Yesterday, my twin sons turned one. I have spent an amazing number of hours over the last year watching them. I wondered if this experience might teach me something too, about how to learn. After all, babies are the grandmasters on this subject. In the same time that it has taken me to incrementally advance my knowledge of some tiny corner of mathematics, my children have moved from a total inability to do anything besides scream, crap themselves, and scream again, to being able to feed themselves (messily, so messily, but still), crawl, clap, grab, wave, recognise people, stand, and so on. And these are just the most visible manifestations of a deep mental transformation during which their brains have learnt huge amounts about processing sensory data and coordinating muscle movement.
If that rate of learning was to continue through their lives, they would grow into geniuses far surpassing anything humanity has seen so far. So how do they do it? Of course a large part of the answer is physiological: babies’ brains are a lot more plastic than adults’, highly efficient sponges for the absorption of new skills. There’s not a great deal we can do about that (although there may be something). All the same, I think we might be able to see some other, useful principles in action too:
- Play. We don’t usually talk about babies “working” – but they are, just as assuredly as a student revising or a scientist researching. The difference is that babies are also undeniably playing – and we wouldn’t usually describe either of the other two in that way. Babies are not motivated by exam grades or pressure to publish. The more fun you find your work, the better you do it.
- Be curious. The babies immediately home in on any new item which appears in their playing area, and start investigating. They are always exploring the room’s boundaries, and grabbing at anything unfamiliar or interesting (my laptop, mugs of hot tea, etc..). But they are not searching for anything in particular. Set aside some time for open-ended exploration and experimentation.
- First, learn one thing well. The boys learned to clap quite early on. With this under their belt, other manual skills such as waving and pointing were comparatively easy to pick up. Likewise, an experienced mathematician will find it easier than a novice to master an unfamiliar mathematical topic. Even if neither has any directly relevant knowledge, the fact that one is practised in the art of learning mathematics should carry them a long way. Building skills can be worthwhile, even when the skills themselves are not.
- A change is as good as a rest. In the opposite direction, the twins do not spend hours at a stretch practising one thing, such as walking. Instead they do it for a little bit, then get distracted by a toy, move onto another toy, have a crawling race, try holding a conversation with their mother, then they do some more walking, and so it goes on. Have more than one project on the go.
- Don’t be scared. Most of the time, my sons appear completely fearless. They happily crawl into perilous situations, pull over heavy objects, and invite disaster in any number of imaginative ways. This is despite the fact that they regularly do fall down and otherwise upset themselves. Take risks. Even if they don’t immediately pay off, continue to take risks.
- Don’t be embarrassed. Babies are not only unworried about taking a tumble, they’re also unafraid of looking like fools. The more I ponder this, the more important I think it is. In my efforts to learn Japanese, for example, I am hindered (perhaps more than I have realised) by the fear of making embarrassing mistakes in conversation with my in-laws. Likewise, mathematicians do not enjoy admitting errors, or gaps in their knowledge, in front of their colleagues (let alone their students). I think this is a bad habit. In order to learn from your mistakes, you must first allow yourself to make some.
- Accept help. The boys are utterly dependent my wife, me, and the other generous people who help us look after them (thank you!). Obviously, adults shouldn’t be that reliant on others, except in extremis. Nevertheless, there may be people in your life who would like to help you succeed. Let them.
- “Good enough” isn’t good enough. My children have reached the point where crawling is a highly efficient form of travel – they can zoom around the house to wherever they want to be. Walking, meanwhile, is a faltering, risky business. It would be a perfectly rational short term decision if they opted not to bother with it. Of course, babies don’t reason that way, which is just as well. Invest in your long-term skills, even at short term cost.
- Don’t focus on the scale of the challenge. My children’s vocabulary currently consists of little more than “dadadada”, “mamamama”, “aaaaghh”, and “pmmpphh”. It will be quite a journey from these noises to mastery of the language of Shakespeare (and indeed that of Chikamatsu). Of course they have no idea about that. The journey matters more then the destination.