How to Optimize Your Learning Environment

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I recently watched a TEDx Talk by the writer and reporter David Epstein in which he mentions the concept of “kind” verses “wicked” learning environments. It’s a very interesting talk that address the problems with mass specialization in our work force. 

His idea is that “kind” learning environments are environments that promote straightforward progression when learning a skill while “wicked” learning environments do not. Some “kind” learning environments might be golf, chess, or certain video games. These environments have clear rules—or clear limitations—and reinforce progress quickly. On the other hand, a “wicked” learning environment is something like learning entrepreneurship, learning a musical instrument, or learning a new language. These skills have very unclear rules and do not have regular reinforcements built into their environments—for example, you can’t win at speaking a language or finish learning an instrument.

Our educational system attempts to put these “wicked” environment skills into “kind” environments by putting them into regulated classes with clear deadlines, time constraints, and reinforcements in the form of grades. 

However, what happens once we are done with school and we need to learn a “wicked” environment skill on our own time? 

I believe that knowing the difference between a “kind” and “wicked” learning environment is the first step in this learning process. Once we are able to recognize these different environments, we are able to begin to solve our actual problems and set up “kind” environments for ourselves. 

Say I want to start my first online business. I know (from experience) that this isn’t a “kind” environment. 

Well, the first thing to do would be to find a way to create a “kind” environment framework around the “wicked” environment that is the world of entrepreneurship. 

But how should I go about doing that?

I can begin by isolating the aspects of “kind” learning environments that make them so much more learner-friendly. 

Aspect 1: Deadlines with Consequences

Deadlines are important because they keep us moving forward. The provide us with a sense of urgency and make us do work when we otherwise might procrastinate indefinitely. 

To establish our own deadlines we need to think of ourselves as both the teacher and the student. We want to set ourself deadlines that are realistic but at the same time, we want to make progress and push ourselves to accomplish something meaningful. 

Aspect 2: Effective and Consistent Reinforcement

Reinforcement is important because it motivates us to keep going when things get difficult. The first step to creating effective reinforcement for ourselves is to ask ourselves why we want to learn or create this specific thing. We need to be realistic and honest about this. 

In terms of entrepreneurship, it’s quite possible that financial reinforcement is the only thing we might need to keep us motivated. In this case, it would be important to establish clear goals that correspond with certain monetary achievements. If we’re learning a language, maybe reinforcement is having a conversation or reading a book in that language.

Aspect 3: Location and Time Consistency  

Consistency is important because it builds habits and, thereby, reduces mental friction in doing something that we find difficult.

Think of our formal schooling. We always met in the same classroom and almost always at the same time every week. When we got to that classroom at that specific time, we knew that we needed to take out our books for that subject and start learning. It’s the same thing when a golfer gets to the golf course—they automatically know what they will be doing for the next few hours.


All in all, I hope that this concept of “kind” vs “wicked” learning environments can give some insight into why certain skills seem so much harder to learn than others. 

While there is obviously more variance in learning each skill than these two frameworks, I think that the concept is useful in understanding why some of the initial difficulties and resistance sets in.

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