On Learning: The Application of Knowledge

Photo courtesy of Ella Groner.

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“Learning is not getting stuff inside of your head—it’s getting stuff back out of your head!”

These were the words of wisdom of my Property Law professor, an elderly Jewish man who has been teaching the course for nearly 40 years. If anyone is an expert on how to teach—and learn—property law, it would be him.

His point was that doing well in his class (which turned on doing well on the final exam) required us not only to digest the knowledge from lectures, readings, and discussions. That was only step one: the intake. The real requirement was for us to apply that knowledge: to take it out of our heads and put it in an essay or an oral argument.

At the time, I remembered a funny image entering my brain. Property Law was not making much sense to me at that point —- the life estate system of feudal England and its subsequent development into modern law was not the most logical thing I had ever learned about. So when my professor said this, I imagined my head as a jumble of interconnected but random ideas, and I imagined reaching in there with a hand and scooping out a few concepts and throwing them at the wall like spaghetti.

Needless to say, the picture did not fill me with confidence. I realized that I needed to organize what was in my head in order to be able to get out what I needed to apply to the question at hand. I needed to arrange that handful of spaghetti into a recognizable shape.

So how do we get “the stuff back out of our heads”? It’s not easy. When I teach clinics, I often hear this frustration from riders. For example, I will tell a rider that they have a tendency to lean too far forward on the approach to a fence. They tell me that they know this —- in fact, it’s always been their biggest weakness, but they just cannot seem to fix it. The knowledge is in their head, but they cannot get it out to apply it to their riding in the moment. It’s immensely frustrating.

What I usually tell people in a clinic setting is that they know far more than they think —- they just have to apply it. In particular, I believe amateurs sell themselves short when they think they don’t know enough to ride with excellence. Anyone can ride with excellence. Anyone can learn. And most people have the ability to apply their lessons to their riding.

Yes, you might need a reminder every now and then. A well-timed “sit-up!” from someone on the ground can make a world of difference. But at the competition, we are responsible for being that voice in our heads. We are responsible for pulling the information out of our heads and applying it—- not just throwing spaghetti at the wall, but picking the tools that make sense in the moment and using them in the best ways we know to use them.

Another thing this professor admonished us about was that you cannot come up with a solution without identifying what the problem is. “When you’re a lawyer,” he told us one day, “cases won’t walk into your office with a label on their foreheads saying “property” or “contracts” – you have to figure out what silo they fit into and what kind of law to apply, and you have to remember that there is often crossover between different areas, which might require you to think creatively.”

This advice applies no less aptly to training horses. When a horse walks into your barn, she doesn’t come with a label on her forehead or instructions about how to ride her. She’s a horse —- likely with some history —- but just a horse who is a puzzle for the rider to figure out. The process or training the horse involves the rider assessing the problems, going into their inventory of ideas in their head, pulling out the knowledge that might work to solve those problems, and repeating the process again and again.

The process is iterative. The horse will change. The rider will change. But every step is some version of learning —- taking the information, applying it, and assessing what works.

Back to that quote: “Learning is not getting stuff inside of your head—it’s getting stuff back out of your head.” It would be easy to read this simplistically, to think of the process as shoving a recipe in one’s head and spitting it out when it was needed. But applying knowledge isn’t just dusting off an old idea and plastering it on a new problem. It’s figuring out exactly what part of that knowledge matters for this particular moment. That’s the hard part.

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