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A few months ago, while launching the first Learning Day of the 2016-2017 academic year at the Alternative University in Bucharest, I delivered a speech about how I see learning. Being a Chemist and a big fan of models and metaphors, I compared a learning process with a chemical reaction. Why is that? Find out below 🙂

Chemical reactions happen all over around us – they provide living things with energy and support all biological processes, rocks are created or weathered through various chemical changes, we burn fuels to power our vehicles and homes – and the list could go on forever. We do not think that much about all these reactions – they just happen, even though we are not aware of it! Learning is in many cases exactly the same – things happen around us / to us and we learn from them (for example we put our hand on the hot stove as a kid, we learn not to do that in the future). This is like the basal metabolism of a living organism – all the reactions taking place automatically to keep the body alive. As such, in many cases learning from what we observe and from the things that happen to us can keep us alive and help us develop.

But then there are special kinds of chemical reactions – the ones that would normally not occur without human intervention. These are the reactions that helped us create substances that greatly accelerated our development in the past centuries: fertilisers, fuels, drugs, plastics, semiconductors, superconductors, polymers etc. In these situations, the reactions are not random anymore. We have to control every parameter in order to achieve the desired result: reactants, temperature, pressure, catalysts. A simple diagram representing chemical reactions puts all these things in perspective (no worries, this will not turn into a Chemistry lesson):

Chemical Reactions

I see learning in a similar manner. If we want to achieve greater results, we need to take control of the whole process. Rather than leaving the learning process randomly “float” or even worse, give somebody else the control over our own learning, we can and should take ownership of it. I have associated every component of a chemical process with a specific item linked to our own learning:

– the products are our learning objectives – that what we aim to achieve. How will they be of use? Will they help us get a promotion at work? Get better grades at school? Will we learn a new skill just to impress others? Will we learn to do something that soothes our soul? Will we learn how to be more efficient at learning, so that we save time and then spend it with our family/dear ones? The possibilities are literally countless.

– the reactants are the starting point – our current situation – we can not create new substances without the raw materials. In the same way, we should not forget what our starting point is when we want to learn something. How is that connected to our current situation (school, work, group of friends), what are the resources at hand and what are the resources we still need to identify/gain access to?

– the temperature, pressure, pH – these are all environment factors that can greatly impact the outcome of a reaction. In the same way, our day to day environment will definitely impact the outcome of our learning process. Is your physical environment open and inviting? Are the people surrounding you supporting and inspiring? What about your virtual environment – are you connected to the right channels or are you overwhelmed by useless information? By making little tweaks we can greatly improve our productivity and get better results (for example adding a planner on your desk can remind you of the tasks at hand, setting your phone on silent while working/learning can help you keep focused etc.). The question is how aware are you of your own environment and how much effort are you putting into shaping it?

– the catalysts are essential – they change the whole mechanism of the reaction, lowering the temperature and pressure needed for the reaction to work, thus decreasing the overall cost and effort. Still, an important thing to remember about a catalyst is that it is specific to a certain reaction – meaning you can not use the same catalyst to speed up any chemical reaction. On the contrary, you could get totally different results – and in some cases even dangerous outcomes. I have associated the catalysts with people (and their work – books, blogs, podcasts etc.) when it comes to the learning process. Throughout our life, we can have different people that act as “catalysts” – our parents, our friends, our teachers, our colleagues, our managers etc. Just like catalysts, there are no universal “teachers”. While we can learn a lot of things from our parents, there comes a time when we need to find another source of knowledge. Just as well, following the wrong mentors can have a severe negative impact on our development! We need to be wise enough to choose the proper resource persons for each learning goal. Friends, teachers, parents, coaches, mentors, gurus – each plays their own role at a given time!

– the last thing on my list is the activation energy – most reactions need an energy input from an external source. In the same way, once we have our goals clear, we are connected to the right environments, we’ve gathered all the resources we need – unless we put effort into it, nothing will happen. Action is key! The good part? Once the process is set in motion, many times it can sustain itself!

As a sum up, my invitation is for you to analyse your own learning process:

  1. What are your learning goals? What is your pain point and what can you learn to get rid of it? What could you learn to increase your happiness?
  2. Where are you now? What resources do you have access to?
  3. Are you connected to the right environments?
  4. Are you surrounded by the right people?
  5. Are you putting effort into achieving your goals?

You can learn anything, as long as you correctly identify goals, plan, act and monitor your results!

What is your take on learning?
(You can read more about what pursuing my passion for Chemistry has taught me about learning on Medium)