People learn best what they figure out for themselves

The title of this post has been a piece of my "working wisdom" for so long that I've forgotten where I picked it up.  Many thanks to whatever thoughtful soul told me that in the mists of my past.  I know it's true - but why?

An easily understood example comes from the sensory experience of wine tasting.  You can be told that "corked" wine (a bad bottle) smells like wet cardboard.  Or you can be told that burgundy smells "barnyardy".  But you won't really get it until you smell it with your own nose in a wine that really shows it.  Many of the common descriptors in wine tasting were a mystery to me until I experienced really clear examples of them.

In teaching, there's a subtle difference between handing out conclusions and letting students draw their own.  (I haven't done much teaching, but I spent 12 years in college, so I think I'm qualified to talk about it at least a little.)  It's almost sleight of hand, a piece of verbal trickery designed to get people to draw a particular conclusion without saying it outright.  Being told, or taught, something directly is like being handed a map with two stars on it.  You may see where point A and point B are and how to get from one to the other, but you'll have a tough time making the trip without the map in hand.  Experience the trip, though, and the memories of the physical path will be burned into your neural pathways.  Your brain will remember the solved problem of how to get from A to B.

In his counseling circles, Parker Palmer makes a distinction between "open, honest" questions and leading questions.  In that context, there is no cut-and-dried factual answer, so to lead the learner is to impose your own interpretations and conclusions on their experiences.  That would be pernicious enough by itself.  But more insidiously, it narrows the field of inquiry, steering the learner away from interpretations that might be helpful.

What do I think about it?  I think that when you mentally process a new idea, you have to decide how worthy it is for space in your brain.  In the case of received wisdom, when someone else tells you what they learned, you can always make excuses and say you might have come to some other conclusion if you'd been there.  As a result, you don't feel a terribly strong need to remember it.  With direct experiences, it's harder to rationalize away your own observations.  And you remember - because you did the work yourself.