Danger & Deliverance At Eaglesfield School London (’94 to ’99)

Eaglesfield Secondary School
Eaglesfield School’s original building

At some point during my 3rd year of secondary school, our class tutor Mr Roles came into the room with a suspicious glint in his eye and announced that we would be getting a new student. Mr Roles had round hobbit-like features, mousy-coloured hair, and a voice that you couldn’t call quite high-pitched, but sounded like somebody had left an elastic band wrapped around his larynx. He was a decent bloke who rarely unleashed his fury unless circumstances required it.

Mr Roles declared that our new student would fit right into our class; that he was tall and skinny and at about the same academic level as the rest of us. He opened the door to the teacher’s office where the student was supposedly waiting, and produced a plank of wood.

“This is Plank,” Mr Roles said, “and I want everyone to make him feel welcome.”

I laughed out loud, and was the only one that did. Mr Roles seemed happy enough.

The school in question was Eaglesfield in southeast London’s borough of Woolwich—a large five-building secondary school for boys that seemed gargantuan at the time. There was the original two-story classic redbrick building that sat in the middle of the grounds, with pleasant white paint-chipped windows, one of which was smashed during a lesson by a student who decided that his wrist would be the best thing to open it with. This was the most handsome building of the five. It contained classrooms for languages, maths, and art, and the headmaster’s office—Mr McCarthy, a broad and sturdy man who was imposing as his position dictates. He addressed us on our first day like a general addresses his soldiers, and if I were ever called to his office for punishment, I imagined he’d just look at me for five minutes while I withered like candy floss in a stream. I was acutely aware of the location of his office for this reason, and amazed some years later when a fellow student claimed to have remotely hacked into his computer, laughing at the potential wrath of such a commanding fellow. Bullshit in hindsight.

This building is where I had French lessons, run by the most pitiful teacher in the school—Mrs Paterson, or “Edna” to the students after they discovered her first name was Edwina. Choosing teaching as a career was surely the worst decision of her life. She didn’t seem to have a single attribute that makes a good teacher—being engaging, enthusiastic, patient, able to command respect, and most importantly, having the grit to handle 30 little bastards who wanted to make her life hell. When she turned her back to write something on the chalkboard, someone yelled “EDNA!” at the top of their lungs, or made a random noise like “BARP” or “MNEEH” or some other vocal abomination that made her whip around like a furious owl, eyes scanning the room for the culprit she could never find. Or if the boys felt like mixing it up a bit, they’ll scrunch up paper and throw it at her. The poor woman must have been miserable—I hear she cried on more than one occasion. Hopefully it got to the point where she pursued a different career or found a nicer school. Or maybe deep down she really did have the qualities and determination to be a good teacher, and that her reputation at Eaglesfield was like a curse that doomed her every step.

The other large building in the school was perched on a hill about 50 metres away, and was a four-story mass of concrete and glass that towered over the grounds, some nightmare of modernity that threatened to engulf all that was classical and beautiful. This is where I was taught English, Geography, History (three of my favourite subjects), Religious Education, and some other subjects I can’t recall. It’s also where lunch was served, and was home to Mr Roles and Plank, in a top-floor corner classroom with excellent views across the borough of Greenwich. This same classroom is where I was taught geography by Mr Walton, a scrawny and cheerful Yorkshireman who for some reason always had a cut down the middle of his upper lip that looked horribly sore. At the start of every class he’d say “bums on seats fellas, bums on seats,” like a hypnotising incantation that somehow compelled us to sit down. He was a great teacher—friendly, charismatic, and one of the few I remember fondly. In fact, the Geography department seemed to be made up of some of the best Eaglesfield School teachers—a group of three or four men (Mr Roles included) who taught us about countries and cities and volcanoes and earned the respect of every one of us. They congregated in the office where Plank lived—a sacred place that you had to knock to gain entry to. On the same level a few doors down was the office of Mr O’Sullivan, a history teacher and head of our year, who after sending a certain Indian boy there for detention, was unfortunate enough to return and find him masturbating furiously in his chair, as though detention was a real thrill. I suppose porn was a lot harder to come by in those days.

