicated, Pollock returned to the artistic skill that he gained in the workshop again and again. Drip art by drip art, Pollock built upon what he knew, and for a short time, Pollock made drip-style dishes. Then for a bit, Pollock painted drip-style in the corners of his canvases.

Together with art critic Clement Greenberg, Pollock also began to study other artists who experimented with the drip-style approach. With a close eye, Pollock  analyzed the drip-style canvases of Janet Sobel. Later, he closely examined Picasso and the Surrealists who often splattered paint onto their canvases. As an artist, Pollock came to see drip painting as a way of expressing emotion, and, when Time once called Pollock’s work “chaotic,” the artist wrote a short letter in response: “NO CHAOS DAMN IT.”

In the popular mind, as part of the conventional wisdom, Pollock’s drip paintings seem to have fallen from the clouds, a visitation from the post-modern angels. This was, in fact, how Pollock’s fame began, with a four-page photo spread in Life, which described him as a singular creative genius, the “shining new phenomenon of American art.” The magazine even provided a James Dean-like photo of Pollock standing against a wall, cigarette dangling from his mouth, the young Brando of the art world.

The world loves a good born-to-genius story—and the Pollock cult continues. Pollock’s most recent major biography declared him “the quintessential tortured genius,” while the last major sale of one of his canvases notched a record $140 million, a pricetag similar to that of a professional sports team.

But the Pollock-as-rebel-genius story overlooks the truth of the matter, and really Pollock relied on a method of learning. He expanded on an artistic theme, developing an area of mastery by extending what he knew. “Pollock was not the only painter to experiment with the all-over drip technique,” art critic Roberta Smith once argued in the New York Times. “But only Pollock pursued its possibilities, doggedly and methodically circling the technique.” 

In the previous module, we looked at how we develop skills—or how people can take a very focused approach to practice. But to become an expert, we also need to expand an area of mastery. Learning—especially richer forms of learning—is a type of knowledge extension, a matter of elaborating on an area of expertise, and at this stage of the learning process, we need to extend our understanding. We need to elaborate on what we know, applying our knowledge and skills, weaving them together with what we already understanding. 

This is the nature of long-term memory, and the power of this approach goes back to the notion of learning as a series of connected roads. In this metaphor, we retain a lot more when we extend a street or alley and lay out new routes and hubs. In the words of cognitive scientists, we’re building on our prior knowledge and thus creating a deeper, more networked sort of insight.

For a more concrete example of this idea, take summarizing, or the act of putting an idea into our own words. The learning activity pushes us to ask ourselves a series of questions: What’s important? How can we rephrase this idea in our own words? These queries are important: Because by summarizing the most valuable idea, we’re extending our grasp of that particular idea, and learning activities like summarizing show clear and positive effects on outcomes.

Most of us know what this sort of learning looks like; it’s another form of learning as mental doing. Recall, for instance, a time when you read an article in a magazine and then detailed its argument for a friend. That’s a form of summarizing, of knowledge expansion, and you’re more likely to have learned from that article.

For another illustration, imagine you recently wrote an email describing your thoughts on a documentary that you saw on Netflix. Again, you fleshed out the idea—and engaged in a more direct form of sense-making—and all in all, you’ll have a richer sense of the movie and its message.

Argumentation is still another example of how we can extend an area of expertise because the practice forces us to engage with reasoning. It pushes us to grapple with logic. This idea is at the nature of very nature of learning, as cognitive scientist Lauren Resnick points out . To gain expertise, she argues, people need to be “doing interpretive work.”

When it comes to elaboration, we learn a lot more when we make inferences. When people develop judgements, they’re building connections. We understanding how things fit together and thus improving upon what we know. This explains why a little confusion can help learning: We have to think our way out of a problem.

Still another way to elaborate and extend is to instruct others, and there’s a deep body of research on the idea. Whether we instruct a class of thousands—or just try and explain something to a class of freshmen—we gain a better sense of an area of expertise by teaching it. 

Researchers call it the “Protege Effect,” and it’s really a form of knowledge application: By providing a lesson on a topic, we’re giving our own twist on an idea. We’re articulating what’s important about the topic, putting it into our own words, and thus improving our expertise.  

Part of the reason is that when people educate someone else, they’re asking themselves a series of important questions: What’s the best way to explain this idea? What is the most important take-way? How will they understand this notion? 

These questions promote learning because they force the person doing the teaching to more fully engage the issue. When we’re teaching, we have to engage the material in a more meaningful way. Interestingly, we don’t actually have to do any teaching to gain the benefits of this technique. 

In one recent study by psychologist John Nestojko, for instance, subjects who believed that they were going to teach learned more than a group of subjects who thought they were going to be tested on a topic. According to Nestojko, the benefit boiled down to the fact that subjects who thought they were going to provide instruction processed the material in a richer way, even if they didn’t actually ended up providing any training.  

Before we go any further, let’s be honest. Learners are not experts, who push a field forward, who invent new ideas or fields. Most of us are not going to develop radical new forms of art like Pollock. But all of us learn better when we flush out a skill, when we extend an area of expertise.

Pollock undoubtedly felt the same way about his painting. He always continued to extend what he knew, and even during his drip canvas phase, Pollock’s work grew more complex. He continued to expand on the central theme. It was a physicist named Richard Taylor, who first discovered this aspect of Pollock’s works. The Australian scientist began studying Pollock’s drip paintings some years ago and found that the canvases contained a type of fractal geometry, with a set of interwoven, non-repeating patterns much like those found in crystals or snow flakes.

