The Simplest Benefit of Learning Every Day

If they are anything like I was in my school years, students finishing up their Spring Break might have missed a few chances to learn something new during their vacation. But you’d be surprised at how many opportunities a day offers to learn something new — and that includes all the days to come.

Besides, people do seem to wonder about the benefits of daily learning when they get a little older. There seems to be a hunger — and a market — for brain game apps like Lumosity, CogMed and Elevate, which are advertised to our hopes that regular mental stimulation will keep our minds sharp. It could very well be true that logic games and visual puzzles could help maintain our mental faculties, but it does seem a narrow definition of learning. Plus, there’s been some skepticism expressed about these products from the scientific community. (A long list of scientists published some warnings about this industry at the Stanford Center on Longevity.)

The good news is that there’s a benefit to regularly engaging our minds that we’ve known about for millennia. It deepens us as human beings and fosters innovative thinking. So here are some accessible (and surprising) ways to learn something new every day.

Take Open Courses

Since the early 2000s, universities across the world have begun offering what are called massive open online courses.  These popular programs offer filmed lectures, readings, and yes, homework — all on the Internet. Many even offer a dynamic environment where you can interact with professors and other students in a forum or chat room. Two of the most prestigious universities in the United States offer full courses on Youtube for no charge. Yale and MIT together offer video courses in literature, physics, mathematics, philosophy and others. One of my personal favorites was Amy Hungerford’s course on “The American Novel Since 1945.

Work Out

Who said you can’t learn anything at a gym, at your local park or field? The human body and the mind are inextricably linked, and understanding and manipulating your body takes a certain kind of intelligence — it’s often called “kinesthetic thinking.” How long can you balance on one foot? What lifting exercises will alleviate the pain in your back? Can you make an opponent think you’re going one way when you’re actually going another? Do you know where you teammates will be on the field without looking for them? These are all questions that people who cultivate their bodily intelligence must learn to answer. In this sense, going to the gym or a field to play a sport is not fundamentally different to going to a classroom.




Pay Attention

Educational philosopher John Dewey believed that education was an ongoing process that unfolded constantly. He was right. Literally every moment of our life is an opportunity to learn something, about ourselves, each other or the things around us. We don’t necessarily need a book or computer or any other tools to do this. We simply need to pay attention. The most boring situation, if looked at the right way, offers a wealth of insight about our world (Leonardo da Vinci  was known to spend hours studying the appearance of sunlight falling across robes.) The trick is to observe something. I’m looking out my office window right now and see that the sky is covered by clouds except for one round patch of blue. I notice that clouds move around this region in a circular pattern. I spot pale sunrays coming through the hole in the cloud cover. Already,  a spot of sky has gotten a lot more interesting — I have a bunch of questions and I’ve learned something about its appearance and movement I certainty didn’t know before. As the late novelist David Foster Wallace once wrote: “Well, I would say almost anything you pay close, direct attention to becomes interesting.”

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