280: Learning Young & Old

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Happy Monday!

Today's newsletter is about Learning. Both for us, and for kids.

Learning speed is mostly about how well you can keep yourself on the edge of your limits and how motivated you are to keep improving.

You can play tennis every day for 10 years but without a push to improve, you won’t. Anders Ericsson in PEAK calls this the difference between "naive" and "deliberate" practice.

So one question I’ve wondered about is how young and how fast can we actually learn things.

After a certain point, we know age is irrelevant for learning ability. Someone twice my age isn’t likely to be more capable at learning programming just because they’re older. But what's the difference between a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old?

I was talking about learning programming with someone and it made me realize there are really two distinct phases for learning something, whether self-educated or now:

  • Structured Learning: where you cannot advance on your own through trial and error + googling. You need to build your foundation first.
  • Self-Advancing: where you can grow organically by responding to obstacles in your path and either experimenting or googling.

You often hear this with language learning. Your first goal should be to get to a baseline conversational level where you can hack basic phrases, and then ask someone to explain words using simple other words you know. That might be ~1200-2000 words, and from there you can guess and check your way to 10,000.

But what if we get a little meta and think of it from a parenting lens. What are the skills that require Structured Learning, so a kid can Self-Advance their development of skills in other areas?

The fundamental launchpad skills are probably language, research, and math. If you can read, write, search, do basic math, and maybe understand the scientific process well enough to do guess & check, you can figure out basically anything else in the world from there.

So then back to the earlier question: what are the biological limitations on learning?

Obviously language comprehension has some limits. A kid needs to be old enough to form words and recognize words for language to be possible. This site has some good info on it. For example this is a very useful tidbit:

"A key predictor of reading readiness is a child's ability to understand rhyming (Semrud-Clikeman, 2006). This ability translates into skills in understanding how sounds differ and in turn predicts a child's success with phonics instruction."

But why does a 10 year old have a broader vocabulary than an 8 year old? It’s likely the variety of words they’re exposed to, not their age. So theoretically if you can find a way to help constantly expose your kid to more words over time, they could grow their language comprehension much faster than we take as normal.

Then we run into a problem: the school and daycare system impair this process because kids are mostly talking to other kids who have an equally limited vocabulary. You really want them to be talking to people a few years older than them who can help pull them up to their level.

Obviously you don't want to try to force a ton of words into your kids brain... but there might be ways to engineer their environment from a young age to get exposed to a broader vocabulary.

Then what about math? I suspect kids can learn up through algebra and geometry from a much younger age than we give them credit for, probably depending on how it's presented. This is a great study from Johns Hopkins showing preschoolers can understand Algebra.

And then research? This one we thankfully can introduce to kids way earlier than ever before. Even teaching them how to ask questions and showing them how often you have to ask questions seems like it would create some exposure here. And by introducing it for a topic they're interested in, like asking questions about dinosaurs or whatever, seems like it'd be a good entry point to the power of figuring things out.

Obviously this is all speculative, but it intuitively kinda checks out. And I believe fairly strongly that language, math, guess & check, and research, are really the only things you need to teach to lay the foundation for everything else. And I bet kids can start to get those quite a bit earlier than we give them credit for.

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