Even more surprising, Taylor found that the fractals in Pollock’s paintings grew more dense over time. At the start of Pollock’s drip phase, the fractal complexity of his work was actually pretty low. But over time, Pollock delved deeper into the approach, and the fractals grew more profound, each painting containing a more elaborate design than the next, a more sophisticated mix of chaos and theory. ”This is what art theoreticians call the hand of the artist,” Taylor once told a reporter, or think of it as one of the true markers of expertise.  

A different way to grapple with the idea of expanding an area of expertise is to consider the making of the jazz album Kind of Blue. You’ve almost certainly heard the Miles Davis masterwork. It’s a stalwart in coffee shops around the country, the background to endless study sessions, the best-selling jazz album in jazz history.

The album has a moody, almost celestial energy. The musicians loop and soar among a set of evocative melodies, with caterwauling solos and freewheeling riffs. With a throaty feel that came to define the genre of jazz, Kind of Blue manages to provide Beethoven-like complexity with a haunting Nina Simone-like sound.

Kind of Blue is more than a jazz album, though. It’s also perhaps the most important master class in the history of jazz, a pinnacle of musical learning, and Miles Davis asked the group of musicians who produced the album to learn an entirely new approach to jazz music. In the past, jazz bands played around chords so that soloists would end their riffs within a number of harmonies.

But at the Kind of Blue session, Davis aimed to teach the group how to use scales—or modes—which would give the players a different way to engage melodies. “This distinction may seem slight, but its implications were enormous,” writes jazz critic Fred Kaplan. The musicians could now “link chords, scales, and melodies in almost unlimited combinations.”

A devotee of improvisation, Davis didn’t give the musicians any preparation for the new approach. He did not schedule any trial runs or practice sessions, no studio meetings or trainings. Indeed, Davis provided the group of musicians with only a few, short melodies before they met up in the spring of 1959. ”Play in [the] sound of these scales” were the only words on the top of the sheet music.

The musicians in the room were all experts, and Davis wanted them to learn the new approach through a riff. He pushed them to flesh out the approach, exploring—and applying—the new technique in a very direct way. As Davis later wrote in his biography, “when you’re creating your own shit, man, even the sky ain’t the limit.”

Miles Davis’s musical intervention worked, and each of the men who left the studio on that morning soon began using the modal style. Within months, Gil Evans began playing modal jazz. So did saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. Charlie Parker later built his career on the modal approach, using it to create his blockbuster albums Giants Steps and A Love Supreme.

As a learning method, riffs are a way to extend an area of expertise, and they promote mastery because they push people to dive deep into an area of mastery. They help us get at the essence of a bit of knowledge, to build cognitive links and connections. Plus, it’s hard to be passive if you’re improvising. To paraphrase Davis, it’s a matter of “creating your own shit.” 

In this regard, extending an area of knowledge is a lot like being able to explain an area of knowledge, and studies show that people gain a lot more when they ask themselves explanatory questions as they learn. Specifically: Can I describe the idea? Can I clarify the skill? Can I put it into my own words?

When we describe ideas to ourselves, we typically come away with a much richer understanding of a topic. Some years ago, for instance, cognitive psychologist Brian Ross enrolled in a computer science class at the University of Illinois. It had been a decade since Ross had taken any sort of class—forget anything technology relatedand with his beard and balding dome, Ross stood out. Easily a decade older than anyone else in the classroom, with his beard and balding dome Ross was—for all the other students in the class—just: That Guy.

To help him through the class, Ross relied on a technique known as self-explaining. The practice is much like it sounds, and when Ross would read texts for the class, he would describe ideas to himself. So after each paragraph, after each sentence, Ross would ask himself: What did I just read? How does that fit together? Have I come across this idea before?

If Ross did not understand something, he would look it up online. He would also try to build associations, to see if he could explain the idea to himself while relying on different words or concepts. “A lot of what you’re doing in self-explanation is trying to make connections,” Ross told me. “Oh, I see, this works because this leads to that and that leads to that.” 

By the end of the course, Ross could not program computers as well as the other students. He simply didn’t have enough background knowledge. But Ross was able to answer questions that the other students couldn't answer—and in many ways, he had a more connected sense of the field. “I sometimes had the advantage,” Ross told me. “I was focused on the bigger picture.”

Another way to extend knowledge is to ask the question: Why? Now, when we know a topic, why questions are not that hard. If I asked you a why question about the town that you grew up in, the answer would come pretty easily, I imagine. If you asked me why my parents decided to move to Westchester, New York, I’d explain that my mother and father wanted to live in a leafy suburban area with good schools and quiet streets.

It’s when we don’t know something that why questions become more difficult—and create a way to develop an idea. To illustrate the practice, let’s examine a query like: “Why are there waves?” Now, some of us can forge through a basic answer, at least when a five year-old is posing the question. Maybe something like: Well, waves have to do with the wind. When wind blows across the top of the water, it creates ripples of water.

But then comes the inevitable follow up: “Why does the wind blow across the top of the water?” or “Why does the wind lift the water” or “Why are there waves when there’s no wind?” Then we draw a blank. Or at least I do, and so I start searching for some sort of answer, spinning through the Internet, reading up on how energy moves through water, and in the end, gain a lot more.

Just as important, why questions also helps us think about our thinking. They push us to understand what we know, encouraging a more nuanced understanding of a topic, and to get more out of a bit of text, people should ask often ask themselves why queries. Why does the author make this claim? Why should I believe the author? Why would this matter?

It’s clear that trumpeter Miles Davis loved why questions. As a musician, he continually extended what he knew, and over the years, he managed to reinvent jazz at least three different times. In his own painterly way, artist Jackson Pollock wasn’t that different. He created a riff on what he had learned in Siqueiros’s workshop. His drip works were a clear extension of what he had learned years earlier. Put more directly, Pollock asked the question: Why not make a painting entirely out of drips and splashes?

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