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Learning how to learn: an interview with a brilliant student

Learning how to learn: an interview with a brilliant student

Christopher, you are one of the many students I gave courses who have succeeded beyond their expectations. Some now hold very high positions. You just passed your bar exams brilliantly, after being on the dean’s list at Drexel, winning several awards, then admitted to Georgetown a famous University, and now you’re a lawyer. The purpose of this public conversation is to help learners by sharing your experience, and giving advice. You’ve come a long way and you’ll come a long way (maybe President of the United States of America!), so you’re the perfect candidate for it, and I thank you heartily for accepting this interview.


Pascal Roulois (PR): Christopher, you are one of the many students I gave courses who have succeeded beyond their expectations. Some now hold very high positions. You just passed your bar exams brilliantly, after being on the dean’s list at Drexel, winning several awards, then admitted to Georgetown a famous University, and now you’re a lawyer. The purpose of this public conversation is to help learners by sharing your experience, and giving advice. You’ve come a long way and you’ll come a long way (maybe President of the United States of America!), so you’re the perfect candidate for it, and I thank you heartily for accepting this interview.

You took my classes for a few weeks 10 years ago. In 2017, you wrote “When I met Pascal, I was a student who put athletics before everything else. I remember vividly my firts sessions with Pascal, where I didn’t completely understand the method to his madness ».

I even remember you wanted to quit after a few sessions. What did you think was “crazy” in my approach? What made you wanting to quit?


Christopher Bonnaig (CB) : Pascal, first I have to say thank you with your many students over the years. Your guidance has led to tremendous benefits for me. I always look forward to speaking with you because I know that there will always be refreshing insights that I can use in my own pursuits of various goals and projects. This was certainly true as I used your techniques at Drexel, Georgetown, passing my bar exams, and truly in all of my work. I hope that I can inspire people the way that you have inspired me, and I will continue to look to your advice.

Yes, 10 years ago we first met and I thought you were a mad man ! I remember being asked to remember the capitals of different countries in South America by using techniques like naming different landmarks in my hometown neighborhood. I thought to myself, « What does South America have to do with my hometown ?! What is he talking about ?! » This didn’t make any sense to me and I wanted to go back to my athletic training. I had no idea that the training you were giving me was even more important than I could imagine. Ultimately, there was one exercise that showed me that there was a method to your madness and convinced me to continue with your lessons.


Pascal Roulois (PR): What you’re saying is very important. A learner always pays first attention to the form, the shape, the structure, because it is the first visible thing and the most easily memorable thing. Our distant hunters-gatherers ancestors needed to know where to find food and then what food to find. What in the brain translates into the path of the where and the path of the what. This is why the overwhelming majority of learners remain trapped by the form, structure, and they memorize without understanding, regardless of pedagogy and even if they perform at the evaluations. We have an extraordinary ability to memorize and this leads us to confuse what is familiar with what is known.

You’ve had a lot of classes in the past, in different subjects. So your brain had recorded course structures. For example, presenting a plan and educational goals at the beginning of a course. All this shape your prior knowledge, your mental model. This prior knowledge, this mental model, acts as a filter that will filter out new information. So this filter allowed you to note my different way of doing, the deviation from the norm. This deviation from the norm had activated your emotional system which had indicated to you that my way of doing things was either a danger or an opportunity. As with our distant hunter-gatherer ancestors. A danger because it could call into question all your past certainties. Changing has a cost. An opportunity because it could bring you food you hadn’t tasted before.

We have not changed much, even though our society has changed considerably. Somewhere, we still are hunter-gatherers.

Finally, you decided to be open-minded and continued the classes. Being open-minded is an essential quality. It avoids hasty judgments that can lock us into our certainties and preventing us to learn. Avoiding early judgments is an essential quality of the good learner. That’s a Critical Thinker quality, as Robert Ennis said. And in our courses on learning how to learn, we have certainly learned some techniques, but above all a way of thinking, of processing information in depth, not on the surface, and of building one’s knowledge by learning independently. My goal was to make you a self-directed learner, a being who thinks, someone who does not remain a prisoner of existing structures, but who is able to think beyond what he sees. Someone who, when he looks at a cloud, is not going to say “it looks like a horse”, that is, who is not going to be a prisoner of the structures imposed by his long-term memory, but who will be able to change his angle of view, to be flexible, to find new solutions to a new problem. A creative person.

Now that I have recalled the need to be open-minded and learn to think in addition to learning to memorize, can you share between 5 and 10 tips for learning, which are valid for the study of Laws but also for the rest?


