Everything I Knew About Learning Was A Lie: How People Learn

Everything I Knew About Learning Was A Lie: How People Learn
Photo by Element5 Digital / Unsplash

The learning you did throughout high school and into college IS NOT learning.

If by learning we mean a change in behavior or capability due to memory, most education is directly antagonistic to true learning. Throughout high school, I remember most of the "learning" I did involved sitting in plastic chairs and listening to a teacher lecture about something I had only a vague interest in for fifty minutes. Sometimes, the teacher would say, "This will be on the test," and I frantically wrote whatever they said next like they were The Buddha.

A day or two before the test, I would muster the motivation to study, cram to get a good grade, and then forget everything I had "learned" after the test.

Rinse and repeat for 7 hours, 5 days a week, 180 days a year.

If this sounds relatable, then understand you are not in the minority.

Unfortunately, most education is designed antagonistic to how we have evolved to learn. Reading How People Learn by Nick Shackleton-Jones is making me realize everything I knew about learning was wrong. This book explores how we have evolved to learn, how education is antagonistic to this, and what we can do to improve learning design.

In this article, I will give a book summary interpretation of How People Learn. We'll be exploring:

  • How We Have Evolved To Learn
  • How Most Education Is Directly Antagonistic To Learning
  • How We Got To This Flawed Educational Model
  • How We Can Improve Our Learning Design
  • My Criticisms Of How People Learn

Let's get into it!

How We Evolved To Learn

It's important we define what Shackleton-Jones means by learning, so we have shared terms throughout the rest of the article.

He defines learning as change in behavior or capability resulting from memory.

To understand how we learn most effectively, we must look to our ancestors and the evolutionary pressures that got us here. We evolved on the African Savanah; Learning could mean the difference between life and death. Humans, therefore, evolved to be unique to other animals--not in physical capabilities, a gorilla could out bench press me any day--but in our mental capabilities. What makes humans the Supersayan Goku of the food chain is our ability to pass on ideas. As a species, our babies have one of the longest neonatal periods. Our frontal cortexes aren't fully functional until age 25!

This makes us learning MACHINES.

Other animals like Cheetahs are unique in their speed, Gorillas in their strength, Pandas in their incredible cuteness.

Humans are unique in our ability to pass on ideas that can make us better in every one of these categories. We build cars for speed, machines for strength, and... I don't think anything we build will ever allow us to surpass Panda cuteness. The point is we have gotten to where we are through passing on ideas.

We evolved these mental capabilities in small tribes of usually less than 150 people; physical social relationships were essential. Everyone in the tribe specialized in a few skills but knew generally how to do most things. This caused us to evolve certain learning principles. The principles I share below are gold to this day for more effective learning; while we may live in fancier societies, we haven't changed genetically from our ancestors. Tattoo this to your chest--maybe don't do that:

  1. Storytelling: We have evolved to learn things through stories. Before writing or reading existed, knowledge transfer was entirely oral. When someone tells a story, we identify with the characters inside. That's why we love watching movies, reading books, and listening to that one hilarious story at family dinner. We can learn to do or not do something simply through hearing stories.
  2. Socializing: We have evolved to remember what matters, and as social creatures, what matters is often other people's reactions. Ethics, laws, shaming, and more are all human-made inventions to monitor social relationships. Mirror neurons are activated when we see someone else doing something targeting the same parts of our brain as actually doing that thing, minus the movement. In effect, just seeing other people act can be a source of learning.
  3. Play: As children, we learn predominantly through play, an open-ended learning activity without much stakes. The low-stakes environment promotes failure, which is often better than success for learning.
  4. Apprenticeships: Before the Industrial Revolution, we learned predominantly through one-on-one apprenticeships with someone DOING the thing they were teaching us. This allowed the apprentice to watch someone do something, do it with the person, and then do it themselves. The master can also tailor their teaching to the apprentice.
  5. Observation and Experimentation: We learn through directly observing and experimenting in the world. Through this process, we come to knowledge and wisdom ourselves rather than being told it. Knowledge and wisdom aren't the same thing. Often, someone has to experience something to truly get it.
  6. We remember things by their relationship to old things]]: Try to explain what orange juice tastes like to someone without referencing another food. You can't. That's because understanding a new thing ALWAYS requires relating it to an old thing.
  7. Project Centric: We learn most effectively through application. The shorter the period between consuming information and applying knowledge, the better. Having projects to apply your learnings to is the best way to do this.
  8. Anticipatory Learning: Humans have the unique capacity to learn anticipatorily. We can imagine a future scenario and use the affect generated from it to change behavior's in the present. No other species does this.
  9. Goldilocks Zone: We learn most effectively while in the Goldilocks Zone, the zone in which something is not so hard it's frustrating but not so easy it's boring. Therefore, effective learning means increasing the challenge of an activity as your skill increases.

