06 June 2021

"How to Gain Intuition and Learn Fast" (article)

The recent article on Medium "How to Gain Intuition and Learn Fast" - actually an excerpt from a forthcoming book - did a lot for me in terms of expressing and explaining the dual modes in which we learn, "declarative" versus "procedural". This is similar to explaining thought processes in dual modes using the "System 1" and "System 2" concepts, for example as highlighted at Temposchlucker's blog. The core concepts are parallel, in that one mode is conscious and uses explicit rules, while the other mode is intuitive and uses pattern recognition.

The article focuses on examples from learning how to approach solving mathematical problems and foreign language study, which are both complex skills requiring the practitioner to recognize and break down larger "chunks" of information that can then be processed and an appropriate response given. This of course applies just as well to chess study. Some of the training tools and approaches described will be familiar, such as spaced repetition of lessons and interleaving, as they help move knowledge from the slower, rule-based "declarative" learning to where you have a deeper understanding of "procedural" problem-solving.

If this process is not clear, think about learning how to drive a car. At first, it is awkward as you try to keep track of multiple things at once inside the vehicle and in your outside environment. After a certain period of time, things become "automatic" as your mind recognizes what needs to be done from common cues (stopping distance, shifting gears, etc.)

Personally I've experienced this mental shift multiple times, including when studying calculus, learning foreign languages and in the chess improvement process; previously I shared some examples on the chess side of how you know you are becoming a stronger player. There is nothing magical about this phenomenon, although it occasionally seems that way, especially after having reached a learning plateau and being frustrated for some time, then having solutions start mentally clicking into place.


  1. An alternative terminology often is seen: "know what" (knowledge as mere "facts" to be regurgitated on command) versus "know how" (skill to be applied). We internalize the method of "learning" implicitly through the experience of the formal education system - which is predominantly learning (and regurgitating) "know what" - declarative knowledge. Why? Because it's much easier to "teach" step-by-step processes and rote knowledge than it is to teach skill; procedural knowledge (skill) is still a "black box" that we are slowly beginning to understand. It's much easier in the classroom to test for rote knowledge than it is for skill when large numbers of students are involved. The demands on the teachers AND the students are much greater when skill is the issue.

    It's very hard to overcome the inertia involved in "unlearning" the method of teaching that has been reinforced through the first 12-20 years experience in the formal education system. "Learning how to learn" is rarely (if ever) addressed and taught explicitly to students.

    Another insightful article - thank you!

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