the act of learning

My dear friends, for the past few weeks, I have addressed different aspects of public education, and education in general. I am working my way towards a proposal for an alternative system of public education. But in this post, I would like to discuss the essence; the act of learning. It is said, that awed by the forest, we lose sight of the trees.

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Learning comes so early in life, and seems almost automatic. It is not surprising that some take it for granted. We watch a baby on the floor. He crawls, and then stands up. He takes his first steps. Falls down. Tries again. Falls down, and then tries still again… and again… and eventually he is walking. We get excited when that same baby says the word for father the first time… and then there’s another word… and words that we can’t understand… and quickly, it seems, he’s speaking our language. He’s learned to talk. We see our children taking part in all kinds of household chores and activities; and playing with other children in the playground, and it often seems as if they are constantly learning and growing stronger effortlessly. And if our child takes an interest in sports, or works out continuously in the local gym, whether because he likes swimming, or just likes exercise, he or she will grow muscles, will have a lean and strong body, and will be visibly healthy. If he just sits in front of the TV or the computer all day, he will grow fat and pale. Sometimes he will seem lazy. But these are extreme examples. Most children enjoy a little of this and a little of that.

Though we can see the effects of perseverance at sports on the bodies of young boys and girls, it is much harder to notice the changes in a young person as a result of mental activity. Once the child has reached the stage where he is able to communicate with us, it seems like the pressure is off. Nothing is quite so critical again. If he makes mistakes in grammar, or chooses the wrong word to express himself, it can amuse us. Or we can correct him. In either case, we see that he is always improving… growing on his own. Usually, we’re not so aware of his mental prowess, and the efficiency of his thinking. We are constantly surprised by the things he comes up with.

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But there is a process unseen, in which the child builds his understanding of the world around him on the basis of what he learns. Each time he or she learns something new, that new knowledge is added to his ability to understand and question the world around him. And he or she is building study habits that help him define attitudes to new unknowns. The more he learns, the more he will become aware of what he doesn’t know, and so, be motivated to learn more. Learning something new can bring a rush of pleasure, not unlike that felt by a runner who has just beaten his own record for a 100 meter run, or a young person having completed a double lap of the pool. He becomes aware of which behaviors are more likely to bring him success, and develops his own style.

I have many memories of specific learning challenges. Sometimes, a challenge was overcome in a half an hour, and sometimes they went on for months. Those difficult learning tasks are among my most beautiful memories.

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The learning difficulty I remember most vividly brings back the memories of fear, and relentless determination. It was the study of color. I developed an interest in photography at an early age. I got a camera, and learned how cameras work. Learned about lenses and optics. Learned how to develop film, and how to print black and white pictures on paper. Over the years, I explored the realm of photography, and learned much about the physical aspects of this craft, as well as the history, the chemistry, and the esthetics. In the beginning I employed slide photography to produce color images, because of the many difficulties of printing color photographs. But at some point, I decided that it was necessary to print color as well.

In those days, there were two great difficulties in printing color. One was that you had to work in complete darkness. In the standard dark room, you could use a red light to see what you were doing. But in a color darkroom, any color could affect the paper, so the room had to be black. It was like being blind. And the second difficulty was that the process was rather complicated, and took quite a bit of time, even to print a test strip. The chemicals had to be kept at a constant temperature of 38º Celsius. Keeping the chemicals that hot, constantly, was something of a juggling act. But I learned how to do it. It was then that I encountered a personal problem. It was a limitation that made it very hard for me to work with color. It was something like dyslexia. I did not see the color magenta.

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Human beings are biologically sensitive to three colors, which are conveyed from the eye to the brain, and combinations of those three colors define our awareness of the entire spectrum of what we are able to see. Though there are variations of those primary colors, we usually define them as red, green and blue. These are called Additive Primary Colors. For subtractive combination of colors, used in the mixing of pigments or dyes, such as in printing and photography, the primaries normally used are cyan, magenta, and yellow. While slide film produces a positive image, much like what you saw with your own eyes, when using negatives, you have to employ an artificial light which is projected through the negative onto the photographic paper, and the negative prevents certain frequencies from reaching the paper. Since the light source itself has a color aberration (as all artificial lamps do), it is necessary to filter the light going through the negative in order to achieve results which will resemble the colors seen in the original scene. The process demands the use of filters which can filter varying amounts of cyan, magenta and yellow. The filters I used were oblong sheets of transparent glass or cellophane with varying intensities of these primary colors.

