CHICAGO -- Is learning one of your lifelong aspirations? If so, here's a quick quiz that'll give you some insight on just how open to new knowledge you really are: On a scale of 1 to 10, how well do you understand the functioning of a toilet?
Are you more of a "10" -- an expert who may have even installed a toilet or two? Closer to a "5," meaning that you possess a basic understanding of the mechanics of the toilet? Or are you simply a "1" -- with little idea of how the darned thing works, and just super glad it does?
Sure, we've all used one. Some of us may have even popped the lid off the tank and taken an anxiety-fueled peek at the inner workings.
But could you, if pressed, describe how the whole apparatus works?
Many of you wouldn't have the foggiest idea. But -- be honest, now -- was your initial instinct to rate yourself about a "6" or "5"?
According to Ulrich Boser, author of "Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything," social science research has found that most of us suffer from overconfidence in our knowledge and skills.
Such overestimation of our own areas of expertise is a natural barrier to learning. It gives us the illusion that we know more than we actually do -- and can make us frustrated when we struggle to build upon what we think we're already familiar with.
As a teacher, I watch this happen to my students all the time. By fourth and fifth grade, they've often been brainwashed by their well-meaning teachers and parents into thinking that they're closing in on becoming super scholars. This is done in the name of building self-esteem, which people believe is a major contributor to academic success.
But though many of my students scoff at the notion of memorizing high-frequency words or multiplication facts because "that's for little kids," they're absolutely indignant when challenged to solve a simple, one-step word problem.
The combination of reading and math operations becomes inscrutable to them because they simply aren't masters of either skill and can't easily apply them in tandem. And, boy, does it ever annoy them to have to practice putting together the "baby" skills they claim to feel so confident about.
Which brings me to my absolute favorite thing about Boser's book. It plainly states something that teacher-preparation programs, education technology corporations and practically the whole educational-industrial complex have been trying to deny for years: Learning isn't always fun.
In fact, a lot of times, it's hard work! And that's OK.
"I ran into a math professor who actually put it really well and argued that it being hard is what makes the learning fun," Boser told me. "I was actually surprised that I didn't get more pushback on how many times I brought up the idea of cognitive struggle in the book. In fact, it has spurred some great conversations about how we can view the difficulty of learning as part of the enjoyment; of making the difficulty part of the reward."
Those words are like manna from heaven to me as a teacher in a society that has convinced education professionals, parents and, most of all, kids, that learning should exclusively be an easy stream of fun, laughs and joy.
It isn't all giggles. But "Learn Better" offers a host of frameworks, strategies and tips for acquiring new knowledge -- whether it be collaborating on projects for school, learning a new skill at work, or improving your basketball game -- faster, better and in such a way that you'll retain what you've learned for longer.
Most of these revolve around "metacognition" -- the practice of thinking about how you think and understanding how you come to understand things. It basically boils down to planning your learning and then monitoring your progress.
Metacognition is filtering its way from social-science research journals and into classrooms and corporate training programs across the country. And as it does, it's helpfully discarding tired, old practices such as mindless text annotation and the highlighting of vocabulary terms. It's also debunking the new, common belief that deep learning can be powered by a quick Google search.
Most people's New Year's resolutions bite the dust by Groundhog Day. But if you're determined to learn a new language, pass an entrance exam or step up your tennis game (or piano playing), "Learn Better" will help you get there.