Cristopher Bonnaig (CB): A few years ago, I was talking to a professor of one of my courses at Georgetown. We were discussing a topic that I wanted to write about for a research paper. I expressed to him how I was uncertain about the topic, and a bit worried about the direction I was going with my research. He looked at me with a smile and asked a question: “Christopher, do you know what they say about the comfort zone? Nothing grows there!” His advice was simple: You will grow from challenging yourself more than you will by doing something easy. I share this story because I think it is so instructive for the study of law, business, science, or anything else. You must be willing to try things that are not immediately in your zone of complete comfort. Develop a mindset of being willing to challenge yourself a bit.

How do you challenge yourself in the context of learning?

One suggestion I can offer is to create your own systems for learning. Of course, there must be a strong foundation to build the system. It should have fundamental organizing principles. Developing your own systems and organizing principles over time will make it easier to have a sustained interested in learning anything. When I think of my own system for learning there are five key principles that I think are important.

Strengthening my mindset; Being mindful of time; Asking questions; Explaining information with clarity; and Practicing writing and speaking.

Strengthening my mindset: Do the things that you do not otherwise want to do! This means something different for everyone, and it changes over time. I always start with something small. If I drop something on the floor, for example, I might not want to pick it up immediately because I am annoyed or want to go do something else. In that moment, I try to recognize this resistance and challenge myself to overcome it. If I can, the small victory helps strengthen my internal discipline and determination to do something that I do not want to do. This is good practice for when bigger challenges arise.

Being mindful of time: If I can protect my day from distraction – then I know I have a better chance at success in my studies and work. Eliminating distraction gives me the confidence that my brain has sufficient time and space to absorb the material.

Asking questions: Curiosity is the main ingredient to having joy about anything that I am doing. I know that if I can show genuine interest in my studies and work, then my brain will reward me and make it easier for me to learn the material. Learning becomes a bit of a game – and less intimidating.

Explaining information: I always try to imagine that I will need to explain what I am doing to a 5th grader. This means asking myself questions like: “Is what I am saying making sense?” “How can I make my language easier to read?” “Am I being complete?” Great minds always try to provide support for their ideas with clear explanations.

Practicing writing and speaking: For me, the true practice of writing and speaking comes from reading and listening. Great writers are just people who read enough examples of great writing. Great speakers are just people who listened to enough examples of great speaking. So, when I read an article or listen to a speech – I am often most interested in the patterns, rhythms, and nuances of the author’s words, phrases, sentences, and style. Paying attention to these elements of presentation is important to me because it reminds me that I am developing important skills as a learner and professional. Knowing that I am developing a skill helps motivate me to keep improving. And when I am improving it gives me the confidence to continue pursuing my goals even when temporary difficulties and challenges arise.


Pascal Roulois (PR): You know, Christopher, you’ve got a lot of understanding of what it’s like to learn. And what the reader needs to know is that I didn’t teach you that. These are your own thoughts, your own practices, your own decisions. Congratulations!

In a few words, you were able to synthesize the good practices that the learner must implement. And this is within everyone’s reach.

I try to repeat that the only one who learns is the learner. Nowadays, the responsibility for learning is being blamed on the teacher, the pedagogy, the learning conditions. There is less and less talk of the responsibility of the learner, as if it did not exist.

Regardless of the pedagogy or the teacher, the learner’s work is essential.

Fashion is to make learning enjoyable with icebreakers, animations, distractions and other games. On the other hand, the demands, the expected efforts, are diminished.

So, implicitly, many people come to believe that learning is boring.

What is pleasant is being able to do what you could not do before. Human beings don’t know how to fly, but they know how to build airplanes.

Suggesting that each learner creates their own learning system is perfectly relevant. That’s the best advice you could give. Information is all that is outside the learner’s mind. On the other hand, knowledge is an intimate and personal construction based on information.

The knowledgeable learner is the one who transforms the information (thus the course) to adapt it to him. He is the one who embodies his learning. This makes it different from the informed learner who is a prisoner of the course, who remains a prisoner of the verbal processing of the information.

To make this more understandable, I’ll make the analogy with cinema. A common actor learns his text (information) and then plays it in a common way (information). Whatever the role, he plays as he usually does. He does not embody his character. He is not inhabited by his character. He did not understand his character who is always outside of him.

Then you have actors like Joaquim Phoenix. They will try to understand the character, they will do research on context, motivations, psychology, etc. These actors manage to customize the information (the text) to transform it into knowledge. And when they play, they create new, personal information. The input text and the output text are different. The words are the same, but the meaning is different.

Many learners remain tied to the verbal processing of information, such as a computer. They do not make sense of it. Accessing meaning requires embodying one’s learning.

But only the learner is able to do that. No one can do it for them.

And it’s great that you understood that Christopher.

You were talking about a comfort zone, and you’re right again. You have to get out of your comfort zone, you have to take risks. This requires several things:

Have an appropriate mindset. If we fail, we start again. We don’t give up.