In reproducing the colors of my negatives, I became aware of the fact that I was unable to recognize the color magenta. I had never had difficulties seeing colors before. But when trying to identify the color magenta, I saw it at time as if a dark blue, at times as purple, and sometimes as pink. I began to print a slice of a picture, with varying amounts of magenta in it, changing the picture from time to time, as I performed hundreds of exercises. The development of each test strip took about 25 minutes from start to finish, and much time was spent, performing the same exercise over and over again. With each variation, I was able to see the influence of the magenta on all the other colors in the spectrum, and identify the picture as a whole, as being correct or incorrect in overall color composition. As I continued, I became more sensitive to the color itself, and to the influence of the different primary colors on the palate I was working with. After about a half a year I was able to guess how much filtration I would need to justify a negative, just by looking at that negative. After a year, I was able to estimate the same with surety.

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The understanding of color is not a subjective experience. Colors can be measured by optical devices, and their light wave frequencies are as exact as the weighing or measuring of any physical material.

I have had similar experiences in other fields of learning. In learning a foreign language, once I understood the basics of the language, I would read literature, and discover a great amount of new words. Each time, I would find the meaning in the dictionary. But there were times, when I chose to read dictionaries, skipping over the words I knew, as I searched for new words. I remember reading the bible (which I knew quite well) in translation in order to gain fluency and intimacy with a language I did not know well enough. And again, the repetitive actions bring about self assurance and an easier grasp of new pieces of knowledge all the time, just as repetitive physical actions result in body building. The stronger that one is, the easier the process of study. This is not dependent on intelligence. A person of lesser intelligence, working seriously in his studies, can surpass the accomplishments of a more intelligent person. It is a mistake to give all credit to native talent or intelligence.

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The photos are of women studying art.

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55 responses to “the act of learning

  1. hi! 0nly just found out you had left blog co.uk. sorry about that. Have tried other blogsites but miss the chat.Will keep in touch now i know where you are. jane.(avenscent)

    • Thank you very much, Jane, for coming by. I suppose there is chat on all blog platforms. You just have to get to know the scene, and find people you can relate to. Hope things get better at the old blog site.

  2. This is very interesting, you seem to have great tenacity and patience which allows you to overcome problems, although you probably see them as challenges. I do agree about tenacity being a factor in learning, many talented and intelligent people do little in life if they have no tenacity and determination. I have always been hopeless at learning other languages, I can speak them so much more easily than I can read and write them.
    I loved these pics.xxxxx

    • We all find certain subjects easier to learn than others. But there are always problems. And it seems to me that the best way to deal with those problems in learning, is by the systematic approach. That is what I was trying to illustrate by my own experience. Glad you enjoyed these pics. This was actually an art class, that had gone outside in order to paint. Thanks for your comment, Dina.

  3. Fascinating reflection, Shimon, and such interesting photos. I’m interested in your thesis that repetition and determination are sure-fire ways of learning, even if one has a slight disability. I think I would add, a real and genuine love and passion for one’s subject, which is the best motivator.

    • I believe that even without passion or love for a specific subject, once one has discovered the pleasures of learning, almost every subject can be appealing and interesting, and the very process stimulates curiosity and interest. Just as we can take a walk, or a ride in a place that is not sensational… and enjoy it, so we can enjoy learning just about everything. Repetition and patience are part of the tools of learning. And if your mind is on other things, or you’re distracted, it is much harder to learn. Thank you for your comment, Gill

  4. Interesting and thought-provoking post Shimon, as always! I think that repetition without determination results in a diminution of interest in learning. There is curiousity and a desire for movement that propels a baby’s first steps..I think such curiousity is an essential element of learning..