These are a few of the key principles of how we have evolved to learn.

However, Shackleton-Jones puts emphasis on one key learning principle I haven't shared yet. This is the most important principle of all, the principle he forms the foundation of his book on.

We learn best when we CARE about the things we are learning.

He incorporates this fundamental principle into the affective context model affective context model.

The Most Important Learning Principle: The Affective Context Model

The affective context model according to Shackleton-Jones N. theorizes all cognition is a variation of affective response and we remember by reconstructing our affective experiences.

I know that sounds more jargony than the field of law, but it will make crystal clear sense after an explanation.

Let's start by examining the first part of the theory, cognition is a variation of affective response.

This statement essentially means we don't think in the traditional sense taught by Western philosophy. 2000 years of Western philosophy has made us believe what separates us from animals is our capacity for logic and reason through thinking over just feelings. Shackleton-Jones N. believes this is one of the great tragedies of modern learning theory. He proposes thoughts are simply fancier feelings.

He argues thoughts are fancier feelings because all thoughts have some degree of affect to them.

For example, let's say I thought I wonder if there will be peanut butter cheesecake for dessert tonight. While this is what we traditionally would call a thought, it comes with a spectrum of affect as well. For me, it gives the feelings of excitement and hunger. However, if you were allergic to peanut butter, it would more likely spark anxiety.

Clearly, the thought comes with a spectrum of feelings attached to it.

Another example, the thought that is a chair.

At first glance, this doesn't seem to have any affect tied to it. However, if you examine deeper, you will see this thought expresses the feeling that the semblance of physical matter you see might be suitable for sitting in based on past experiences.

Once again, the thought is meaningful to the degree it expresses our feelings about things.

In fact, the theory goes as far as saying All language is a medium for sharing feeling.

All of our words are feeling words. All of them. As Shackleton-Jones describes "From the word 'home' to the word 'chair'. They all describe how we feel about stuff. They do not describe a class of things in the world; instead, they describe how things and experiences make us feel. Every one of the tens of thousands of words you know describes a subtly different feeling."

For example, let's say I say to someone "do you want to go to the movies?"

What this message is actually saying is, would you like to experience the feelings of watching a movie with me? What is a movie theatre visit but an affective experience? If you felt like you wanted to go to the movie theatre, you would respond, I would love to go there! However, if you found out the movie was Birdemic, you would likely say some variation of, "I would rather jump into a black hole, thank you." In both of these responses, your language indicates feeling, not affectless reason and logic.

Now, let's look at the second aspect of the theory.

We remember by reconstructing our affective experiences.

For example, put two people in the same class with different interests, and they will remember completely different things. They have different genetics, experiences, and interests, and therefore will have different concerns when coming to the class they learn. In effect they will have different affect to the information and in turn remember different things after the class.

This is because people have different affective contexts, realms of things they are concerned about.

All humans are concerned about food, water, shelter, and relationships.

