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Why tiny increments beat bulk learning?

And why gobble-gobble learning is not such a good idea.

In 1954, Toru Kumon, a high school maths teacher in Japan, found his son struggling with math in elementary school. To help him practice, he started giving him simple maths problems to solve every day.

He discovered that when the degree of difficulty was only slightly high, his son did well. But when the degree of difficulty was high by several notches, not only that his son couldn’t solve the problems but he didn’t want to do the practice work anymore.

That was the origin of the Kumon system of teaching maths. Toru Kumon went on to create a maths curriculum of daily practice by increasing the difficulty factor by tiny increments. Over the next seven decades, using his system, millions of students have learned maths and excelled at it beyond their own wildest dreams.

My own daughters, who hated the subject in early elementary school started loving it after a couple of years on the system and became top maths students in their respective classes.

What made Kumon such a successful system?

Just two elements — tiny increments and daily practice.

When learning, our tendency is to gobble up as quickly as possible and be a master in no time. Initially, when the material is easy, we progress well, but as soon as the difficulty increases, we start getting frustrated and learning stops.

Learning in tiny increments on a consistent basis beats learning in large chunks over a short period of time. Here are three core reasons why:

1) The sleep factor
2) The tiredness factor
3) The mistake factor

Let’s start with the sleep factor.

Our brain processes each bit of information it receives and decides what to do with it. It literary makes the decision whether to store it or discard it. If the information is important, our brain stores it in short-term memory. If repeated several times, it qualifies to go the long-term memory. Things stored in the short-time memory get deleted constantly if not used. This processing happens mostly while we are sleeping.

Believe it or not, sleep plays a big role in learning.

But then, can’t bulk learning make us smarter? Surely the brain can absorb a lot more information at one go.

Yes, it can, but there’s a problem called tiredness that steps right in.

The tiredness factor

Bulk learning is plainly ineffective when compared with daily learning — and you don’t need a research scientist to tell you that. If you’re learning a new skill, the brain is under tremendous pressure. It’s trying to absorb all the new information and associating it with what you already know. Think about the amount of glucose it is going to need to be able to do that.

Now multiply that with the number of hours you are going to spend learning in a day and you know why you feel like throwing the book out of the window.

When we get tired we start losing the little chunks past the first few minutes of reading. As the tiredness increases, we start losing bigger chunks.

And yet most of us believe in bulk learning.

And this is because we’re in a hurry. Yet, the best way to learn something is to slow things down considerably. Slowing down gives the opportunity to detect more mistakes.

Let’s have a look at what role mistakes play in learning.

The mistake factor

If we do something every day, we learn from new mistakes we make every day. When we are bulk learning the mistakes are all a blur. But daily mistakes get highlighted.

When our learning pace is slow and we learn in tiny increments we have more time and inclination to fix those mistakes. Many mistakes are made due to a gap in our learning as well. The slow pace allows us to fill those gaps.

So we get to learn — and more importantly, revise what we know. And what we don’t know. Bulk learning is not as efficient, because the mistakes are made en masse. Every mistake gets its own spotlight and hence we get the chance to eliminate those mistakes systematically.

That is what talent is, the systematic reduction of errors.

It takes most people years to become extremely proficient at writing. Yet with the right teacher and the right system, this can be shortened.

And the right system is the system that Toru Kumon discovered seventy years ago. The system of tiny increments and daily practice.

Contrary to what people believe, it’s tiny victories that work, not big leaps. The big leap comes from tiny movements.

Next week another factor of learning — the fun factor.

Photo by Sheri Hooley on Unsplash

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