At the other end of this building was an outside staircase and balcony that went up to the first floor, and when it snowed, this was the place where boys went to battle. It was pandemonium. Two battalions of students formed—one who took position on the balcony, and one that took position on the grass opposite. They pelted each other as though their lives depended on it, and it was during such a time that I was hit squarely in the testicles with a gloriously-aimed snowball, which sent me crashing to the ground like a demolished building, with flurries of snowballs continuing to batter me. I haven’t experienced pain like it since—top marks to the boy who threw it. This rear end of the school was also home to the main playground, which being on a hill (like most of the school), sloped steeply upwards, prompting the school’s designers to install 45 degree concrete slopes topped with grabbing bars, which in today’s world, would require a helmet and the signing of a release form to take on. Maybe those designers foresaw the molly-coddling culture that would infect parenting and teaching, and decided to fight against it by showing kids that a broken collarbone isn’t the worst thing in the world. We darted up and down those slopes like Sisyphus himself, bruised and battered, but never defeated.

This building is also where English was taught, another subject for which I have fond memories. One of my teachers was the beguiling Miss Woods—a gorgeous blonde who I assume every straight boy and male teacher daydreamed about. Sometimes, when she had a skirt on, she sat on the cabinets at the front of the class and put her feet on a nearby desk, and every boy put a knuckle in his mouth. I irritated her once because I pointed out a spelling mistake on the chalkboard, an ungodly taboo when dealing with an English teacher, especially when coming from a teenage wretch trying to be a smartarse. I fear our romantic destiny was derailed at that point. This building also contained the formidable Mr Keith—a wiry mathematics teacher with a grey crew-cut who looked like he’d walked straight off a military base. He believed that severity was the best way to command a pupil’s respect, and if it had been ten years earlier, I’ve no doubt he would have taken pleasure in caning us. Though he never taught me, there were stories of him pelting students with chalkboard rubbers if they were caught daydreaming, an action long out of practice in the teaching world, but still considered fair game by this nightmare of a man. His eyes bulged so much that he could probably glare through walls, and if there’s one teacher that people will remember from that school, it’s him. Terror has a knack of staying with you.

The PE (Physical Education) building was connected to this second building and looked different still—a redbrick of a different tone, but with far fewer windows and none of them pleasant. It housed a swimming pool (a rarity for schools in the borough), a basketball court, and the necessary washrooms and classrooms where the men could be separated from the boys. One of the boys in my year had a monumental mishap during a swimming lesson, the front of his pants bulging in a way that didn’t go down well with a class full of semi-naked boys—perhaps the poor lad was daydreaming about Miss Woods? His solution was to jump headfirst into the deep end where his passion could be extinguished.

Adjacent to the PE building were four or five tennis courts, and next to them a mammoth grass field that made up the bottom area of the school’s grounds. This is where hundreds of boys descended for lunch, booting footballs past makeshift goals made of school bags, and launching two-footed tackles at each other without worrying about a referee or VAR.

Eaglesfield’s pool today. Formerly the place of choice to quell an erection.

The PE teachers were three guys who were less like teachers and more like fun uncles. There was Mr Smyrk who I never once saw smirking, Mr Fischer who looked like a Charlton Athletic player called John Robinson, and Mr Haines who wore glasses and looked like a 30-year old Harry Potter. They were blokes in the classic sense of the word—constantly pissing about, digging each other’s ribs, and lovingly shoving you onto a football field covered with winter ice. They were our chaperones when we went to France for a skiing trip in the winter of 1999, and because the legal age of drinking was 16 in that wonderful country, they turned a blind eye to the inevitable boozing that went on. On the final night of our trip, they assembled a mock court where each of us were charged with a crime, and given a punishment for the evening like ten push ups whenever we swore, or not being allowed to talk to girls without our tongues being out. Through our 16-year old eyes, they couldn’t have been any cooler.

The fourth building was nestled between the PE block and the original building, with a footbridge connecting their upper floors. It was dedicated to science. I can’t for the life of me remember what it looked like, but it was probably ugly. We had our GCSE exams in this building, and during the biology exam, our teacher shiftily whispered the correct answer to me *diaphragm*, which I assume was a desperate attempt to save a failing school that closed a few years later. Over in the chemistry lab, a fiendish little shit called Philip decided to douse a chemical in water to see what would happen, and the lab started to fill up with a noxious purple smoke that definitely didn’t belong in the lungs of teenage boys. I’m not sure why, but the substitute teacher kept us trapped inside for five minutes before some of the bigger students got bored and heaved her out of the way.