    • Curiosity is definitely an important part of learning, and as you say, Mimi, we see that in the very young… even in babies. Repetition is a part of life And not necessarily a bad part of life, unless your mind or your heart is somewhere else. From the exercises of young athletes to the work of senior scientists on a research project, one witnesses endless repetition. What is important, though, is how a person relates to what he is doing. Ask an innovative musician about repetition, and he or she will tell you that that is how he learned music to begin with. Thank you for your comment, Mimi.

  5. It seems to me, from your description , that one major component of learning, is desire, determination and passion. You had all of them, besides your natural talent and intelligence. Unfortunately, many parents do not foster the most important ingredient which is curiosity. Your “thesis” that repetition is a surefire way of learning is being proven nowadays, albeit, indirectly through the findings of the neuroplasticity of the brain. There are many fascinating books on the subject.

    • Yes, neuroplasticity has given new hope after a long period in which the brain was seen as rather static. Desire and passion are rather relative. But attitude is extremely important. I’ve had students who overcame serious disabilities, because they had the desire, and weren’t willing to give up. I believe that it is a big mistake to put too much emphasis on ‘feeling good’ while in the process of learning. Parents are influenced by the social conventions of their environment. Sometimes they are tempted to offer their children immediate gratification, which lessens the motivation for work of any kind. Thank you for your comment, Rachel.

  6. Love the photos with the babies in prams…and I admire all the time you spent learning about colour.I believe one can do a lot of work and study if the purpose is to learn about something you love.I think I may have mentioned i copied a whole book by hand some years back when it was out of print.
    Well,I am delighted you learned so much about colour as I like the results and the beautiful composition of your photographs.However clever you are there’s always work to do in learning…and it reminds me of the tale of Achilles and the tortoise…slow and steady wins the race.
    Your posts are full of grace.

    • Thank you very much, Kathryn. Yes, there was something inspiring about these mothers who did not abandon their babies but put a lot of work into their studies. You did mention to me about the book that you copied… and actually, I had a similar experience once, many years ago. Today it is possible to copy by mechanical means. But it is an example of ‘going all the way’, which is something I really admire in study. And I definitely agree with your conclusion; slow and steady wins the race.

      • I found this quotation which I like,And Eric Hoffer was a completely self educated man.Have you heard of him?He worked in low paid jobs and studied and wrote.Here is the quote:
        ” We are told that talent creates its own opportunities. But it sometimes seems that intense desire creates not only its own opportunities, but its own talents.”

        Eric Hoffer

        • This is a good quote. I remember him very well, and his powerful book, ‘The True Believer’. It was a time of great conflict between ideologies, and he offered an objective and sane view. Thank you for reminding us of this writer and thinker.

          • Thank you,Shimon,I admire him very much… he was blind for ten years as a boy and after that read as much as he could.I’ve been reading,The True Believer,
            Interesting idea that desire could create talent. It;s good to look at an the opposite of an ideas sometimes.
            I know several people very talented at Art who never give any time to it… and as you said elsewhere many people with less inborn talent but a strong desire to learn will do much better in life….even if their Art is just for personal pleasure and not for a career.

  7. This is a very nice essay. You point is made saliently. Appealing to individuality and identifying points of concern, and unique learning strategies is my current approach.

  8. Thanks for your post Shimon. Lovely photographs.
    It used to be that children were taught through repetition. Multiplication tables for example. By the time I came to go to school, learning by rote and through repetition had gone out of favour and it still is. I have been at a huge disadvantage my entire adult life as I don’t know almost instinctively, because it wasn’t drummed in at an early age, that 7×6=42. It makes me angry to hear educationalist still insisting that learning by rote does not work.
    I spent five years in senior school learning French the modern way, no repetition just far too much grammar, little conversation, and I can’t speak a word. Through repetition and learning by rote of set phrases in different scenarios, almost like learning the lines of play, I was able to hold my own in Japanese in just 6 months. I got off the plane at Narita airport and was able to communicate without any problem whatsoever and within a couple of months of being in Japan I was fluent.
    Why this method of learning is so unfashionable I don’t know but in many areas of education, we’re doing young people a disservice, in my opinion, by not using it.

