How learning works

The best parallel for learning I’ve found is the human digestive system. So, I’ll use that analogy to illustrate how learning works.

Ingestion (you + someone else who shares the idea) This is when an idea is thrown at you. This could be in a class, in a book or in a casual conversation. The first step, if we’re listening, is to take the idea in.

Digestion (you + others) – This is why every teacher who knows what he/she is doing encourages class discussion. Ingestion only makes sure you’ve taken the idea in. Digestion makes sure you “get” the concept and the context.

Absorption (just you) – Once you have digested the idea, you need time by yourself to revisit and absorb it. This is why research suggest you pay attention in classes and meetings and jot down summaries at the end of classes/meetings. Writing summaries is a way of making sure you absorb what you’ve digested.

Assimilation (you + someone you teach/share) – Once you absorb an idea, you are ready for the next step – you now need to synthesize it and share it with others. Assimilation is why it is said that teaching or sharing ideas is the only sure shot way of learning. That is true. It also matters because this is when you open up your thinking to others for their thoughts and critiques. Inevitably, the sharing process crystallizes the key concepts.

Excretion (you) – In this final step, you revisit your teach/share discussions, reflect on your own mental models and throw out pieces that don’t make sense. This matters because learning involves a constant refinement and simplification of concepts and ideas. Excretion is how you boil things down to first principles and create original ideas and mental models.

A lot of what we’re taught about learning focuses on ingestion, digestion and, to a much lesser extent, assimilation. That’s also because a lot of what we’re taught about learning is taught in groups. And, these steps involve groups (surprise, surprise).

However, as this framework hopefully illustrates, there is no learning without reflection. So, if we ever find ourselves running from one activity to another without time to reflect, it is worth reminding ourselves that we’re cheating ourselves of the learning.

We must take the time. We’re worth it.

And, once we do take the time, we must share. With great learning comes great responsibility.