The science building had two levels, with an open staircase in the middle of the building that had a balcony to drop things onto people’s heads—empty coke bottles, Opal Fruits, chewed Bubbaloos, pencils, backpacks, or whatever else was at hand. Somebody decided to do this with a full bottle of water, and instead of getting an unsuspecting boy, they instead walloped our Scottish chemistry teacher with it, who came into the class ten minutes later, wrote “I am not a victim” on the board, then burst into tears and fled. I felt dreadful despite being a bystander.

I also studied physics in the science building, run by Mr Porter—a stout male teacher with brown hair, a commanding voice, and a knack for explaining his horribly complicated subject. One day, when teaching us about Newton’s forces using a pellet gun and target, my still-good friend Scott looked down the barrel as he was about to shoot, and the look on Mr Porter’s face said “what have I done to deserve this.” When we had our final Physics exam that year, one of the teachers wrote “Fizz-icks (very hard science)” on the whiteboard, which showed the mandatory sense of humour for being a successful teacher at Eaglesfield.

Original building on the left, science behind next to it, PE building at the back, and the other main building on the right.

The fifth and final building was the smallest—a one-story cube of concrete that was home to design and technology (DT—formerly known as woodwork). It was here that we fumbled about with wood and metal and glue and tried not to chop our fingers off with high-powered mechanical equipment. On this topic, one of my classmates got distracted while chiselling a piece of wood with a fixed circular saw, put the tip of his finger into the saw’s side, then screamed like a banshee and flicked his hand about which temporarily turned the room into a Tarantino film set. I can still see the blood splattered across the faces of my classmates, and the look of horror on the teacher’s face as he beheld the flattened tip of the boy’s newly-squared digit. Being a teacher at that school must have felt like trying to educate a flock of insolent sheep who are anxious to run off the nearest cliff. When we weren’t busy maiming ourselves, we’d twist open every available Pritt Stick and launch them into the ceiling. And when there were no more Pritt Sticks, we’d stick our chewing gum onto the end of our pencils and do the same. The room ended up looking like one of Indiana Jones’ temples.

So those were the five buildings of Eaglesfield Secondary School in London (there may have been some other buildings I’ve forgotten), and just a few of the antics that I personally remember. The school was a force to be reckoned with. The borough in which it lived—Woolwich—certainly wasn’t the most dangerous in London, but it was up there. Many of the kids who went to Eaglesfield were from poor homes, where life was tougher than it should have been. I was fortunate enough to come from a stable, comfortable home (thanks mum and dad) which unfortunately doesn’t prepare you for a lion’s den in which a large portion of the kids prowled about with teeth and claws that they’d happily sink into you. So I’d try to make myself as small as possible to avoid being mauled, and while the strategy worked, it also forged bitter resentment towards my bigger, stronger, and more violent peers, especially when they used their dominance to jump the lunch queue and leave me with the saddest jacket potato in England. I guess this is only fair given how well-fed I was at home.

Once, a group of the biggest and roughest scallywags in our year planned a coordinated attack on the local shop. It wasn’t a complicated plan—they just used their collective strength to storm the shop, grabbed as many sweets and drinks as they could, and then left. I went along to watch, and after the last boy came running out the door with a carton of Pepsis, the Indian shop owner appeared in the doorway looking utterly wretched, helpless to stem the attack on his precious supplies. This shameful event was brought up by our year’s head teacher at the next assembly, but I have no idea if anyone got into trouble for it, or whether punishment would have done anything at all to prevent future crime.

So Eaglesfield brimmed with rough and ready bastards, but I had my group of friends to help me through. There were five of us, and the leader was John—a stocky blonde kid who always had too much gel in his hair and kicked a football the way a mule would kick his greatest enemy. I once asked him how he walloped the leather so mightily, and he said “I been playing football since I was three innit.” As the naturally bigger kid, John was the one that everyone in our group wanted to please, as though his bulk could offer us some protection against the torrent of potential violence that surrounded us. He was like a small albino bull that was cute but somehow threatening.