But one person might be concerned about gardening, another fishing, and another video games. These differing concerns will cause them to have different affective responses to information they come across. Therefore, they will reconstruct differing affective experiences and remember different things.

Summed up the affective context model emphasizes a crucial aspect of learning: we learn differently from others based on our affect contexts, the realm of things we are concerned with.

Knowing this most important learning principle and the eight discussed before, let's uncover why most education is directly antagonistic to learning.

How Most Education Is Directly Antagonistic To Learning

It's important to note, not all education is antagonistic to learning.

Most of the classes I have taken at Cornell are fantastic! However, when explaining this next point, I'm directly talking about a certain type of education, one that's all too familiar to people in school. You know what I'm talking about, the type of education where you sit in a classroom with a bunch of other students for hours, getting lectured at by a teacher that might as well be reading from a script. If you're in the workforce, you might experience something similar through the dreaded slide presentation.

The problems is this type of education sees learning not as change in behavior or capability as a result of memory but rather as knowledge transfer.

Seeing learning as knowledge transfer is directly antagonistic all the learning principles we have discussed. Let's see why:

  1. Storytelling: We rarely get told stories in the classroom. Instead, we are talked at.
  2. Socializing: Our schools restrict social interaction, as do our training courses. Most classes force us to sit still and listen to a teacher lecture. No mirror neuron activation for us. And no social learning.
  3. Play: Once we reach middle school, play starts to get shunned. We are told play is "for kids" as if learning stops when you reach ten. Stakes are brought into learning through grades, making many stop exploring out of fear of making mistakes.
  4. Apprenticeships: Most classrooms teach students in bulk without individuating lessons to each students unique concerns.
  5. Observation and Experimentation: Most education comes through knowledge transfer, not direct observation and experimentation.
  6. We understand new things by connecting them to old things]]: Most educators don't bother explaining things in a way that connects to old things we know outside of school like fashion, sports, or video games. Instead, they relate new material strictly to school related stuff.
  7. Project Centric: Most education is not project focused, but test focused. This promotes rote memorizing, cramming, and forgetting, rather than application and true learning.
  8. Anxiety-based methods: Most educators use the anticipatory learning ability humans have to motivate studying out of anxiety for a future test. This makes many see learning as synonymous with anxiety. In effect, lots of people exit traditional education never wanting to learn on their own again.
  9. Goldilocks Zone: Most education doesn't tailor learning design to the individual learner based on their skill level. Therefore, many learners might not be in their effective goldilocks zone.

Last and most importantly, most traditional education completely disregards the individual students affective context.

Most of what we learn in school has little affective significance for two reaons. Firstly, educators don't bother teaching WHY we should care about learning it. And secondly, they don't relate new information to stuff we are concerned about. Instead, we are taught to learn for extrinsic reasons because "it will be on the next test."

All in all, the image from How People Learn below summarizes the differences between education and real learning in the image below: 

How Did We Get Here?

Let's go through a few of the man contributors.

We See Reason And Emotion As Separate

The first big contributor is for the last two thousand years, Western philosophy has pushed a toxic narrative of seeing reason and emotion as separate.

Philosophers like Aristotle posed we were unique to animals in our capacity for reason. Descartes is famous for his line: "I think, therefore I am." By seeing reason and emotion as separate, education finds it perfectly reasonable to treat knowledge transfer as synonymous with learning. This neglects the importance affect plays in learning.

The problem is reason and emotion aren't separate.

Shackleton-Jones pushes in his affective context model, it would be more accurate to say "I feel, therefore I am."

That's because humans are purely emotional creatures. We are not rational animals, but rationalizing ones. We decide what to do based on how we feel (keep in mind that thoughts are just fancy feelings according The affective context model). Through training, we can align our emotions with reason – logic, mathematics, systems thinking, probabilistic thinking, and so on. But most of the time, we use these capacities not to make rational decisions but rather to rationalize our bad decisions.