    • Glad you enjoyed the pictures, Chillbrook. I understand that repetition is boring… especially when one doesn’t identify with the work. But as you point out from your own experience, it can be a great aid in learning some things. And once one has a good basis in any field of study, it is relatively easy to build on that basis. Your examples just strengthen my impressions from study. I think the most important aspect of study, that is overlooked these days, is that study is work. Not everything we do is supposed to give us immediate gratification. I do agree with you, that this is not in the long term interest of the children. And by the way, I admire your fluency in Japanese!

  9. catherineomeara

    I really enjoyed your photos and ideas, Shimon. It’s clear your desire and persistence have been important to your learning. I’m looking forward to your ideas about educational reform.

    • Thank you very much, Catherine. I was very lucky, and blessed too, in my education, in that I had some wonderful teachers. They used to tell me, the most important stage, is to learn how to learn. Afterwards, I learned a lot from my students as well. Study can be a wonderful hobby.

  10. Absolutely nice post.To guide and to teach ,very fulfilling.Regards.

  11. Persistence is a great thing to have. Lack of persistence can let down a clever mind and much can be achieved by somebody as you say, who has persistence. Patience and persistence together are great things to learn….. I learned both as a woodcarver and now know that if you stick with something for long enough, you can have a breakthrough….sort of push through a barrier sometimes.
    Beautiful pictures – enjoyed them a lot – so sunny.
    I found your post inspiring because it reminded me about the patience and persistence thing! Daughter lacks both – as did I at her age… so both can be learned later on if something interests us enough.
    Sounds also as if you have quite a scientific sort of mind too….

    • Thank you very much for your support, and the example taken from your own life. Most artists and craftsmen… even those with a lot of talent, have had to overcome difficulties along the way. One of the wonderful things about study, is that every time you learn something new, you enlarge your horizon, and find new things to learn. After a while, even the hard work is enjoyable. Studying can start out as a chore, but if you keep it up, it can be a wonderful pleasure. Always enjoy your comments, Arose.

  12. Your conclusions make very good sense and I am eager to see what your proposal will be!

    • Thank you, Josie. Having gotten to know you a little, my impression is that you too have determination. That’s a great aid in learning anything. I look forward to your thoughts on my proposal for a change in the educational system.

  13. This is great! I love that even if learning is an objective experience, when a story is shared, it can cross over into the subjective. I can’t wait to see what you come up with for the alternate education system.

    • Yes, SighYuki. The learning experience is a very moving subjective experience too. I am always gratified to learn of the pleasures people experience, from sports, from exercise, and from many activities that require work and personal commitment. But I have found that serious students are among the happiest of people. It is hard work that brings joy. Thank you for your comment.

  14. Mastering a subject or skill is its own reward, and I think it spurs us on to learn more. That’s what makes us life-long learners. I look forward to hearing more of your ideas.

    • Yes, I have found study a most enjoyable occupation. And I would like to think that we could find a way to overcome the difficulties facing the school system. One of the problems, it seems, that many young students see the school as some sort of jail, interfering with their personal freedom.

  15. Shimon, here’s one thing that I really enjoy about reading your posts: I feel as if I’m taking a walk with you and learning something as we leisurely stroll along. Your style of writing and your choice of images—and how & when you insert them in your posts—gives me the impression of being on a walk with you. Again, I enjoy this!

    I am very interested in what you will (eventually) offer regarding alternative public education. If I’m following your line of thought correctly it would appear that you value learning through trial and error, layering on knowledge over time, and recognizing one’s strengths and weaknesses. It would also appear you place less value on the [automatic] building up of self esteem by the student’s teacher.

    You brought back happy memories of the hours I spent in the darkroom! I took a semester of B&W and a semester of color while in the early part of my college experience (I was a non-traditional student who entered college at age 36). I loved the peace and quiet and even the smells of the darkroom. The timing, the precision, the happy accidents of developing & printing were all enjoyable and rewarding experiences. Photography was something you really had to work at then—but the payoff was so worth it!