My best friend in the group was Steve. His dad was in the military, so he lived on a military housing estate in the depths of Woolwich, a place that I visited once and never wanted to visit again. He had a broad face and a smile that seemed to wrap around the entire bottom half of his head, and he could jump onto the tall science tables in a single leap, something I assume his dad taught him in some kind of military bonding exercise. When the school arranged a paintball trip for our class, Steve was the one who captured the flag by crawling through the mud undetected, like a WW2 soldier squelching through a boggy French field. I stayed in the safety of a tower and shot anyone who approached him. Steve was a legend—one of the few kids at school who I could really talk to, and I hope that he felt the same way about me. He messaged me a few years after school wanting to catch up, but for some reason we never got around to organising it, and I assume there’s now 15,000 kilometres between us.

Then there was Ricky, a painfully skinny blonde lad who had translucent skin and looked like the ghost of Mr Burns. Ricky and I were never that close, maybe because early in our friendship we agreed to a no-holds barred insult match in which we wrote horrible things about each other and then read them. I remember him welling up at my contribution, and I felt terrible about it but for some reason didn’t apologise. This probably bolstered his conviction when this same group of friends bullied me for about six months straight and suddenly stopped, which felt like a torturer who yells “surprise,” points out the candid cameras, and then gives you a warm hug; a nightmarish alternative universe where Jeremy Beadle is a nasty little bastard with two tiny hands. Those months remain the most miserable of my life, and I wonder what kind of person I’d be today if they’d gone on for longer. But I don’t resent them for it. We were all just stupid kids who didn’t know any better.

Deano was the final friend in our group—a gangly black kid whose teeth looked like they’d been slung into his gums by a medieval catapult. Not a single one of his gnashers had agreed to go in the same direction, and Dean was clearly abashed by these circumstances, sporting braces for years before they finally resigned themselves to two coherent rows. Dean made up for his unfortunate choppers by being an all-round nice guy. He spoke in a soft, polite way that endeared me to him, and when he laughed it was the most tremendous cackle I’ve ever heard that didn’t come from a witch. And fuck me, he could run. Playing It with him was like trying to catch a firework—the boy could change direction in a way that defied physics, leaving you in a cloud of dust that echoed with mocking laughter. He might have made a fine rugby player, and in fact our school had a famous rugby past that had all-but died by the time I arrived there, succumbing to the popularity of football. Dean is the only person in this group that I’m friends with on Facebook, and if by chance he ever stumbles on this, I hope he doesn’t take offence at what I’ve written because he remains a lovely bloke.

Between the five of us, we managed to get through the formidable Eaglesfield School in Woolwich, and on reflection, I have some good memories of the place. Many of the kids who went there give it a bad rap, but it wasn’t that awful a place to get an education. Three-quarters of the teachers seemed to be good at their jobs, and genuinely tried to educate us well, they just happened to be teaching a lot of kids from poor backgrounds, many of them worn down by unfortunate circumstances and rebelling in the only way they knew how. Put those teachers in a school with rich kids, and they’d have been working with putty instead of steel, but they grafted and toiled and kept their sense of humour despite the immensity of the challenge, and for that I salute them.

I made new friends in my final sixth form year at Eaglesfield, and am still close with most of them. The school closed a couple of years after I left, but quickly re-opened its doors as Shooters Hill Sixth Form College—a place that seems to be having more success than its predecessor. It would have been a shame to close a school with such great facilities, and I’m glad that the spirit of Eaglesfield lives on in its classrooms and halls, like a menace waiting for a chance to trip you up in the hallway, bustle you to the back of the lunch queue, or launch a snowball directly at your testicles.

My Impotent Online Brain

Photo by That’s Her Business on Unsplash

While reading something on Wikipedia’s app the other day, I noticed a little box in the top right corner with the number 173 in it. Curious, I clicked on it, and was presented with 173 Wikipedia pages that I’d viewed since installing the app.

I casually flicked through them—Jake LaMotta, the Regency Era, Troy Newman, Somebody Feed Phil—and wondered how much information I could remember from them. I chose the Regency Era and tried to recall its defining characteristic—nope. I tried to remember why Troy Newman was famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page—no chance. As I went through the pages and tried to recall information about them, I realised just how absent my online brain had been while reading the pages, and how little effort I make to remember information on the internet.

