How Learning Happens

Inspiration is the keystone of learning. It’s the engine behind a student’s motivation and the glue that makes ideas stick. But because our school system undervalues the necessity of inspiration, students don’t learn as much as they could. 

Why do people learn things? 

Usually, because they need to. They’re frustrated by something, either in themselves or the world. Maybe a loved one is sick. Maybe they’re not making enough money to support their family. In both cases, they enter “Survival Mode” and are spurred to action. When the pain of the status quo hurts more than the pain of discipline, people are capable of extraordinary feats of learning. 

Survival Mode learning is effective, but it’s not especially enjoyable. It can even cause people to resent the learning process because they associated it with fight-or-flight levels of stress. Even if some of the best feats of learning happen in Survival Mode, it can create resentment if sustained for a long time. 

School, for example, is built on Survival Mode. Fear is created with exams, essays, and the carrot of a college diploma at the end of it all. For a while I resented this system because I realized that the hoops of education were mostly a sham. Only once I graduated from college did I develop a love for learning. 

If we want an educated citizenry that enjoys learning, we need an alternative: we need to inspire people. 

Inspiration: How Learning Starts

Enjoyable learning begins with inspiration—both to get you started and to help you push through the struggles of knowledge acquisition. The way I see it, the need for inspiration inverts the learning process: instead of starting with the building blocks and moving toward curiosity, students start with curiosity and move towards the building blocks. Guided by the light of inspiration, the benefits of memorization become self-evident, and the motivation to learn comes intrinsically. 

My teachers didn’t give inspiration the respect it deserves. Too often, they dove straight into the test material before they sparked a flame of desire in us. I still remember learning about the Doppler effect because my junior year astrophysics teacher taught it so well. Had he been like most of my teachers, he would have started his explanation with the following formula: 

Then, as I slumped in my chair and counted the seconds until the end of class, he would have defined the following variables: 

  • fo is the frequency observed by the stationary observer
  • fs is the frequency produced by the moving source
  • v is the speed of sound
  • vs is the constant speed of the source
  • The top sign is for the source approaching the observer
  • The bottom sign is for the source departing from the observer.

Instead, he started by making the subject come alive. 

First, he gave us context: how the Doppler effect shows up in our lives. You experience it whenever an ambulance passes by, he said. Because of the Doppler effect, the sirens have a higher pitch when they’re coming towards you and a lower one as they drive away. The change in pitch reflects the change in wavelength created by the siren. He didn’t stop there. He told us how astrophysicists use this formula to measure how fast the universe is expanding. Together, these stories are so deeply embedded in my mind that I still think of them a decade later whenever I hear an ambulance pass by. 

Inspiration is a uniquely human experience because it isn’t motivated by mere survival. It transcends the world of needs and lives in the world of wants. By doing so, inspiration stirs the mind. It’s no coincidence that the etymology of inspire is linked to “the breath of life.” As the sparkle of inspiration enters our bodies, we are animated with a video game style turbo-boost. Though a state of perpetual awe is the natural state for kids (which is why they learn so fast), it’s foreign to most adults. Too often, the wrinkles of age and the weight of responsibility silence the rush of epiphany. 

Blinded by age, we can turn to cold rationality, valuing only what we can define and prioritize only what we can measure. When we do, we forget that the wisdom of an inspired spirit exceeds our ability to describe it. The less we insist on a justification for our curiosities, the more we can surrender to the engine of inspiration and let learning happen.

Teaching with Baseball

My favorite analogy is a class on baseball. Nobody falls in love with the game because they’re forced to memorize statistics. They fall in love with it by playing the game themselves, trading baseball cards, and seeing people talk about the game with glittering enthusiasm. And guess what? Anybody who falls in love with the game is going to learn the statistics anyways. Not because they need to, but because they want to. 

As a long-time fan of the game, I know the top home run hitters by heart:

1. Barry Bonds: 762 career home runs

2. Hank Aaron: 755 career home runs

3. Babe Ruth: 714 career home runs

I know it not because I was forced to memorize it but because I was obsessed with baseball for more than a decade. For years, I read the sports section of the newspaper every morning. 

This kind of inspiration is born out of a kind of enthusiasm where the more you learn, the more you want to learn. As you acquire skills, you realize that perfection isn’t a summit you reach, but an asymptote you continually strive for. 

The best chefs, musicians, and filmmakers I know revel in this kind of inspiration. They know that no meal, no song, and no movie will ever be perfect. There is no mountaintop you can reach where you can finally rest on your laurels. Their inspiration is fueled by the dance between ascending the mountain of improvement and marveling at its wondrous, ever-receding peak.

For cultivating curiosity, it seems like every technologist I know read a lot of science fiction as a kid. During his childhood, Elon Musk sometimes read for 10 hours per day. He didn’t start with physics equations though. He started with science fiction books that activated his imagination. Legend has it that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy inspired him to extend life beyond earth. Spurred by inspiration, Musk buried himself in the Encyclopedia Britannica by 4th grade. 

Reading science fiction doesn’t guarantee innovation, but it can inspire it. Likewise, inspiration doesn’t guarantee knowledge, but it moves the people who pursue it relentlessly.

But if inspiration is so important, why don’t schools harness it?

Why Inspiration is Missing From Schools

Since the school system operates at scale, it tends to squash things that are hard to predict, even if they reflect a student’s unique interest. For an in-person curriculum to scale, students need to be doing the same thing at the same time. The individual nature of inspiration makes that impossible. 

