The Rules We Learn By

About a year ago, I stumbled upon the idea of compiling a list of rules that might help people learn better. I had noticed that I was not always as successful in my own learning efforts as I would have liked, and so I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to become a more effective learner. I had also noticed that some of my students were better at learning than others, and I wanted to find out whether the former knew something special that the latter did not. I thought if I could discover the most important rules for learning, I would be able to become a more successful learner by following those rules; in addition, I would be able to teach my students the same rules and thereby help improve their chances of successful learning as well.

There is an entire branch of psychology that deals with learning, and — not being a psychologist myself — I am obviously in no position to make any original contributions to that field. In any case, I had no intention of reinventing the wheel. What I wanted to do was to pick up some practical tips from other people’s research, especially ones that resonated with my own experience of learning and teaching, and to put them together in the form of a short, manageable list.

I have now come up with such a list; it is by no means complete or final, though it seems to me as more or less adequate for my limited purposes at this time. I do hope to improve this list in the future, as I continue to learn more about the process of learning.

I began compiling my list of rules with the following premise in mind: “Human beings are born with an incredible capacity for learning. In order to realize that capacity, we must follow certain rules.”

The premise is self-evident, in my view, and requires no further discussion. Based on that premise, I started collecting ideas for how to learn in the most effective manner. To prevent my list from growing out of control, I decided to group the ideas I had collected into categories. After numerous revisions, I ended up with three major rules: (1) there is no getting around the fact that learning requires hard work; (2) since I’m free to choose, I’m responsible for my own learning; and (3) since my knowledge will always be fallible, I must never stop learning.

Let me explain these rules in some detail.

Rule No. 1: Acceptance

Learning does not take place in a vacuum. It takes place within a world that exists independent of our thoughts and desires. To take effective action within such a world, we must come to terms with the way the world actually is. This means that if we are to succeed in pursuing our goals, we must begin by accepting the way in which reality functions and then adjust our own attitudes and behaviors in light of that reality. For example, if we want to build an airplane, we must understand and accept the laws of physics that exist independently of us. The only way to build an airplane that actually flies would require that we adjust ourselves to the laws of physics, rather than trying to adjust the laws of physics to our desire for flying. In other words, we are most likely to be effective when we work with reality rather than against it.

I have found that a major obstacle to learning is our resistance to certain facts. I am using the word “fact” in the sense of a knowable unit of reality. Simply put, a “fact” is a knowable unit of reality that, by definition, is what it is, regardless of anyone’s — or even everyone’s — beliefs, preferences, opinions, thoughts, feelings, desires, wishes, etc. It’s a complete waste of time, as well as a major cause of human suffering, to be upset about things that cannot be changed, i.e., to want the facts to be different than what they are. There is no point is resenting or complaining that “the water is wet” or “the ice is cold.” It so happens that the water will remain wet and the ice will remain cold, regardless of how much we may dislike these facts.

When it comes to learning, we are faced with a number of facts that must be embraced at the very outset or we won’t be able to make much progress. We must accept, for instance, that learning is neither easy nor painless, that we are almost certainly going to fail repeatedly before we start to succeed, and that any worthwhile learning requires a serious investment of time, attention, and effort.

While most people don’t reject these facts explicitly, there is often a subtle resistance or resentment within us based on certain subconscious assumptions. These assumptions tend to be unrealistic desires or expectations, such as “I should be exempt from pain” or “learning shouldn’t be hard” or “learning shouldn’t involve failure.” Even if we are unaware of harboring such unrealistic desires or expectations within ourselves, they can still exert a significant influence on our feelings, producing unnecessary suffering; and even sabotage our efforts to learn.


Rule No. 2: Reminders

The second rule is based on the recognition that human beings are liable to forgetfulness, which is why we must put into place some sort of mechanism that periodically reminds us what we are most likely to forget. Perhaps the most important truth that we tend to forget is that we are responsible.

Part of being human is that we are free to make choices. Each choice we make, no matter how big or small, gives birth to certain consequences. We are free to choose our actions, but we are not free to choose which consequences will emerge from those actions. The consequences of our choices, in turn, shape our own immediate and long-term future. The same consequences also ripple out far into the world, affecting the world’s circumstances as well as the lives of other people.

Waking up to the fact that we are free to choose is essential to becoming proactive. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from Stephen Covey:

What does it mean to be proactive? It means more than merely taking initiative. It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen.

Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

The opposite of being proactive is to be reactive. Very often, we go through life as if we’re half asleep. In such a condition, we do not live deliberately or freely, but automatically — we react out of our past conditioning or we mindlessly imitate others around us. When we are reactive, we lose our capacity to shape our own future as well as our capacity to influence the world. We begin to see ourselves at the mercy of other people and of the circumstances that are beyond our control.

Becoming aware that we are free to choose is necessary for becoming responsible, in the true sense of the word. According to Stephen Covey:

Look at the word responsibility — “response-ability” — the ability to choose your response. Highly proactive people recognize that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.

Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

When we are proactive, we know that no matter how difficult or challenging our situation may be, there is always some amount of freedom available to us — the freedom to choose our response. And we know that this freedom isn’t static. The more we use our freedom, the more it grows. It is true that we can’t control how other people act, and that very often we don’t choose the circumstances in which we find ourselves. But we can almost always choose how we are going to respond to the stimuli we receive from people and circumstances. As Lou Holtz famously said, “Life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond to it.”


The purpose of the second rule is to help us become aware of how our freedom to choose is connected with our capacity for learning. We are responsible for our learning insofar as we are aware that learning is a choice that we make (or fail to make) in each moment. We are free to learn, just as we are free not to learn. The truth is that if I have chosen to learn, then nothing can really stop me from learning; and if I have chosen not to learn, then nothing in the world can make me learn. To quote a classroom poster I once saw, those who’ve made the decision to learn will always find a way, while those who’ve made the decision to not learn will always find an excuse. Since choice belongs to the individual, each person is individually responsible for his or her own learning.

When we are reactive, we blame others (“students these days don’t want to learn” or “the professor doesn’t know how to teach”). But proactive people know that learning is primarily a matter of choice. Proactive people don’t blame; rather, they take responsibility. As we become proactive, a mutually enriching relationship begins to develop between the student and the teacher. Both sides come to terms with the fact that the learner is responsible for learning and the teacher is responsible for teaching; yet, the teacher cannot cause learning to happen but can only provide the conditions in which the student is most likely to learn. As Roger Schank puts it, “learning happens when someone wants to learn, not when someone wants to teach.” Or, as Herbert Simon was fond of saying, “Learning results from what the student does and thinks, and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.”

In his book The Prophet, Khalil Gibran expressed the same insight as follows:

The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding. The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it. And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither. For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.

Khalil Jibran, The Prophet

I like to think of learning as analogous to mountain climbing, for it allows me to visualize the responsibilities of the student and the teacher. A teacher is like a guide who knows a particular mountain well because he/she has been climbing that mountain for a long time. Such a guide can inform the climbers about the best routes to the top and can warn them about the dangers that may lie ahead. But a guide, no matter how skilled, can’t do the climbing for you. You must carry your own gear and supplies, and you must do your own climbing.


Rule No. 3: Attitudes

What sorts of attitudes are most conducive to learning? Or, to ask the same question from a different angle, what motivates us to do the hard work involved in learning? Many people would say that interest or curiosity is an important motivating factor. This is true as far as it goes. However, we are not born with an interest in any particular subject or a curiosity about any particular question; rather, we acquire these during the course of our learning. What causes us develop interests and curiosities that last a lifetime?


This is a very broad question, and a great deal can be said to answer it. For my limited purposes, however, one of Charles Peirce’s suggestions would have to suffice. In his paper “The Fixation of Belief” (1877), Peirce argued that human beings embark upon the path of inquiry whenever they wish to overcome a disturbing state called “doubt” and to replace it with a satisfying state called “belief.” Being a pragmatist, Peirce emphasized that “beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions,” each “according to its degree,” while “doubt” has no such effect. Having a “belief” means, for Peirce, that some sort of “habit” has been “established in our nature” that “will determine our actions.” In the absence of “belief,” we are unsure how to act, or how we would act, and this “uneasy and dissatisfied state” is called “doubt.” According to Peirce, since “doubt” is a feeling of unease, akin to having a splinter in the eye, we “struggle to free ourselves” from it, and seek to achieve “a calm and satisfactory state” known as “belief.” This struggle is known as “inquiry.” Hence:

The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief.


So, what is it that motivates us to invest our time, attention, and effort in learning something new? While the immediate cause can be correctly identified as interest or curiosity, Peirce’s suggestion helps us to see that what we call interest or curiosity is itself motivated by the desire to overcome the “uneasy and dissatisfied state” known as “doubt.” From this, we can draw the conclusion that “doubt” is a powerful motivator for learning. When we feel doubt, we are sometimes tempted to ignore or suppress that feeling; we try to wish it away by acting as if it doesn’t exist. To do so would be self-defeating. The irritation of doubt is really the awareness that we don’t know something that we do need to know. The uncomfortable feeling of doubt is not our enemy; it’s merely a message informing us of our own ignorance, a sign that we need to embark upon a journey of discovery. Even though doubt irritates, we ought to welcome that irritation, for without it we would have no reason to learn anything beyond what we already know.

Peirce says that the irritation of doubt stimulates a process of inquiry, and that this process of inquiry lasts as long as doubt continues to irritate. The process of inquiry can only come to an end when the irritation of doubt is replaced by “a calm and satisfactory state” which he calls “belief.” Peirce warns us, however, that reaching a state of belief does not mean that we have reached absolute truth. We attain a state of belief when we feel that we have found a resolution to our doubt, and that the resolution is somehow “true.” However, that may or may not be the case. Consequently, virtually any belief is vulnerable to further doubt, which initiates another process of inquiry, which leads to another belief. If we are lucky, every round of inquiry leads us to a belief that is better and truer than our previous belief. It is important, therefore, that we never allow ourselves to fall into the trap of believing that we have reached the absolute final stage of inquiry. Even when we are more or less satisfied with our present beliefs, we ought to remain open to the possibility of further doubts and fresh avenues of inquiry. This is why Peirce said, in another context, that in desiring to learn, we must never be satisfied with what we’re already inclined to think.


You can find the above rules presented in the form of a poster here.


  1. Really nice piece, well worth the wait. Has made me rethink some of my learning strategies, given me a dollop of courage to try some new things.

    I have also enjoyed reading articles from your “Scoop it” learning site.

  2. Will you post either of your Earth Day presentations on this site? If not here, is there some other site where they will be available?

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