Keys to learning

“My son, keep my words, and treasure my commands within you. Keep my commands and live, and my law as the apple of your eye. Bind them on your fingers; write them on the tablet of your heart. Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister,’ and call understanding your nearest kin” (Proverbs 7:1-4 NKJV).

I have written before about the different systems of education between East and West (Asia versus Europe and North America). Though changes are occurring it is still generally true that the emphasis in western education is comprehension and application while that of the east remains to a great extent simply accumulation of facts through memorization.

On one of our overseas flights Brenda sat beside a young south Asian lady and they discussed their respective faiths (the other woman was Islamic). At one point the Asian passenger mentioned that she had been taught many passages of the Quran in Arabic and could still recite them. However she was never taught to read or speak the Arabic language. She had no idea of the meaning of those passages. No doubt her teachers were proud of her “knowledge” of their Holy Book. We would question whether she had any real knowledge of it at all.

At the other extreme in the west technology is rapidly replacing knowledge. Young people, as well as many who are not so young, question whether there is any need to know simple math or to learn history or even science. We have calculators for the math, and if we need to know anything else we just “google it.” Why should we labor to learn something when access to it is so easy? Younger friends and I were discussing a place they had visited and I pulled out my old school road atlas to locate it. They immediately said, “What is that?” My answer was that some things, like a good overview of a larger region, are still easier to obtain by paper and ink. And regardless of what model smart phone one has, nothing will ever replace the human brain.

Solomon’s advice to his sons and other young men in the book of Proverbs was to obtain wisdom as the greatest of all possessions. That was his own conviction when he became King of Israel at a young age (1 Kings 3:6-9), and he spent his life in its pursuit and application. In the verses cited at the beginning of this article he identifies certain keys to effectual learning. These are worthy of our attention:

Want to learn (2b, “… my law as the apple of your eye”). When we look at something with desire we inevitably fix it in our mind and memory. The love of knowledge is a worthy object. Paul said, “Whatever things are true … meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

Develop muscle memory through practice (3a, “Bind them on your fingers”). Much of what we learn is best assimilated and made permanent by physical application. No one becomes an accomplished pianist simply by reading instruction manuals.

Hundreds or thousands of hours of practice are essential for the development of true musical skill. Whatever our area of study, we learn more thoroughly when we act out our lessons. As the Hebrew writer taught, “But solid food (i.e., advanced knowledge) belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14).

Work to engrave matters in your memory (3b, “write them on the tablet of your heart”). As I have written previously, “heart” here refers to the center of thought, that is to our minds. Most people consider that they have poor memories. What is probably more true is that they have untrained memories. Any healthy mind has the capacity to remember far more than most of us realize, but it takes conscious effort. That is true of most of what is of value – there is a price to be paid and in terms of knowledge it is study.

Repeat what you want to learn aloud and, even better, write it down (4, “Say to wisdom, ‘you are my sister,’ and call understanding your nearest kin”). When Moses enjoined Israel to learn the commandments of God and teach them to future generations he said,

“And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).

Frequent repetition is critical to memorization and retention.

The attainment of wisdom depends upon one’s willingness to expend effort. But if one wills to learn, these techniques will help. We must want knowledge, exercise mental discipline to learn, practice our knowledge physically, and repeat what we have learned frequently.

Those who follow those principles may not attain to the wisdom of Solomon, but they will greatly increase their own intellectual abilities.


Mike likes wisdom literature and helps us learn from it. He wrote the book, In Search of Perfection: Studies from Job.

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