What Determines Learning Capacity?

The insight and understanding that a reader can acquire from a particular book, especially a challenging one—such as the Reconstruction—will depend upon the reader’s “learning capacity,” which, in turn, is determined by three main factors.

The first factor that determines your learning capacity is your prior knowledge, i.e., everything (including facts, opinions, memories, attitudes, beliefs, etc.) that already exist in your mind. Your mind, after all, is not a blank slates; it is filled with all kinds of data that inevitably affect the quality of your engagement with what you’re reading.

It is important to differentiate between knowledge and information in the context of learning. Knowledge is information that has been processed, either partially or completely. Furthermore, information can only be processed by a mind. Consequently, while information is found both inside and outside the mind, knowledge cannot exist apart from a mind. It follows that books contain no knowledge, only information; whereas the minds of the author and the reader contain information as well as knowledge. For the same reason, knowledge cannot be directly transferred from one person to another; as soon as someone tries to convey his/her knowledge through speaking or writing, it turns into a series of words—which is information.

What all of this means is that it is impossible for anyone to receive knowledge from another person. Listening and reading are means of gaining information only. As for knowledge, our minds have to actively construct it out of the raw material of information.

If books do not contain any knowledge, it follows that reading a book does not increase your knowledge; rather, it only increases the amount of information in your mind. At this point, your mind has to actively construct new knowledge by processing the information that you have gained from reading. Processing involves two things: first, your mind must extract and decipher the information in the book, and second, your mind must integrate this new information into your prior knowledge.

Prior knowledge about a particular topic can be sufficient or insufficient, appropriate or inappropriate, accurate or inaccurate. If you believe something is true and/or applicable, then it counts as part of your prior knowledge, regardless of whether it is right or wrong, applicable or inapplicable. When a piece of relevant prior knowledge is sufficient, appropriate, and accurate, it helps in the construction of new knowledge; when it is insufficient or inappropriate or inaccurate, it hinders that process, leading to confusion or misunderstanding. And, of course, even helpful prior knowledge is of no use if it has been forgotten, which is why learning requires bringing such inactive knowledge back into conscious awareness.

Here’s a simple example of how incorrect prior knowledge can interfere with the construction of new knowledge: If I am mistaken about the meaning of a particular word, I will have difficulty correctly interpreting a sentence in which that word is used. In this example, the problem is not in the sentence; rather, it resides in my own prior knowledge. Not until I learn the correct definition of the word will I be able to make any progress in comprehending the sentence. That is precisely why it is often necessary to fix a deficiency in one’s prior knowledge before one can make use of the new information and construct new knowledge.

From How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose, et al (2010)

However, this is easier said than done. In practice, it is often very hard to recognize a flaw in one’s own prior knowledge and to notice how it might be hindering the learning process. This brings us to the second factor that determine’s your learning capacity: your ability to maintain an open mind.

Suppose I am reading a text that argues against some of my own convictions. In other words, there is a mismatch between new information (what the author thinks) and prior knowledge (what I think). Regardless of who is right, the mismatch itself can become an obstacle that prevents me from seriously engaging with the author’s argument. Since the human mind prefers consistency over contradiction, my mind would try to reject this new information simply because it cannot be easily integrated into my prior knowledge.

But a mismatch between new information and prior knowledge obstructs our learning only when we are closed-minded. In contrast, the same mismatch turns into a wonderful opportunity for genuine growth when we are willing to approach it with an open mind. If you are thinking “that’s not a problem for me because I am not a closed-minded person,” please think again. Being “closed-minded” is not a trait that some people have and others don’t. Rather, it is a state in which every single one of us can fall at any time. Whenever we experience a significant mismatch between new information and prior knowledge—especially when the mismatch affects a sensitive issue—we become vulnerable in that moment to an automatic shutdown of all the doors and windows of our mind. Once the shutters come down, we feel safe from the potentially disturbing effects of entertaining the new information; at the same time, we also lose any opportunity for learning and growth.

To maximize learning and growth, we need to maintain an open mind. Maintaining an open mind does not mean uncritically accepting any new information that comes our way; it means, rather, that we are willing to seriously consider any new information we may encounter, especially when it does not fit neatly within our prior knowledge.

The secret to maintaining an open mind when we are faced with a significant mismatch between new information and prior knowledge is to postpone judgment. Here’s how to do it: Take a deep, conscious breath; become aware of your body; and then say to yourself: (1) I am experiencing a mismatch between new information and prior knowledge. (2) This is an opportunity for learning and growth. (3) I don’t have to either accept or reject the new information right at this moment. (3) Let me make sure that I fully understand this new information. (4) I will decide whether to accept or reject this information at a later time.