One of my favorite novels that explores this (shoutout Dad for getting me to read this incredible piece of work) is Crime And Punishment by Dostoevsky.

The protagonist, Raskolnikov, embodies this idea through his complex justifications for committing a murder.

Raskolnikov convinces himself by killing the unscrupulous pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, he would be doing a service to society. He see's her as a parasitic figure that takes money from those who need it and saps joy from the world. He further justifies his act with a theory he has developed, believing certain extraordinary people are entitled to transgress moral laws to achieve greater purposes. However, after the murder, Raskolnikov is plagued by guilt and paranoia, suggesting that his rationalizations are a superficial cover for deeper, more chaotic emotional impulses.

Dostoevsky uses Raskolnikov to illustrate our nature as rationalizing over rational animals.

And therefore to show how reason and emotion aren't separate.

Most Schools Are Still Built On An Industrial Era Model

The school system we have today is a skeleton from the industrial era it was built for.

The industrial era was a time that required workers who could follow strict rules, time tables, and do algorithmic work. Nowadays, the school system still teaches you to be a cog in a machine like was needed in industrial times. It doesn't teach you to make the machine itself. There are still rarely courses on how to learn, how to be a happy human being, or how to function in modern society.

This should terrify you...

Because intrinsic learning is becoming increasingly important in our modern world environment.

According to Drive By Daniel H Pink our work nowadays is becoming more heuristic, meaning there are no clear-cut instructions to doing it. Inginuity and creativity are needed to find the right path. Therefore, intrinsic learning is more important than ever for navigating the modern work environment.

But as we see, intrinsic learning is inhibited by education.

The Art Of Memory Has Died Over Recent Years

Before the invention of writing we communicated entirely orally.

This meant entire cultural practices had to be passed from generation to generation solely through memory. People needed incredible methods for fostering memory, and they did. According to researcher Lynne Kelly in her book the Memory Code, many of our ancestors like the Australian Aboriginals, tens of thousands of years ago, used the landscape itself as a memory palace, a technique which involves using visualizations of real or fake locations with images that associate to what you want to remember inside to assist in retrieving memories (We will talk about this extensively later). For example, according to Kelly, the Australian Aboriginals would construct song lines as long as 800 kilometers to make their memories have visual, spatial, and audible associations inside their memory palaces.

Clearly, memory was prized in the days before writing.

Even with the invention of writing, the Ancient Greeks and many other cultures continued to prize memory.

In fact, according to Joshua Foer's book Moonwalking With Einstein to the Ancient Greeks, intelligence was synonymous with memory. However, in the late 19th and early 20th century John Dewey, educational reformist, stepped in and began making a case for a new kind of education which prized experiential learning methods over rote memorization. This is all fine and dandy, but over a hundred years of progressive education have discredited memorization as oppressive and stultifying, a waste of time.

You might be saying, but Aidong, didn't you mention earlier a problem with modern education is its emphasis on rote memorization?

This isn't a contradiction because the memory I'm talking about losing touch with here isn't rote memorization.

The memory I'm talking about is the good stuff. Memory for conceptual understanding of things that matter. Memory for how evolution works, for the various Freudian defense mechanisms, in other words, for things that build into other things. And most importantly, memory that sticks, not memory you create for a single test and then forget right afterward.

This de-emphasis on memory takes itself into our non-school lives as well.

"We've gradually supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of external memory aids—a process that has sped up exponentially in recent years." - Moonwalking With Einstein

When I wake up, the first thing I do is exercise and then write, confident nothing will fall through the cracks with my to-do list in Habitica and Google Calendar. When I drive, bike, or walk somewhere new, I stick the location into Google Maps. I have photographs to store the images I want to remember, books to store knowledge, and now, thanks to large search engines and ChatGPT, pretty much every easy-to-morize fact is at my fingertips.

This de-emphasizes the need for me to memorize things.

All in all, we have lost touch with a crucial aspect of learning: change in behavior or capability as a result of memory.