Having been an internet user for a quarter of a century, my online brain is no longer just a squelching orb of jello in my head, but also a million miles of copper cable, connecting billions of computers with trillions of ideas. My knowledge has transformed from the physical to the technological, where I no longer need to slip and strain to learn something, but just need to conjure the right keywords. The internet has become an informational crutch, which if swatted away, would send me plummeting into a confused fog with only my paltry knowledge to guide me.

But what’s wrong with using the internet as a transactive extension of my brain? Why bother going through the arduous process of learning something when it can be instantly accessed online? There’s a few good reasons.

First, we need knowledge to think critically. For example, we cannot watch a single documentary on nutrition and expect to be experts. As with most subjects, nutrition has incredible nuance and depth that can only be accessed through sustained focus and a motivation to learn. Unless you put in the hours to learn about the core ideas of nutrition, you can’t confidently claim that saturated fat is the main reason for your jiggly arse. When the internet replaces your brain as the go-to storage method, you no longer have the knowledge to think critically, or the ability to make fruitful judgments. On the critical thinking scale, you’re less Socrates and more Flat Earther.

“Having information stored in your memory is what enables you to think critically.”

Natalie Wexler

Second, we need knowledge to think analytically—to solve problems. This involves identifying the problems themselves, extracting key information from our memories, and developing creative solutions. You can’t identify problems if you can’t recognise them, you can’t extract key information you don’t remember, and you certainly can’t develop a solution to something you have no clue about. You can use the internet for this process, but it’s like wallowing in a puddle instead of plunging into the ocean. Without knowledge, you don’t have the neurological depth to solve problems effectively. The more we rely on the internet for information, the more stupid we become.

Third, we need knowledge to accelerate learning. Learning something new requires the use of your working memory, which can quickly become overwhelmed. But if you already have knowledge of similar subjects, you can pull this information from your long-term memory, reducing the cognitive load on your working memory, and making learning the new thing easier. Someone who has a basic foundation of psychology will be able to learn the ideas of criminology much more quickly, because despite being different fields, the two concepts deal with how people think, feel, and behave. By understanding the core ideas of psychology, the burden on your working memory is lightened, allowing you to absorb and analyse the new information more easily. If you make the internet a permanent informational crutch, you damage your ability to learn.

For me, online reading has become a way to satisfy my idle curiosity, nothing more. When I read a book, I delve into thousands of words that cover a single coherent topic, some of which consolidates in my brain. When I read online, I skim a few articles and cherry-pick the information that seems the most interesting, most of which instantly leaves me.

What a tragic waste of time.

Why Boredom Can Be Profoundly Useful

Bulldog
Photo by meredith hunter on Unsplash

Boredom is a state of mind that makes most people horribly uncomfortable. When all occupations temporarily leave us, and we’re left floundering alone with our thoughts, we might bear witness to a creeping sense of lethargy that seems to enclose our very souls, spawning an instinctive desire to liberate ourselves from the grievous tedium of nothingness, away from the intense feelings of apathy, depression, weariness and languor. Escape seems the logical solution to such apparent ghastliness.

Some writers would even have us believe that boredom is the consequence of a flawed character, claiming listlessness to be wholly unacceptable in such a fascinating world as ours:

“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”

G.K. Chesterton

I’m assuming that Mr. Chesterton was never forced to attend Sunday church as a child, or to spend the day watching Test cricket. Despite existing in a universe comprised of a magnitude of wonder, the shine of its splendour is still easily dulled by the bored human mind, and to classify this as a flaw seems a grave injustice.

For German philosopher Martin Heidegger, to face raw, unadulterated boredom is to stare deep into the foggy abyss, all sense of meaning obliterated, with nothing left but dreaded existential anxiety:

“Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference”

Martin Heidegger

Boredom has a terrible rap, it seems. But despite being universally maligned, boredom has a multitude of latent benefits, like precious jewels waiting to be unearthed. As with every other emotion that we experience, boredom was developed for an evolutionary benefit: to discover what interests us, and then to motivate us towards it. It serves as a mechanism for seeking new, beneficial experiences. As one sits in a bored funk, mind devoid of focus, appealing ideas may start to emerge from the darkness, and given that doing something seems better than doing nothing, we find ourselves on the receiving end of little zaps of energy, lighting us up with intention. Many significant human advancements may have been the result of bored geniuses.