Inspiration is also hard to define. Even the most inspired people can’t always define the edges of their own interests—let alone explain them to others. Furthermore, we change. Surprise is in the nature of growth. But by insisting on such a structured approach, schools squash the ambitions of the very students they intend to serve. Ultimately, the kind of rigidity you need to pump millions of students through the school system every year is the antithesis of the kind of flexibility that nurtures inspiration.

Most of all, schools should embrace entertainment because it lets you scale inspiration. Since entertainment means something different to every person, let’s start with a definition: to engage a person’s attention in a way that makes the time pass pleasantly.

Entertainment is not amusement. Entertainment can be nutritious, but amusement never is. Amusement is defined by distraction. Like candy, it’s appealing in the short-term but has few long-term benefits. Usually, when educators criticize entertainment, they’re actually talking about amusement. Though the distinction is subtle, it’s the difference between an educated citizenry and the dystopia of Huxley’s Brave New World.

Historically, educators have run away from entertainment because they assume it will lead to amusement. Throughout my childhood, I sensed an implicit assumption that learning needed to be boring in order for it to be effective. Take the assumption to its logical extreme and teachers face a dilemma of either locking students in a room and force-feeding them knowledge or letting them enjoy themselves, knowing they won’t learn anything.

If there’s anything I’ve learned by writing on the Internet, it’s that small tweaks in the way an idea is packaged can have an exponential impact on how much it resonates. The Greeks knew this intuitively. They wrapped their most important ideas in narratives instead of sharing them outright. Plays like The Iliad and The Odyssey weren’t just a form of entertainment. They provided cultural instruction too. Since they were passed along in speech instead of writing, they had to be memorized and known by heart. 

Today, masters of storytelling come from Hollywood and, increasingly, YouTube. They use many of the same tools that the Greeks discovered. Their storytelling philosophy is among the most effective tools we’ve invented for inspiring people at scale, which is why a popular documentary will spark more interest in a subject than the best textbooks ever will. Hollywood techniques aren’t going to make anybody an expert in their subject, but they can kindle the flame of curiosity. 

The Role of a Teacher

Though we can use Hollywood techniques, we shouldn’t outsource inspiration to the industrial entertainment system. Teachers have a responsibility too. To date, they haven’t really had to focus on inspiration because they’re guaranteed a captive audience. If people get bored of a movie, they can turn it off. But students can’t skip class without consequences. 

The biographer David McCollough once said: “Attitudes aren’t taught. They’re caught.” 

Who was your favorite teacher growing up? 

Chances are, they cared the most about their subject. They spoke with excitement and enthusiasm. Through wonder and beauty, they made ideas come alive. Just as a good writer takes responsibility for making their ideas clear, a good teacher takes responsibility for inspiring their students.

The physicist Richard Feynman comes to mind. He’s revered not just for winning awards like the Nobel Prize, but for making physics come alive for so many people. It’s no surprise that one of the most popular videos about him on YouTube has the words “fun” and “imagine” in the title. It’s nearly impossible to watch one of his videos and not feel an urge to study physics. From Feynman, I’ve learned that context is the intellectual glue that makes ideas stick. Even physics, which impacts every waking second of our lives, needs to be made relevant with stories, metaphors, and examples. 

Ordinary teachers do nothing of the sort. It’s in the nature of bureaucracies to focus so much on the process that they forget about the end result. I saw this in my writing education, which focused predominantly on spelling and grammar instead of what really matters: how to identify, develop, and communicate engaging ideas. People don’t care about adverbs; they care about being respected by their readers. People don’t care about commas; they care about publishing a piece of writing that warms them with pride. 

Teachers aren’t able to inspire students when they focus on ideas just because they’re easy to test for. Instead, they should focus on what students need to be inspired. Spoiler alert: grammar and syntax isn’t going to cut it. But even the youngest students can realize the benefits of effective writing. In a world where the average person can spread ideas globally, practically everybody can be niche famous. Learning to write improves your life by helping you think better, attract interesting people, and make more money. Once a student sees the opportunity and enjoys the craft of writing enough to do it of their own volition, they’ll end up learning the granular rules that schools teach at the outset. 

Start with Inspiration

All this talk about inspiration reminds me of dinner I once had at my friend Brett’s house. Every Friday, his entire family ate together. Somehow, we started talking about World War I. The youngest kid at the table, a ten year old boy, knew more about it than the rest of us combined. A World War I video on YouTube piqued his interest and led him to all kinds of books and documentaries about the war. Fueled by obsession, he had memorized so many key dates and events that you’d think he was studying for an exam. 

From him, I learned that the process of learning is like falling in love with a song. Initially, you’re only attracted to songs that move you emotionally. If they’re catchy, you’ll listen to them enough to get stuck in your head. If the song keeps resonating with you, you’ll learn about the artist and explore the lyrics in depth. Talk to an obsessive and in addition to singing the lyrics for you, they’ll tell you the backstory behind the music.

Learning works the same way.

As with a Feynman lecture or my friend’s little brother, you have to start with something catchy. Otherwise, you risk the toils of Survival Mode. 

Critically, you can’t invert the process and expect the same intensity of learning. When it comes to music, we intuitively know that nobody wants to read the lyrics of an album before they listen to the music. But that’s exactly what we do whenever we ask students to memorize nitty-gritty details without inspiring them in a way that makes learning inevitable.

From music, we learn what humanity has always known but many schools have forgotten: learning begins with inspiration.

I also explain these ideas in a video on my YouTube channel.


Thanks to Ellen Fishbein for helping me write this essay.

Cover Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash