Blake O'Hare .com

Convention, Logic, Art

You'll have to excuse the lack of a nice conclusion to this essay. This is an excerpt of the intro to a feature of a previous version of NP called "The Learning Graph". It was an experiment in modular learning that also focused on the approach explained in this essay. After spreading myself too thin, I unfortunately had to cut the feature, however I felt this excerpt had some merits that were worth re-posting. Enjoy!

The US public education system is notorious for one thing: cheesy posters in classrooms. There's one that I found particularly profound and life-changing. It featured a well-known comical orange cat with a book on his head. The caption reads: "I'm learning by osmosis". After contemplating this for a while and trying it myself a few times, I came to the conclusion that this does not work, or if it does, the process is too slow to be scientifically measurable.

Disappointed in both my hopes and losing trust in said well-known orange cat, I went on to just read the book like a normal person. But this learning process similarly did not work or was too slow to be scientifically measurable. The words go on and on stating fact after fact followed by hundreds of more problems or exercises. While reading the material, I would get confused and while doing the exercises, if I was lucky that day, I would have a moment where I go "Oooooh, that makes sense. Why didn't they just say that from the start?" To put this into quantifiable terms:
  • Studying does not necessarily cause you to learn.
  • Studying is an action that occurs over a duration of time.
  • Learning does not necissarily occur while studying.
  • Learning is an instantaneous event that happens after a realization.

My teachers didn't want me to study, they wanted me to learn. But instead of saying so, they tell all the kids to go home and "study" in hopes that they will possibly learn while boring themselves.

The goal is to get to that learning moment as soon as possible. Once you've confirmed that what you've learned is based on sound and correct logic, then it's okay to move on to pursuing the next chunk of knowledge. When the goal is stated that way, then it's worth quantifying what actually occurs during the moment of learning.

The human brain does three things:
  • Memorize
  • Recognize patterns
  • Create patterns

It seems like studying is merely digesting information and memorizing it. We falsely call this "learning" as we have become no more wiser than the guy who can quote the original Star Wars trilogy by heart (no matter how wise you think Yoda is). Learning occurs when we've recognized a pattern in what we've processed. A pattern that can be applied to other situations. Without the ability to recognize a pattern, one is no more useful to an employer than one that is skilled at Googling. If one can create a pattern where one was not previously recognized or presented, then he has reached the ultimate level of understanding of a subject.

I've termed these three levels Convention, Logic, and Art.


Without proper guidance, or poor guidance for that matter, the first level is based on "that's just the way it is". Why is the sky blue? Because it is. Why do things fall downward? They just do. Memorization of fact upon fact, arbitrary convention upon convention. We call such gaps in understanding "magic", because really, that's the definition of "magic". The mysterious unknown. One could get through a subject with a partial understanding of a seemingly magical universe, but it only hinders learning going forward into more complicated studies that build upon fundamentals that ought to have explained the magic away. Since much of the understanding of this level is solely based on memorization of facts and arbitrary conventions, retention is very low and leaps in intuition are not expected or really possible. The only goal in this era is reach that moment where a pattern is realized or, sadly (and more commonly in the education system today), to pass the next test so you can just forget it all.


When a logical model is given to what was once thought arbitrary convention, then it fixes several problems. Obviously, the behavior is no longer considered arbitrary which aids in retention and interest. Instead of memorizing, you've grasped a pattern from which all the cases that were once memorized just make inherent sense. Leaps in intuition can now be made as easily as plugging in values into a generic equation. At this level, a person truly understands a subject. There is no more magic.


Once a pattern-based and inherent understanding is achieved, then understanding turns to innovation. The ability to create patterns where ones were not previously seen or known. This doesn't mean someone who inherently understands physics will then move on to discover a new subatomic particle. This level of understanding means the person can apply patterns that are already known and build upon them as either innovation or the free expression of new ideas and concepts. For a scientist, this could be the invention stage. For a programmer, it could mean being a software architect. For the mathematician, it's the ability to be an analytical problem solver. When understanding reaches this level, new patterns are created and new, more useful logical models are realized. These are the truly valuable people in the career scape and the ones that pave the way to the future.

An artistic understanding of a subject is not always guaranteed since it doesn't only depend on mental capacity but also on a passionate interest on some level. I'd love to inspire everyone I speak to to the point of automatically putting them into this level, but the best a teacher can provide is pushing students into the logic phase.