Review of The Art of Learning
Book by Josh Waitzkin
Review by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
In the subtitle of The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin aptly describes his book as "An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance." It is about his own life's learning processes developed during the mastery of two disciplines. One is intellectual: chess. The other is physical: the martial arts form of Tai Chi Chuan. In the writing of the book, he demonstrates that he is an expert in the process known as "mastery learning" as well as a highly accomplished storyteller and teacher. You'll notice I've emphasized the word "mastery." That is because I want to be very clear. The book is not about accelerated learning or quick tricks for memorization. It won't help you cram for an exam and get an easy "A." It is about learning how to learn. About learning at a depth that the learning becomes a part of you. About developing enduring knowledge, skills or expertise. And about using that learning to perform at high levels.
If you want to know how to learn simply anything -- any subject, any skill, this is the book. It reads like a novel and teaches as if it were wired into your brain. It contains the most accessible description of the process of learning from experience I've ever seen, including the need for awareness, intention, attention, noticing details, analyzing, testing assumptions, planning new responses, testing behavior, honing, refining and practice, practice, practice. (Considering that I used to teach Psychology of Learning at the graduate level, I've seen quite a few descriptions of the learning process.)
And like a good novelist would, Waitzkin doesn't just tell -- he shows. You can bet someone has the "know-how" if he also has the "show-how." Moreover, he adds something you would rarely see in a textbook on learning processes: he uses the context of real life and actual experience to show the connection between learning and emotion, how to avoid its pitfalls and how to use it to your advantage. It is a very practical and usable book.
Please note, however, that although I stress how well he weaves his teachings into a story so that you learn them implicitly, he also has a great deal of quite explicit explanation. You don't have to guess what he means. The book could be used as a textbook. It is just more entertaining than a usual textbook.
The Art of Learning belongs on the bookshelves of anyone who wants to learn well and deeply, but most certainly it belongs on the bookshelves of psychologists, educators, trainers, coaches, students and all others who study "learning how to learn," right alongside of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's various books on "flow" and George Leonard's Mastery.