The third factor that determines your learning capacity is your skill in reading analytically. Difficult texts need to be read differently than easier ones. The reason why you can’t read a book like the Reconstruction the same way you might read a newspaper is because here you are trying to understand a mind that is intellectually superior to your own. It’s not just that you have to put in more effort; you also have to take a more disciplined and systematic approach to the act of reading itself. Books like Iqbal’s Reconstruction require the type of patient and methodical engagement that Mortimer J. Adler called “analytical reading” in his classic How to Read a Book (1940, 1972). The more skilled you are in this type of reading, the more you’ll gain for every unit of effort.

So, how does one go about reading the Reconstruction—or any other challenging text—in a disciplined and systematic way? The answer is “analytical reading,” which is a skill that no one is born with but that anyone can learn. There is a standard process for acquiring any new skill, including the skill of analytical reading. That’s because every skills can be broken down into particular “moves” or steps. These steps can be communicated by the expert to the novice by means of words, pictures, and practical demonstrations. Obviously, knowing these steps is not the same thing as actually acquiring the skill—deliberate practice and adequate feedback are needed for that—but it is often a necessary starting point.

According to Mortimer J. Adler, analytical reading is done in three stages, each of which is made up of several steps. Below is my summary of the first stage of analytical reading.

Outlining the Structure

The first stage of analytical reading is to outline the structure of the text, where “text” can refer to an article, a chapter, or an entire book. The purpose of outlining the structure is for the reader to be able to answer the question “What is this text about as a whole?” Here are the steps:

1. Classify the text according to kind and subject matter. It is critical to know what kind of text you are reading, and to know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read. This is because the style and arguments of different kinds of text are so different that readers must adjust their reading strategies according to the kind of text they are dealing with.

Any text that consists primarily of opinions, theories, hypotheses, or speculations, for which the claim is made more or less explicitly that they are true in some sense, is and is classified as an expository work. Such texts can be primarily practical or primarily theoretical. Practical works teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do, whereas theoretical works teach you that something is the case. Practical texts are of two types: those that give you general rules and those that give you the principles on the basis of which rules are, or should be, derived.

2. State what the whole text is about with the utmost brevity. After reading the text, you must be able to state, as briefly as possible, its theme or main point. Insofar as it is well written, a text has a more or less perfectly definable and pervasive unity, and the reader must be able to apprehend this unity and state it in a few sentences. In finding the unity, you should be guided by any help that the author may provide in the title, the subtitle, or the preface, but remember that the duty of finding the unity belongs ultimately to the reader and can be fulfilled only after reading the entire text.

3. Enumerate the text’s major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole. A well written text is an orderly arrangement of parts, each of which has a certain amount of independence but must also be organically connected with all the other parts in order to contribute its particular share to the intelligibility of the whole. You would not know the complex unity of a text unless you can describe how this unity is manifested in the text organized multiplicity, i.e., how the various parts of the book are related to each other.

4. Define the problem(s) the author is trying to solve. An author typically starts with a question or a set of questions and the book ostensibly contains the answer or answers. Whether or not the author tells you the questions that he/she has set out to answer, it is your job as a reader to formulate these questions as precisely as possible. After reading the text, you should be able to state the main question that the book tries to answer, as well as any subordinate questions if the main question is complex.

I will now apply the the first four steps of analytical reading to the Reconstruction. You may want to stop reading at this point, apply the above steps on your own, and then return to see how I have done it. It’s okay if your results are different from my own; it’s the practice that matters.

Step 1 requires that we classify the book according to kind and subject matter. Even though it contains a great deal of suggestions about what people, particularly the educated elite among Muslims, are supposed to be doing, I wouldn’t call the Reconstruction a practical book. There are, obviously, many practical implications of what Iqbal has to say, but I would classify the Reconstruction as primarily a theoretical book. As for subject matter, it’s definitely a philosophical work, even though parts of it deal with theology, history, ethics, and jurisprudence. (It would be interesting to see alternative ways of classifying the Reconstruction that differ from mine.)

Step 2 requires us to state what the book is about as a whole. The title tells us that the book is about Islam. More specifically, it is about religious thought in Islam, especially insofar as it needs to be “reconstructed.” The title doesn’t say why it is desirable or necessary to reconstruct Islam’s religious thought. It does seem to suggest that such thought was first constructed at some point in the past, but—for whatever reason—a new construction is needed today. Perhaps the book will tell us what such such a reconstruction entails and exactly what makes it necessary. (This statement would have to be revisited after we’ve read the entire book.)