How We Can Mold Education For More Effective Learning?

So the education system sucks, what do we do about it?

Shackleton-Jones N. devotes much of his book to exploring what we can do to mold education for more effective learning. His main argument is we can improve education by moving up the learning design maturity levels. The learning design maturity levels illuminate the learning effectiveness of any learning design. The first level is when we teach through knowledge transfer--a content focus--the second level focuses on performance enhancement--a task focus--and the third level focuses on performance enhancement AND learning through transformational experiences--a person focus. You can see the levels below:

Shackleton believes we can move up the design maturity levels through two interlinked systems:

  1. A process in which the concerns of the individual are 'mapped' in an ongoing fashion.
  2. A process in which individuals are exposed to challenges of increasing sophistication, which resemble real-world environments (i.e. from an affective perspective).

In his words, "the system resembles something like a tree, with a few branches at the base, each of which divides repeatedly as challenges become more specific and complex. People can advance up the structure as they demonstrate capability and earn badges for their accomplishments, but they can equally move back down the structure and explore other branches."

A few principles of this method include:

  • Education is lifelong and integrated between personal life and work, preparing people for the heuristic work of the modern world
  • Education incorporates all of the principles of learning I discussed at the beginning of this article
  • People are measured based on the accomplishments they do through completing tasks and projects rather than the knowledge they show they have through tests
  • Education is task and experience-oriented rather than topic-oriented
  • Education increases in complexity as someone's skills increase in an area
  • Most importantly, education understands the importance of affect in learning

What Does This Look Like More Concretely?

So to improve education we should move up the learning design maturity levels.

On a more concrete level how do we do learning design that moves us up those levels? Shackle-Jones explains learning design is accomplished through the 5Di model of human-centered learning design.

The focus of human-centered design is to help people do things they already care about as well as create experiences that will make them care about learning more things, ultimately moving up the learning design maturity levels.

The model is shown below: 

Steps of 5Di


During the define stage you define outcomes in terms of results, NOT learning objectives which would imply the old and flawed educational system that sees learning as knowledge transfer.

A crucial aspect of this comes with determining if you should do push or pull learning design.

What are push and pull methods of learning design?

  • Push Learning Design: Push design is used where people don't care about something. In this case, we can't simply provide information and resources and expect learning to take place. Instead, we must design learning experiences to broaden peoples cares and give affective significance to something.
  • Pull Learning Design: Pull design is used where people already care about something. In this case, we don't need to throw more information or design experiences for them. We can simply provide the resources they need to do what they care about. This is why simple plain text or video is often preferred for people that already care about something; it's easier to apply.

You are designing resources or experiences depending on whether people are already concerned about what you are teaching.

A technique you can use to find out which desing to do is to draw up three columns titled 'Think', 'Feel', 'Do' and ask people how these will change due to the learning programme. For example, will people feel that diversity is genuinely important? Will they care about history? Will they feel psychology is important?


In the discover stage you do something radical: you talk to the people you are doing learning design for.

Your goal is to find out what their major tasks and concerns are. This will help you identify what resources you might want to design to help them with the tasks they are facing. Second, it will help you identify what experiences you will need to design to get them concerned about what you need them concerned about for your transformation.

There are a number of tools you can use to get learners to do this. One is to get people to list their top 10 concerns or tasks. Some questions I like to ask I got from How To Validate, Launch, and Build Your First Digital Product are:

  1. What is the number one problem you want solved from this learning endeavor?
  2. How have you tried solving this problem in the past?
  3. What other problems would you want solved if you had this problem solved?
  4. What would we have to do to make this product worth 10x more?

Another tool you can use is the emotional curve. This involves asking the learner to describe their feelings over some time, often during a transition period. The learner creates a curve representing significant milestones or experiences and their feelings from low to high.

Having them describe this to you can be invaluable in revealing their concerns and tasks.


