“Some of the most crucial steps in mental growth are based not simply on acquiring new skills, but on acquiring new administrative ways to use what one already knows.”
Marvin Minsky was the co-founder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Project (later the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) whose co-director of Seymour Papert's name he used to illustrate an important learning principle. Papert worked on learning theories focusing on the impact new technologies had on learning in general, and in schools as learning organizations in particular.
Our ability to use the knowledge we already have is based on practicing thinking. Thanks to his work on creating AI, thus to understand human intelligence, Minsky explored themes like value of negative knowledge, things like knowing how to intercept and interdict unproductive lines of thought, for example.
Minsky's fascination with the mind led to the publication of The Society of Mind, an exploration of how the mind works. The book is a collection of one-pagers, each a piece of the puzzle, according to Minsky. In this pursuit, he was truly a pioneer.
On appreciating the value of learning how to be creative, Minsky says:
“We shouldn't let our envy of distinguished masters of the arts distract us from the wonder of how each of us gets new ideas. Perhaps we hold on to our superstitions about creativity in order to make our own deficiencies seem more excusable.
For when we tell ourselves that masterful abilities are simply unexplainable, we're also comforting ourselves by saying that those superheroes come endowed with all the qualities we don't possess. Our failures are therefore no fault of our own, nor are those heroes' virtues to their credit, either.
If it isn't learned, it isn't earned.
It takes hard work to figure out how to think for ourselves. We'd prefer to sabotage ourselves by not recognizing our own ignorance and hold onto the myth that genius is born rather than face the discomfort of working our way into a creative solution.
We would rather believe successful people have extraordinary qualities, often using their success as proof. The moment of celebration and accomplishment hides all the paddling that happens below the surface, or the failures that paved the way there.
But if we paid attention, we would find that:
When we actually meet the heroes whom our culture views as great, we don't find any singular propensities — only combinations of ingredients quite common in themselves. Most of these heroes are intensely motivated, but so are many other people.
They're usually very proficient in some field — but in itself we simply call this craftsmanship or expertise. They often have enough self-confidence to stand up to the scorn of peers — but in itself, we might just call that stubbornness.
They surely think of things in some novel ways, but so does everyone from time to time. And as for what we call "intelligence", my view is that each person who can speak coherently already has the better part of what our heroes have.
So since it looks like we are equipped with all the characteristics they have, what is it that makes these people stand apart? Minsky figured out that working hard was only half the answer. That to improve in ways that made a significant impact on our lives, we must also learn how to learn.
We must figure out what is worth learning, in what order, and how to create a system that enables the activation of the knowledge we already have. Chances are that the people who create a system to organize an apply the things they learn using teaching as part of it.
Systems are useful because knowledge is interconnected, and this way we learn to appreciate the value of synthesis or the ability to think holistically. System thinking is also valuable because it includes feedback loops, which is how successful and talented people operate. This is opposition to linear thinking, or cause and effect thinking, which is static.
Also, when we engage in learning, we use a process akin to what we describe in engineering to transform energy from one thing to another. We have inputs coming in from culture, reality, and information, and as we elaborate we change those inputs into another state — knowledge.
I suspect that genius needs one thing more: in order to accumulate outstanding qualities, one needs unusually effective ways to learn. It's not enough to learn a lot; one also has to manage what one learns.
Those masters have, beneath the surface of their mastery, some special knacks of "higher-order" expertise, which help them organize and apply the things they learn. It is those hidden tricks of mental management that produce the systems that create those works of genius.
Why do certain people learn so many more and better skills? These all-important differences could begin with early accidents. One child works out clever ways to arrange some blocks in rows and stacks; a second child plays at rearranging how it thinks.
Everyone can praise the first child's castles and towers, but no one can see what the second child has done, and one may even get the false impression of a lack of industry. But if the second child persists in seeking better ways to learn, this can lead to silent growth in which some better ways to learn may lead to better ways to learn to learn.
Then, later, we'll observe an awesome, qualitative change, with no apparent cause — and give to it some empty name like talent, aptitude, or gift.
The second child is finding ways to learn by teaching or finding new ways to understand things rather than conforming to a predigested method likely available on the product's package. It's this seeking of better ways through seemingly unproductive attempts that creates the dynamic feedback loop that becomes the engine of the child's learning system.
It's all the paddling under the surface that builds forward movement.
See also how teaching and learning by discussion is a very powerful method to cover a lot of new ground.