Have a supporting environment that accepts that one fails.

Do not work for the grade, and go beyond the exams. Exams, mostly standardized, evaluate only what is evaluable. While our knowledge is building a lot on what is not evaluable. Similarly, one can pass one’s exams without understanding, and fail by understanding.

Eliminating distractions is indeed important. Today, there are far too many distractions that compete with learning. Distractions offer an immediate reward, while the reward of learning is far from automatic, and it can occur in the longer term. Therefore, you have to learn to resist the short term. It’s not easy. Techniques like pomodoro can help in this.

Asking questions and explaining are indeed essential. What I like about your questions is that they are broad enough to provide synthetic answers that cover much of what you need to learn, and that doesn’t turn the learning process into jeopardy.

Jeopardy questions are good for learning simple facts and processes. But when applied to learning concepts, they turn these concepts into facts and processes, and the learner does not see the links well. While these are essential.

I would add that asking good questions and explaining are learned. There are researchers who specialize in these topics. We will explore these topics in other sessions, because it will help you in your profession.

Finally, when you talk about practicing writing and speech, you bluff me by the depth of your reflections. Indeed, you have to spend a lot of time being inspired by others, and you have the intelligence to go beyond what is said or written. You’re interested in the unspoken, the patterns. One thing makes sense and is defined only in relation to the relationships it has with the elements within its system.

Finally, in choosing the 5 tips you can give to learners, you illustrate perfectly well the need recalled by one of my late mentors, James E. Zull with whom I had exchanged at length, namely that learning must balance the phases of acquiring and producing information.

Before you finish this interview, and I thank you for your time, I would like you to explain to us if you were a successful learner or if you became one. In other words: innate or acquired?

On the other hand, for an hour of classes with a teacher, how many hours of personal work do you recommend?

Finally, what last secret do you want to share with learners?


Christopher Bonnaig (CB):

These three questions are very important, Pascal, and deserve very direct answers. Here is my best effort.

Is being a successful learner innate or acquired?

For me, I think both innate and acquired!

Why do I say innate? Because the human imagination, I think, is an example of something we are born with – something that is innate to us. Without the imagination we cannot even begin to learn.

Why do I also say acquired? Because the imagination requires cultivating so that it can continue to grow and expand – like a plant must be nurtured with proper amounts of sunlight and water, our imagination also get the proper care or else it will not realize its full potential during our lifetime.

When our imaginations can grow and expand, then we can begin to develop as independent learners.

Our success as learners begins and continues if we take care of our imagination!

Personal Work Hours Before and After Class

To be your best, I do think a lot of work is required. I do not mean to be extreme, but I think all 24 hours of the day are an opportunity for learning in preparation for class. I will explain in more detail.

Learning is not only the time we spend reading or writing assignments – it also happens when we sleep. Learning is not only the time we make mind maps – it also happens when we exercise at the park. And learning is not only the time we meet with friends – it also happens when we spend time watching a movie. Every moment of the day, our body and mind can be learning for us.

The key is awareness of the moment that is happening right now! Just like parents telling their kids – we must also tell ourselves – “fait attention.” If you know you will sleep at 22hr, then pay attention and do your best to prepare for sleep beginning at 21hr when you do reflections about your day. If you exercise at the park, then pay attention to your breathing while you exercise. If you are watching a movie, then pay attention to the movie and turn your phone off. The same skills you develop in these situations is the skill you need in class: awareness and concentration.

If we develop awareness, then our concentration muscles become stronger. If our concentration is stronger, then less time is required to learn compared to without concentration – and we can learn even more than we think is possible. The time passes fast, and we can begin to anticipate things before they happen.

1-hour class will feel like 30 minutes with strong concentration.

Now I will give one idea about specific time for preparation.

Specific and Detailed Time Plan of Preparation for 1 hour of Class

Learners can try 4.5 hours of personal work hours in advance of the class, and 4.5 hours to review and prepare for the next session.

4.5 hours is equivalent to three 90-minute sessions.

One 90-minute sessions can be two 40 minutes of intense focus.

Work for 40 minutes, pause for 2 minutes to drink water or use the bathroom, then spend three minutes to review what you just finished studying to highlight anything that needs more review.

Then repeat this for the second block of time.

Modify, as necessary for different topics depending on how strong you are.

Maybe instead of 90 minutes it is 75 minutes.

The key is to repeat the 90- or 75-minute sessions many times to prepare for the 1-hour session, and at different periods of the day.


Last Secret to Share

The last secret is this: Help others when they express a desire to learn. If we continue this path of learning, eventually people who also want to learn will see us and ask questions or ask for guidance. As learners, we must be generous with our time to answer questions and help. All the lessons we discuss are not property of one person or one group – they must be shared with everyone who has an interest in learning!

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