Once we know what concerns and tasks people have, we can start identifying the resources we can create to address the existing set of tasks and concerns our audience have, and the experiences we may need to design to develop new concerns and capabilities.

One technique that Shackleton-Jones uses a lot is the CTRE matrix (Concern–Task–Resource-Experience matrix). In essence, you list the tasks and concerns that people have along the left-hand side of a grid, and some of the formats that we are considering along the top – formats such as video, guide, checklist, infographic and so on (there's a longer list of formats below). You also add a column for 'experience' in the event that you decide something really requires an experience.

Here's an example of a CTRE table: 

When designing resources, it's important to consider creating them in multiple formats so people can access them in many contexts. In addition, it's essential you consider the context the person might need the resource in and design it with this in mind.

It's important to note you won't be able to design things perfectly from the get go. That's why the sixth step of the 5Di model is iterate.


In this stage we split the project into multiple parallel work-streams, and begin developing an MVP.

An MVP is a start up term for Minimum Viable Product. The main idea of a MVP is you create the easiest possible version of a larger product to see if its worth investing more time, energy, and money into. This is way better than doing what most people do: take a drink and cigar into a cabin in the woods, create something for a year, and then show their invention to the public out of nowhere hoping people will be interested.


We ensure that content is easy to access at the point of need, and that our audience are aware of it, so that they can begin to use it.


We assume that we don't get things right the first time round, and instead use feedback from our audience to gradually improve the usefulness of our content and the ease of access.

How To Evaluate Effectiveness Of A Learning Design

We can evaluate how well a learning program went with three methods:

  1. See if performance changes.
  2. Ask the learners. They can rate themselves on how well they think they are improving in areas. This is better than a quiz becauses quizes test knowledge, not necessarily behavior and capability change.
  3. Badges. Games give badges as rewards for completing certain challenges. Why not do the same thing in real life?

The 5Di Model Summarized

Weeeewww, I know that's a lot of information at once. But it's a lot simpler than it seems. Here's the 6 step 5Di model summarized:

  1. Define: Identify desired outcomes in terms of tangible results and behavior changes, not just learning objectives, focusing on how participants will think, feel, and act differently. This will inform you about if you should do push or pull learning design or a mix of both.
  2. Discover: Engage with learners to understand their key tasks and concerns, using tools like top concern listing and emotional curves, to inform the design of relevant resources and experiences.
  3. Design: Create a CTRE matrix to map out learners' tasks and concerns against potential resources and experiences, ensuring variety in formats and considering the context of use.
  4. Develop: Initiate parallel work-streams to create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), focusing on simplicity and functionality to test the concept's validity and value.
  5. Deploy: Make the content easily accessible at the point of need and ensure the target audience is aware of it for effective utilization.
  6. Iterate: Continuously gather feedback from the audience to improve the content's relevance, usefulness, and ease of access, acknowledging that perfection is achieved over time.

My Criticisms Of How People Learn

While most of How People Learn is in my opinion revolutionary and profound, I do have one major problem with the book.

It focuses much to heavily on learning that has practical application.

The definition Shackleton-Jones N. uses in the book for learning is change in behavior or capability as a result of memory.

But what about learning something for the sake of learning it in itself? Not for behavior change or capability. If this notion of learning is used it's clear tons of what we learn in school can still have value.

For example, knowledge about history, literature, mathematics, and other typical disciplines taught in school has value in itself.

One might not directly apply their historical knowledge to the real world, but it can change one simply by knowing it. Outside of school, lots of the information I consume doesn't have practical application. I'm intensely curious about so many things. I just love learning it for the sake of it in itself.

Jone's model has a bias towards real-world applications.

Entering The New Age Of Learning

You now understand why everything you knew about learning might have been wrong.

But now you know the principles behind how we effectively learn, how we got here, and how we can remodel education. You can learn more effectively yourself, or design learning that is better.

If you enjoyed this book summary interpretation, you should check out my book squad playlist on YT which dives into many more books I have read.