    • I am so glad that you enjoy my posts, George. Yes, my feeling is that this accent on self esteem is a mistake. Doing a job well, learning something, understanding the world around us… all of these things bring us happiness. And they can also enable us to overcome an inferiority complex, if that is what we’re suffering from. But I don’t believe that the school should have to give psychological treatment to the students. Because study itself, can be such a healthy and healing activity. How nice that you had that opportunity to study photography. I can understand your love for the smell of the darkroom. I too learned to love those smells. And working in the dark room gave me many hours of deep thought as well. I enjoy the advantages that the computer has brought us. But I remember fondly, the work in the darkroom.

  16. I’m very impressed. I did a lot of darkroom work, but only black and white.No one did their own color work. That was hard and required considerable skill, especially in a home darkroom. You are very dedicated to the craft to put that much work into it and to overcome color blindness too.

    • Yes, Marilyn. There was much to learn, working in the dark room, and I knew many people who discovered new talents in themselves as they worked there. I used this story as an example of the learning process and of overcoming disability. But it was also a great adventure. I knew quite a few artists who learned photography to document their work, and later fell in love with the craft. Thank you for your comment.

  17. WOW! I am impressed so much… This is so nice. As always it was so nice to read your post. I wished to be there too 🙂 Thank you dear Shimon, have a nice week, love, nia

    • Thank you very much, Nia, for your kind words and for reblogging the article. I am sure you would have enjoyed darkroom work very much. I can see the feel you have for images in your photographic work. And much of what we used to do then, is now possible using the computer.

  18. Reblogged this on photographyofnia and commented:
    This is so exciting… and interesting too.

  19. I have a little saying – ‘Don’t be surprised that by filling holes in your knowledge you discover even more holes’.
    I classify learning in two categories, that which is necessary and that which for simple pleasure. Learning to walk, speak, read, communicate are examples of the first ‘necessary’ learning, but this moves on to relationships, trades, and the like. Pleasure learning might be learning to identify types of birds, how to fly a kite, how to draw and paint – how to speak a foreign language.
    The ‘necessary’ we have automatic permission to learn almost an expectation that we will.
    For pleasure leaning, it seems to me, we often seek to receive permission or have to justify/seek approval for it in some way – I’m sure if I wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle people I know would want to know why – or if I wanted to learn Russian. For young people, I fear this enthusiasm can quickly be stifled or even crushed, because of the expectations of the parents – perhaps the need to have the offspring follow ‘norms’.

    I can empathise with you completely regarding your return to college. I returned to study photography full time at the age of 49. I was introduced to some of the finer points of darkroom work and whilst I was there I spent as much time as I could trying to develop my skills. It always surprised me that for much of the time I had a large multi-enlarger darkroom to myself – the youngsters were off doing the digital thing.

    One of the finest gifts we have is our ability to learn – why is it so many people chose to stop?

    • You bring up an interesting question, Stephan. From my experience, holes in one’s knowledge are usually the result of learning by one’s self. And when doing that, we miss part of the study. When we learn in a systematic manner, there is a great frontier, where we face the unknown. But there are not usually holes. And the more we learn, the more we are aware of the unknown. And this is what usually makes wise men modest. Because they are aware of all they don’t know.

      I agree with you about the pleasure learning too. It seems to me, that as we continue to learn, we realize that we have a lot of prejudices, and that the norms, as you call them, of society, are also very often built on prejudices and preconceptions. The path to freedom and wisdom, is to overcome these prejudices, and learn to accept the world as it really is. Many of the conventions of every society support such prejudices.

      I didn’t say that I returned to college in midlife. That was my friend George, in his comment above. I started studying very early in life, and have spent most of my life studying and learning, and got to love study more than anything else, even though, as a young man, I resented my father for forcing me into that life. I am happy to hear of your positive experiences with photography, for that was a source of great pleasure (and a good livelihood) for me. Thank you very much for your very interesting comments.

