Although there are millions of individual topics, anything we wish to learn, teach or communicate can be shuffled into one of three categories. There are only three things you can learn: facts, concepts and behaviors.
Consider the following list, and decide into which category they should be sorted:
- Columbus sailed in 1492
- People should forgive
- Jade is often green
- Your conclusions depend on your initial model
- Seattle is the capital of Washington state
Even without a detailed explanation of the three categories, I suspect you placed items 1, 3 and 5 in the fact pot, called items 2 and 4 concepts, and clumped the last five together as behaviors. It’s not difficult to do. You could have done it with a much longer list.
We do not like facts very much. Facts are details, small bits of information. It is not that they are innately bad, but they are rather ugly, and tend to attract paperwork. In and of themselves, facts are too small to be likable, so we avoid them whenever possible. Have you ever invited people over to watch a pictorial display of facts (slides of your vacation, for instance)? Then you know, we hate facts.
Facts include names, dates, phone numbers, checkbook balances, social security numbers, procedures (do this first, then that), and most of the course content from kindergarten through graduate school. We not only dislike facts, we even try to get rid of them. We even make computers and calculating machines that are designed for the expressed purpose of crunching facts. The poor little things never had a chance.
Most of our dislike for facts is that they trick us. We like to think of facts as being truth. If it is true, it is a fact. Actually, truth is independent of its form. Facts need not be true. The statement “Seattle is the capitol of Washington state” is a fact—as opposed to being a concept or a behavior—but it is not true. Olympia is Washington’s capital.
Our three categories (facts, concepts, and behaviors) describe the form of the information, the way in which we process it. The truth of a statement, from the point of view of how we process the information, is unimportant. We treat all behaviors alike, ignoring whether they are good habits or bad ones. We treat all concepts the same, regardless of their content. We treat all facts alike, independent of their truth.
It would require a huge amount of storage space to carry all the facts we know personally, let alone the millions of details we have not yet met. So, we do not take them with us. Instead, we carry some general rules about the world, and look up the details when we need to. This way, we use facts only when they support our point of view.
Concepts are easy to carry rules which can be applied to a wide variety of situations. We like concepts. We will spend hours watching them on TV, movies and plays. They are so adorable. Concepts are easy to learn, easy to carry, and easy to share with others.
We like our concepts so much that we are inseparable. We travel with our prejudices, drink with our sorrows, jog with our status symbols and work with our insecurities. We pamper our beliefs, sacrifice our principles, salute our achievements and sail with our dreams. We diet with our self concept, lunch with our ego, and party with our libido. With a single concept, say the idea of generosity, you can raise millions of dollars for starving people, build hospitals, furnish libraries, and make a child’s Christmas dreams come true. It all begins with a concept, an idea.
The difficulty comes when we want to convert concepts into behaviors. Although the general rules that we carry around in our heads are easy to recall, they can be very difficult to implement. Take the old example you mum and dad taught you: “Always Be Polite.” That is an easy rule to remember but hard to put into practice while driving in traffic…and nearly impossible to apply at after-Christmas sales.
Behaviors are the things we do. We ask, answer, bank, breathe, bob, belch, catch, cry, crawl, creep, dip, dive, drink, erase, elope, fight, flirt, gush, growl, grovel, hit, hide, hug, hustle, hurry, haggle, jog, jostle, jump . . . You get the idea. Behaviors are all the things we do, big and small.
Behaviors are usually verbs, or at least can be logically changed into verbs. An airplane is a thing but airplaning—whatever that may be—is an action, a behavior. Playing a piano, writing poems, and running cross-country are samples of behaviors. So are listening, sharing, praying, and bicycling. If it requires practice, it is a behavior.
After deciding what kind of elephant you are studying, the next step is to pick the right method. It is the underlying structure which determines how best to learn it. Although shoe tying and computer repairing differ in complexity, they share the same structure. Because both are behaviors, and are governed by the same underlying processes, they can be taught in the same manner. Similarly, which concept you choose is less important (in this discussion) than knowing that your elephant is a concept.
Each content area has its own unique characteristics. For facts, the right method is organization. For concepts, it is illustration. And for behaviors, practice is the correct choice. Let’s look at each in turn.
If your material is primarily facts, organize it. People can learn facts best when there is an organizational framework. Like shoes, a collection of facts is best when it is organized. If the material is highly technical, filled with facts, the best approach is to group the items in some manner. Although you could list the facts alphabetically, it is probably more helpful to group them by similarity. This “blocking” technique increases the likelihood you will remember these facts. Together facts form chunks of information which are more meaningful.
If you are trying to learn a concept, illustrate it. Most speeches and many lectures are conceptual. They begin with a general principle and give multiple illustrations of that principle. Most speakers are quite skilled a sharing concepts but they often have too many. The best way to learn concepts is to have less of them and more illustrations. Having many points to remember turns concepts into facts and makes learning more difficult. For best results, pick a concept and illustrate it three times.
Behaviors must be practiced. Much of psychology is devoted to controlling stimuli and rewards. Stimuli control, technically called classical conditioning, is concerned with how a cue can elicit a response. You’ll recall Pavlov’s dogs and how they learned to salivate to the sound of a bell, and not just at the presentation of food. Learned stimuli can elicit reflexes but this approach is only helpful if you’re trying to yourself to salivate.
The best approach learning behavior is to do it. In particular, do it in the context you will have to perform it. Do it with feedback (so you know how well you did). And do it over and over again (so you can modify your performance). It’s not “practice makes perfect.” It should be: practice with clear criteria and immediate feedback makes perfect.
Remember, I’ve oversimplified the process. In truth, facts, concepts and behaviors are more interrelated than I have suggested. The three categories can not be completely separated. Learning to play the piano, for instance, involves facts (this key produces this sound) concepts (phrasing), and behaviors (key pressing, sequencing, and timing). We use behaviors to acquire facts and concepts; we apply facts and implement concepts in behaviors. But in short, facts need structure, concepts should be illustrated, and behaviors must be practiced.