Step 3 is made up of two sub-steps. The first sub-step says that we have to make a list of all the major parts of the book and indicate how they are related to each other. The second sub-step says that the same process has to be repeated for each of these major parts. At this point, all we know is that Iqbal’s book consists of a preface and seven lectures. We would be able to see how these seven lectures are interrelated only after we have read the entire book. As for the second sub-step, we don’t have to wait that long. We can start enumerating the main parts of each lecture as soon as we have read it once. However, since there are no sections breaks or subheadings in the Reconstruction, the reader would have to do the work of dividing each lecture into appropriate sections.

Step 4 requires us to figure out the question, or the questions, that Iqbal is trying to answer in this book. Based solely on the title, we can make a tentative guess that his main question is as follows: “Why and how should religious thought in Islam be reconstructed?” (We can’t be sure that our guess is right until we have read the entire book, or at least the preface.)

Read. Then Read Again.

To reiterate, a reader’s ability to gain insight and understanding from a challenging text depends on his/her learning capacity, which in turn is determined by three main factors. These factors—the makeup of one’s prior knowledge, one’s ability to maintain an open mind, and one’s proficiency in analytical reading—vary from person to person. This explains why two individuals reading the same text typically do not gain the same amount of insight and understanding; in fact, they may not even get the same meanings.

But what if you don’t have a great deal of prior knowledge that is both helpful and pertinent to the Reconstruction? What if you find yourself drifting into a closed-minded attitude every time you read something that appears to challenge your prior knowledge? And what if you are not very proficient in the skill of analytical reading?

Even though these shortcomings do make your task harder, none of them can be justified as an excuse for giving up. Instead, they are great reasons why you should engage with the Reconstruction to the best of your ability. That’s because (1) reading difficult texts is one of the most effective ways by which we build our knowledge in the first place; (2) we cannot become comfortable with maintaining an open mind until we have actually suspended our judgment many, many times; and (3) the only way to improve our proficiency in analytical reading is by trying to read analytically while making adjustments in light of the feedback we receive.

Everything is hard until it is repeatedly practiced, and then it becomes easy.

If you feel that you didn’t get a whole lot after reading the Reconstruction once or even twice, that’s no reason to give up either. When an author is intellectually superior to the reader, the reader should expect the text to be difficult. A difficult text is one that is not immediately intelligible. This means that you would have to read each chapter many times over before you begin to grasp its meaning; you may even have to do this to a single paragraph or a single sentence. A text that doesn’t make complete sense the first time you read it is not telling you to go away; it is simply asking you to read again (and again). This need for multiple readings should not come as a surprise to any reader who already knows that he/she is dealing with an intellectually superior mind.

When you are reading the same material multiple times, it often helps to put some gap between any two consecutive readings; even a few hours or a couple of days can make a difference. That’s because the reader’s unconscious mind keeps working on the text even as the conscious mind is taking a break. Sleep has the same effect.

The above advice about multiple readings is applicable at longer time scales as well. After all, the Reconstruction is not the type of book that you read once and then put away forever. Instead, you would need to come back over and over again. Each time you read the Reconstruction after a couple of years’ break, either in part or as a whole, you will gain more than what you had gained during your previous reading; you will also notice things in the text that you hadn’t noticed before. This happens because, even though the book remains the same, the reader has most likely changed and (hopefully) grown in the intervening period. Growth in this context refers to increase in the reader’s learning capacity, which essentially means improvements in the makeup of one’s prior knowledge, in one’s ability to keep an open mind, and in one’s proficiency in the skill of analytical reading.

Finally, let me mention an additional positive effect of wrestling with the same text over an extended period of time—one that can happen even without any increase in learning capacity. Insights gained one-at-a-time accumulate in the mind over months and years, until they switch from addition to multiplication. Put differently, when you give sufficient time to a challenging text, insights will pile up in your mind until they start to interact; eventually, they will mate with each other and produce babies. The ones that receive your attention will survive, and the ones you neglect will die out. Then one day you would wake up and realize that your mind has changed—hopefully for the better.

One Comment

  1. Excellent Blog! Thank you!
    The only observation would be that simultaneously with analytical skills like how to read, and we could take benefit by intensifying our skils for How to Speak How to Listen, there is an invaluable book by Mortimer J. Adler to address it.

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