      • Apologies for my mistake regarding your friend, George.
        “Many of the conventions of every society support such prejudices.” – so very true.
        On wise man/woman – can a wise man believe he is wise – and can those who are not wise pronounce another as wise? (rhetorical)

  20. I can still recall a time during my 4 yrs in college, that I was so happy learning, that I could stay there and just learn more and more, but…realized I had to make a living. Medicine came so easily for me and I truly enjoyed, and still enjoy (after being retired for 10 yrs) the problems that occur in medicine and our bodies. A dear friend who just passed, would chide me with “The more you learn, the more you are capable of learning”…and I certainly agree with that. I can even offer several entities that would improve ones abilities. I had one semester of “Scientific French”…which was simply the translation of a French science book about 1/2 inch thick, from French to English. But I do remember dreaming in French. Then, with no formal Spanish training, doing surgery in Ybor City (Tampa), in Spanish, it wasn’t long till I dreamed in Spanish…best part was that I remember it. 🙂
    Now I’m curious, how many languages do you speak? Are you aware of the Learn a language in 10 days that has been on the Internet?

    • What you say here, Bob, is very similar to my own experiences. Even though, I started out a bit differently. My father forced me to study, and I resented that, and found myself pulled to the arts. And it was by way of my love for art, that I got acquainted with photography, and that became a profession for me, though I studied and worked in other professions as well. But despite starting out on the wrong food in studies, I learned to love them, and kept on with them, studying first engineering, and then other subjects. And eventually, becoming a college professor. I learned quite a few languages, but because I didn’t continue using them, I have forgotten most of that. In fact, I was well into the process of forgetting English, when the internet rekindled my interest, and using this language has brought it back. I never heard that it was possible to learn a language in 10 days, but I see you have sent me some material (privately) on that, and I will check it out. It sounds interesting. Fortunately, I am now in the position of having more delicacies available, than I have the strength to take advantage of… so I just dabble a bit. Thank you very much for your comment.

  21. I’m enjoying this series Shimon – the personal, the systems, your experiences, your conversations, your research. It’s all building up to a fascinating debate.

    • Thank you, Claire. I think we have a very serious problem. And that the answer to the problem is not necessarily reacting to the symptoms. I was thinking of you yesterday, when my daughter brought me a beautiful basket of passionflower which she grew herself. Eating the fruit was a great delight. But much more so, because she had grown them with her own two hands. Pictures will come.

  22. How wonderful to have a fresh bowl of homegrown passionfruit Shimon. I love that blogging creates all these connections and links in our daily lives. Your response certainly put a smile on my face this afternoon, thank you, and I now have something else to look forward to with your pcitures!

    • Yes, you will see some pictures soon. I just want to finish this series on education, and then I’ll go back to some less directed posts. I too, enjoy coming across thoughts and ideas that I would never have looked for or seen, were it not for the blog world.

  23. This is an interesting conversation. The most interesting one I’ve read in a long time. I like that. People are actually talking and saying significant things. 🙂 Somehow, you encourage the expression of ideas, Shimon.

    • Thank you George. In real life, and on the blog, I try to converse with people about those things that really interest me. And it is always a pleasure to get a comment from you.

  24. addressing your point about hard work versus natural ability, i recall two sisters i had as students about two years apart. brooke and kim. brooke had an IQ of 95 and kim a 115. brooke had straight A’s but also a lot of stress and trouble sleeping because she used every ounce of her 95 IQ. meanwhile, kim got B’s and was a very happy child because she used just enough of her 115 IQ to get by without her mother complaining.

    • My guess, Rich, is that the differences between the two sisters was more a difference of personality than it was of IQ. Anxiety and stress can do a lot of damage. And yes, sometimes a B is preferable to an A, if it comes from a happy student. People are so complex. With all the tests and all the psychology, we just barely scratch the surface in getting to know people.

      • I was getting an email for every single comment so have unfollowed you for now ….what have I done wrong?There must be a choice somewhere for that.You certainly have alot of comments,which is good news.K

        • I think that what you did, Kathryn, was to follow that particular post, instead of following my blog. In order to follow the blog, you have to click on follow at the top of the page of the blog itself, and not the post.

          • Thanks,Shimon…I’ll have a look…I may have followed both….Im still not properly aware of all these things on Word Press..
            I got 60 emails so I must have followed the post!!
            So I hope noone else comments!!

          • I have found you were right..I didn’t see all the notifications.I have deleted that and followed your blog.I am more used to Blogger.I think this is more complex with more choices……….looks good though.

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