Ben Franklin Teaches Us How to Study Smarter
Reading time: 10 minutes
Our knowledge of the science of learning is very new. Our understanding of how people really learn has been turned upside down in the last decade. Many traditional assumptions about how learning occurs have been proven to be wrong. Yet more than 200 years ago, Ben Franklin had some amazing insights into learning that are valid today. Read this amazing story to learn what he did to learn how to become one of our greatest writers.
There are lessons in this story for all learners.
Ben Franklin is a founding father of our nation, a scientist, inventor, diplomat, publisher and writer whose words are still widely read more than two centuries later. He became one of the most admired writers of early America.
But did you know he started out as only a mediocre writer? At an early age he wanted to learn how to become a much better writer, but since he lived in a time where he didn’t have access to a local college, or to the internet, he had to figure out how to do it by himself. His efforts provide us with useful examples of how to be an effective self-learner. Franklin solved his problem with some unique solutions –learning strategies that are valid even today. In fact, they support effective methods you will learn in this course!
One of the key ideas you will learn in our courses on learning, is that people learn best when we experience “desirable difficulties”. To do this, you must structure your practicing and studying in a planned way that continually keeps you slightly outside your own comfort zone. You do this by progressively, slowly, and intentionally modifying learning activities to increase the degree of difficulty.
In this article, you will learn how Ben Franklin did this and became one of our most famous American writers.
These methods you can use at home to improve the effectiveness of your study strategies.
|Commentary – Note in each of the following methods he developed for himself, Ben Franklin had a specific learning goal. As he continued to learn, he constantly adjusted and tweaked so the learning experiences got progressively more difficult. He knew it wasn’t effect if he got comfortable just practicing the same way over and over. This is an important lesson we will cover in this course.|
Ben Franklin described in his autobiography how he learned to improve his writing. By his own assessment, he began as a “not much more than average” writer. Franklin decided early in his career that he needed to become a much better writer, which of course was the primary mode of communicating back then. And he succeeded greatly in reaching his goal – so let’s examine how he did it.
To begin, he came across a well-known and respected British magazine of the time – the Spectator. It’s writers were considered by many as the best – so he wisely chose them as his “experts” to follow to improve his writing.
|Commentary: This is the first step in what you will soon learn in this course as “deliberate practice.” In whichever discipline or subject area you are trying to learn, always study what the experts know and how they went about learning it.|
Ben Franklin set out to see if he could reproduce from memory the articles and stories of these experts. To begin, he selected articles from the Spectator he had read. Then he put the magazine down and waited a few days after reading them, until he had forgotten the exact wording of their articles.
His learning goal was to be able to create articles that were as well or better written as theirs, and not merely copies or exactly the same. This is how he started to push himself to get better. This became his first learning strategy.
Next, he would attempt to write his own version of the article but without looking at the original, or rereading it. Each time, after writing his own version, he would then go back and compare his work to the original and correct and improve it. He not only tried to match what they did in quality, but over time he wanted to improve on their writing method and vocabulary.
One can imagine how difficult this must have been for him at first, but he persevered and practiced until he got much better.
|Commentary – if this seems like work, it is! But if you want to become an expert performer these methods will be the fastest and most efficient way to get there. If you stay in your comfort zone when training, you will improve but only to a point – then you will likely plateau and never get better. Note this learning strategy provided him with frequent and timely feedback that helped him make adjustments and improvements. It served his learning goal: Expressing his ideas clearly and convincingly.|
While learning from these exercises – he became aware that his vocabulary was not as good as he needed. It wasn’t that he didn’t know the words, they just weren’t as accessible as he needed to be to write well. His first learning strategy lead to his second.
He decided to take another step and make a modification to his self-guided training. He would take more Spectator articles and instead of rewriting them, he would now rewrite them as poems. Dude – this is hard! But writing verse forced him to think of meanings and to dig deeper to find and use new words and phrases to fit the rhyming patterns. Franklin continued to rapidly improve but wait – he was not yet done getting better.
|Commentary: Franklin knew he needed to “up his game” by pushing himself again to find new words and phrases to fit the patterns of poems. Why did he do this? He could have stopped here, but he knew he needed another challenge to push himself if he were to learn a much broader vocabulary. This is an example of creating desirable difficulties for yourself when learning. You can learn more about this in lesson 2 of the Pa 10 Mini-course.|
He could have stopped his training with the poems – but no! He wanted to keep pushing himself. So, he made another adjustment to his practice strategies making them even a little more difficult. After writing the articles as poems, he waited until his memory started to forget the original Spectator article, then he took his verse and rewrote it to convert it back into prose, again without looking at the original. Imagine how difficult he found this at first, but that’s the point – keep pushing yourself. By practicing these many times, he got into the habit of finding just the right words while forcing himself to further expand his vocabulary and to recall the words more quickly. As he pushed himself to an even higher level it got easier and easier.
|Commentary: By making his learning efforts a little harder, he forced himself to rapidly recall and use an ever-expanding vocabulary.|
Stop here? Nope. He learned from these last practices that he needed to work on improving another related skill set – the overall structure and logic of his writing.