“Something’s got to happen—that’s the explanation for most human undertakings.”

Jean-Claude Baptiste (Albert Camus—The Fall)

The self-reflection and daydreaming that occurs during periods of boredom are teachers of our own desires, educating us on what we want, and then motivating us to get them. Our instinctive and immediate desire to escape from boredom—whether with social media, television, video games, or whatever else in your escapism arsenal—drowns out these valuable, insightful teachings, in favour of something entertaining, but bereft of meaning. Boredom can force us to start on the difficult and valuable thing that we’ve been putting off for years. It’s an opportunity to tend to our own requirements; to be temporarily introspective, rather than mindless content consumers.

“Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.”

Wijnand van Tilburg

The more we employ the numbing tactics of escapism, the greater our alienation from our true selves; those soft whispers that echo in the chambers of our minds.

“Like the trap of quicksand, such thrashing only serves to strengthen the grip of boredom by further alienating us from our desire and passion, which provide compass points for satisfying engagement with life”

John Eastwood, boredom researcher

Few people like to be alone with their thoughts, particularly the difficult ones. But running away only exacerbates them; they grow in your mind like a rapacious virus, goading you into inevitable combat. The beasts that we bury deep within are but temporary prisoners. Every attempt at distraction swells their strength, until they burst forth with a violence that cannot be ignored. Embracing boredom can help you to identify the things that truly bother you, so that you can face them head on, and with a bit of luck, defeat them.

The busyness and distraction habits that we’ve built for ourselves can have a tendency to make our brains feel as though they’re brimming with worthless clutter, and travelling with such speed as to put Speedy Gonzalez to shame. Consuming hundreds of memes, photos and videos with frantic flicks of the thumb might leave you feeling even more stressed than before. By allowing yourself to be bored on occasion, you may find that you’re less tired at the end of the day. Submitting to the odd bout of boredom is like drinking a cup of coffee without the elevated heart-rate.

Having mustered the fortitude to withstand a little boredom, the valuable thing that you decide to do may be suffused with more creativity¹. Innovation often comes from daydreaming, when your mind is in a directionless, wandering state. Only by doing nothing is there room for something to emerge. When we’re in such a state, our brain’s Default Mode Network is activated, a core component of creativity. Incidentally, this network is also activated when taking psychedelics. The empty space of boredom makes room for wondrous creativity.

“So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going to someplace in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place. It’s really awesome.”

Sandi Mann

On the surface, being bored seems a waste of our precious time; a devilish rascal to be avoided at all cost. But digging a little deeper reveals the truth: it’s a driving force of creative thinking, allows golden moments of self-reflection, and compels us towards what we value. Escaping into the glow of a screen while sucking our thumbs for comfort isn’t necessarily the best option. By relenting to our boredom, we may just stumble onto something important.

“When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendour.

Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.”

 Joseph Brodsky

References

  1. Peter Enticott, ‘What does boredom to do your brain‘, Deakin University

How to Gain Deep Understanding

Rubix cube
Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash

If somebody screwed with a bicycle so that the handlebars worked in the opposite way to usual (left goes right, and right goes left), do you think you could ride it? Many people do, according to Smarter Every Day’s Destin Sandlin. Until they get on the bike.

In his video, Destin illuminates a valuable insight: knowledge doesn’t equal understanding. He had the knowledge that he needed to ride the backwards bike—turn the handlebars in the opposite way to usual—but he didn’t have the understanding (or the deep understanding) of how to do it.

The difference between the two concepts is key. Knowledge can be considered as an acquaintance with facts or principles, a familiarity or awareness of something. Understanding goes to the very heart of a concept, requiring a thorough and comprehensive grasp. Often, we can’t explain why we understand something, as it requires an aspect of intelligence that is separate from language. Riding a bike is an example of this—the most articulate person on the planet couldn’t teach a child to ride a bike using just words, as it requires spatial and bodily-kinesthetic skill. Only by getting on the bike itself can the kid begin the journey to BMX-champion stardom.

