Study guides are usually seen as crutches. They often feature dry outlines or lists devoted to some subject that you need to master immediately. As tutors and project editors, we have had the opportunity to inspect quite a few of these indispensable aids to high pressure learning. In book form they can be small (filled with terse advice) or large (a semester’s worth of information printed on a tree’s worth of paper.) Some try for a bit of humor or a knowing insider tone.

But they are rarely lovable.

In 1978, the BBC aired a 10-part series entitled Connections, in which science historian James Burke made a compelling case for a different way to examine ideas. Burke claimed that all knowledge is somehow connected to all other knowledge. Ideas and innovations have not occurred in isolation and by single great men; creativity is achieved through a combination of efforts. He linked the Hubble Space Telescope to Buffalo Bill and the Spanish Inquisition. He tied margarine to plankton shells, hot chocolate and the first solo Atlantic flight.

Burke then went on to imagine what he called the Knowledge Web. He saw the web as a natural medium for depicting a deep relationship based history. The Internet could bring countless new connections to light. He also asserted that the www would give us a new awareness of our interdependence – with each other and with the past.

At Newton Street, we were inspired.

Here, at last, was a lovable study guide model: capture information at the interface of technology, philosophy and science and make it “scalable, dynamic, social.”

As learning resource specialists, we already knew that there was plenty of high quality content available for free on the internet. Now we had the archetype to link it together.

Our first subject, as always: how do we learn?

All that we experience consciously is only the tip of an iceberg whose submerged portion consists of countless unconscious processes.

Once you learn something consciously, your brain uses that information subconsciously. In fact bringing it to consciousness can cause problems: McGill’s Brain from Top to Bottom uses the old joke that, ” if you want to ruin your opponent’s concentration in a tennis match, all you have to do is compliment him on the accuracy of his serve or the smoothness of his return. Usually, that will make him self-conscious. He will start trying to use conscious movements to match the perfect accuracy of the movements that he makes unconsciously from years of constant practice, and he’ll end up sending the ball into the net.”

learning is SENSATIONAL. We learn more quickly when there is movement and sound associated with our subject. It’s easier to remember if noses, mouths and fingers are included in the learning process.

learning is NOT LINEAR

learning is PHYSICAL as well as mental work

CONTEXT matters

PRACTICING deliberately matters

People buy study guides because they have an intention to learn. In our experience, intentions do shape action. But we also see the gaps between intention and experience. Understanding how our brains work offers insight into how to build the bridge over that awful gap. Perceiving the gap as a mysterious but natural and necessary part of making new connections allows us to bear the tension that comes with crossing it.

Thank you James Burke.

Link to watch an episode