So, he created a new learning strategy! This time he took more Spectator articles and created his own version of a word “scramble.” First, he wrote hints on slips of paper that represented each sentence of the article. (Maybe he was inventing his own post it notes!)
Again, he waited long enough to where he started to forget the exact sentences. Next he scrambled those paper hints on a table, so they were out of order. This forced him to think hard as he rearranged them into a logical order to recreate a story.
Following this, he took the hints and wrote new sentences to create an entirely new article. As he did this, he always compared his work to the quality of the original and continually made changes and corrections. Each time he did this, it forced him to think carefully about improving the structure and logic of his thoughts.
|Commentary: Ben Franklin knew intuitively back then what cognitive science today tells us. He is practicing three things we will explain in greater detail in this course – desirable difficulties, interleaving, and deliberate practice.|
We know, after all this training, the outcome of all of this work was Ben Franklin became one of the greatest American writers of his time. Better learning strategies work. They will get you to the next level or more.
Do you need to do this for everything you want to learn? No. Many things you want to learn don’t require this much effort. But where you seek great improvement in something that is hard to learn, or where you aspire for expert performance, this type of training, which is called deliberate practice, will get you there.
Why study good old Ben Franklin?
Because he proves hands down this type of training works! This has been validated by recent studies on expert performance in many fields. Use this case to motivate you to learn how to reach much higher levels of proficiency in any discipline that requires mastering many skills – such as playing piano, becoming a skillful lacrosse player, upping your chess game, or learning a new language. Sign up for our Pa 10 course and you will understand how all of this works.
To review, let’s examine the components of his learning strategies that you should be using:
- First, Ben identified the known “experts” in his field of interest. He used their work to guide his own training. This is always where you begin.
- He identified all the important subset skills of effective writers, and designed activities to practice each of these skills. To plan you own learning efforts, break it down – list all of the important skills you will need to learn or master.
- He created different training strategies to keep pushing himself, much like the weightlifter gradually increasing weights when resistance training, or the runner striving to shorten lap times. He did not allow himself to get comfortable, as he knew this might cause him to plateau, and his goal was not to get slightly better! We now know this as desirable difficulties. Learn more in this course.
- He wisely did not keep repeating the same study strategies over and over, he improved and varied them to continually keep himself challenged. We now know this strategy as interleaving. Learn more about this in this course.
- His study methods included frequent feedback which he used to compare and improve his efforts. Without feedback, you may think you are getting better when you aren’t. (This is called the illusion of learning.) You do this by designing your own feedback system through frequent quizzes and tests, retrieval practice, and recitation. And by getting a coach.
- He continually experimented with different approaches as he assessed his own learning progress. He was willing to change his training as he uncovered deficiencies.
Two New Terms
Improve your vocabulary and your ability to have better talk about smarter learning with your child. Have them look these terms up. Discuss why these are important to having a better future. Incorporate these into your family values on learning.
- Become a polymath (Greek: polymathēs, “having learned much“) This is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. Research famous people who were polymaths.
- Learn to be an autodidact (Auto- means “self” and “didact” comes from the Greek word for “teach“) This is a person who is self–taught. After college, lifelong learning is almost entirely through self-directed learning. Do you know an expert who is an autodidact? Ask them how they did it!
The Student as Self-Teacher
In our Pa 10 and Pa 100 courses, we explore these and many more strategies, so your child can develop a powerful learning capability which will enable adult intellectual independence and the valuable expertise of knowing how to teach themselves.
This begins with your exploring how to use better and more effective study strategies.
While “student as self-teacher” may seem perhaps distant and not useful or important if you have young kids now, too soon your child will be facing the challenge of being “college ready.” Start preparing for this day now – don’t wait until your homeschooling is ending.
Why does this matter? At the college level, most learning occurs outside the classroom through independent study and research. And after college, almost all learning that a person will do as an adult will be self-directed. Adults who don’t know to learn rapidly and efficiently will find themselves at a significant disadvantage both personally and career wise. It’s that important.
Make learning better strategies a priority in your homeschooling efforts. Recognize you need to take an active role to help your kids use better and more evidence-based learning strategies for independent study. Coach them and incorporate better methods and habits into your teaching.
It’s never too early to start having conversations with your child about “college readiness” and “lifelong learning!”
Sign up for the Pa 10 course today!