There’s nothing wrong with being a dabbling dilettante; engaging in multiple things can help you to discover what you’re passionate about. Curiosity can lead you to great places. If we want a true and deep understanding though, it requires a lot more than skimming the surface. You can’t read a Nietzsche book and expect to be an expert on existentialism, or to see an immediate positive impact in your own life. You’ll need to read similar books, analyse and evaluate the content thoroughly, and actively try to apply the concepts in your day-to-day. Passive reading just isn’t enough, even with a photographic memory. Deep understanding takes engagement, hard work and commitment.

Being actively engaged in something is one of the few ways to promote higher-order thinking, and this can only happen if you’re either genuinely interested in the topic, or are being pushed forward by a strong external motivation. Active learning is an effective educational process being used by universities the world over.

Active learning.png
The effectiveness of active learning, from the University of South Australia

Ways to promote deep understanding

Do the thing

Want to learn how to surf? Get some surfing lessons, and then go surfing. Want to become a mathlete? Take some online courses, and then do math. Want to relate to people more deeply? Ask questions, and try to put yourself in their shoes. None of these things can be understood by just passively learning about them. Nobody taught you how to speak—as a child you instinctively knew that by making noises, you’d get what you wanted. You’re using the same method years later, just in a more articulate fashion (hopefully), and you learned it by doing.

You might be able to the list the amazing benefits of mindfulness meditation, but unless you actively engage in the practice itself, you’re never going to reap any of them. This is the simplest but most effective method for gaining deep understanding.

Apply it to problems in your life

Everybody has problems, and it can be difficult knowing how to fix them. Progress can only be made by giving something a try, and observing the results. By trying something, and evaluating the attempt afterwards, you’re gaining a deeper understanding of your chosen solution, regardless of whether it was a complete failure. Even abstract concepts of philosophy require a degree of practical action in order for us to properly understand them. Take utilitarianism (the idea that the end justifies the means) as an example. You might believe that chastising a rude shop assistant is the morally right thing to do, because they might adjust their behaviour towards people in future. But until you give it a try, observe the results, and then evaluate its effectiveness, you’ll never fully understand whether utilitarianism is the right approach in this example.

“I believe that the school must represent present life – life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.”

John Dewey

“Theory without practice leads to an empty idealism, and action without philosophical reflection leads to mindless activism.”

John L. Elias and Sharan B. Merriam

Discuss and debate

Chatting with your spouse, friends and colleagues about a topic helps to cement the ideas in your brain, in addition to securing some much needed human intimacy. The associative nature of our brains allows discussion that adapts and diverts from the original point, strengthening the neural pathways surrounding the central topic, and advancing understanding in the process. We can learn a shitload from our friends, if we’re willing to listen and engage. Have the courage to be vulnerable and say what you really want to say; what you’re genuinely interested in. You can only get through so much weather small-talk because you find yourself going insane. Deep, meaningful conversation is a major factor for successful relationships, while at the same time promoting thorough understanding of the examined topics.

Analyse and evaluate

Pulling something apart into its core components—whether an engine, or a philosophical concept—helps to understand how the parts make up the whole. Some things are multi-faceted and incredibly complex—breaking them down into smaller chunks is an effective way to understand them better. We must critically analyse the details of a thing if we want to really know it, and compare and contrast it to things of a similar nature.

Evaluation is just as important. Only by reflecting on the value of what you’ve done can you determine whether it’s worth doing again.

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The difference between surface and deep understanding, from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Repetition

There’s a million cliches that espouse this message, and for good reason. Only by repeating something can you build the neural brain connections required for memory, and networks to similar concepts in your brain.

All of your senses can be used for repetition learning—by reading, watching videos, or listening to podcasts about the same concept, you’re forging valuable pathways that will promote understanding, while helping to keep things interesting through the use of different mediums.

“Neurons that fire together wire together.”

Donald Hebb, Canadian neuropsychologist

Write it down

Writing your ideas about a subject will help you to remember it, and formulate different notions surrounding it. Producing emotional writing—how you actually feel about the topic—also makes it more memorable. Dry, purely rational writing should be left to university assignments; these are your personal thoughts and feelings about a topic.

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It’s easy to skim the surface of a subject without truly understanding it. You could be the pub-quiz champion of your town but actually know very little about your memorised facts. If you’re willing to dive deeper, with dedication and hard work you can turn simple knowledge into deep, fulfilling understanding.