Meta-learning

A manuscript page containing Hugh of St Victor’s Didascalicon, one of the most influential didactic manuals of the pre-modern period, British Library, Sloane MS 1580

Learning is a universal human project. Whether orally or through writing, we are all learning all the time, even when we don’t think much about learning. But while every human being, to survive, has had to learn, only a few of us have stopped to think about learning.

Learning how to learn may be harder than learning itself. It is certainly far more reflexive and requires a deep understanding of what learning is meant to achieve. The ancients had a thing or two to say about how learning works, but they were far more interested in education than the cognitive processes involved in the process of learning. Aristotle, for instance, understood the importance of education and advocated for a well-balanced diet of theoretical, practical and technical knowledge. Cicero discussed the method of loci, a mnemonic strategy, and its role in learning and cognitive performance.

But the real heroes of meta-learning, or learning how to learn, were the medievals.

The medieval scholarship on pedagogy was luxuriant. To read the sources, one gets the impression that the medieval scholars and thinkers, especially after the 12th century, suddenly realised the true potential of the human mind and started reflecting on the nature and relationship of different types of cognition. In his massively influential work Didascalicon or on the Study of Learning/Reading, the German theologian Hugh of Saint Victor explores in remarkable detail the workings of the human mind involved in learning and provides a model for optimal study. His understanding of memory and memorisation became authoritative for the rest of the medieval period.

Hugh’s work on meta-learning was not an accident of history. The 13th century saw an explosion of scholarship on the topic. This in turn led to fresh understandings of the relationship between mind and language, gauging new depths of logic and horizons of inquiry.

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