Holistic Learning by Scott Young

“If you understand something in only one way, then you don’t really understand it at all. The secret of what anything means to us depends on how we’ve connected it to all other things we know. Well-connected representations let you turn ideas around in your mind, to envision things from many perspectives until you find one that works for you. And that’s what we mean by thinking!” – Marvin Minsky

Undeserved Talent?

“I wasn’t entirely surprised,” recalls Scott Young after he won first prize for a quiz he hadn’t prepared for. “Although this was my first big win, I had always done well academically. I rarely studied for tests and exams and when I did study it was closer to a quick skim than a detailed session. School was never really more than an abstraction while I worked on more interesting projects.”

Young, never satisfied with attributing good academic performance to innate talent, wanted to understand what made some learn faster than others. “I wanted to know whether it was more than just a gift but an ability that could be practiced.” His observations led to the conclusion that the high achievers were operating from a completely different approach.

Holistic Learning

In Holistic Learning, Young describes this technique as the opposite of rote memorisation. “Instead of trying to pound information into your brain with the hopes it will simply fall out when you need it, holistic learning is the process of weaving the knowledge you are learning into everything you already understand.”

While rote memorisation organises subjects into distinct boxes and views concepts through a single perspective, holistic learning interrelates concepts in a web of ideas that ultimately means they can be viewed through many perspectives and paths. Because it’s impossible to learn anything in isolation, you learn better by creating and strengthening associations.

Creating a Construct

“Your goal when learning anything is to create a construct or an underlying understanding,” Young explains. “Your construct is the sum total of your web. It is how all the ideas fit together.” These are much easier to maintain than memorised lists and allow you to solve difficult problems even when information is missing.

How to Learn Holistically

The fact that most people who learn holistically do so by default doesn’t mean other people can’t develop the technique. “Holistic learning is a skill that takes practice,” Young points out. “These techniques should allow a small, immediate boost in comprehension, but the real goal of a highly interlinked web takes time.”

  • Method One: Visceralisation

Instead of simply grouping together rules and ideas (an “inefficient way to interlink [that] is little better than brute force memorisation”), you want to “summarise concepts and ideas with a specific image or feeling”. By combining images, sounds, feelings, and textures (depending on your learning preferences), you create something more than just a picture. “By visceralising you are taking something that is abstract and making it tangible. This creates a workable model that can be combined and understood.”

  • Method Two: Metaphor

Metaphors, which interlink your constructs, allow you to connect seemingly unrelated ideas. For example, Einstein’s description of the universe as a “fabric” of space-time (much like The Economist’s amusing comparison between investing and religion) makes it easier to understand the ideas. “Get into the habit of playing the ‘That Reminds Me Of…’ game whenever you learn something new,” Young suggests. “It doesn’t matter if the ideas are ridiculous or completely unrelated. That’s the point.”

  • Method Three: Explore

“Exploration is the process of going through your constructs, models and metaphors and finding errors,” Young explains. “Scrap models that don’t represent what you’ve learned and fill holes for where you lack understanding.”

But, provided you are thorough in your use of visceralisation and metaphors, this won’t be as necessary. “When you heavily visceralise and metaphor, you end up with a lot of redundancy. You understand something in so many ways that even if one of those methods you used to reach understanding is faulty or a gap exists, you have a dozen other ways to reach the same point.”

Nevertheless, exploring helps you clean up mistakes, which you can only really discover once you go back and test them. The best way to do so would be through homework questions, assignments, tests, etc. “If you end up having to do the same type of question many times to understand it, you need to step back, create some new models and rebuild your construct.”


I first came across Scott Young’s blog after one of my best friends in university suggested I check it out when I created Varsity Blah almost four years ago. I’m really glad I did! Young, who recently graduated with a GPA between an A and an A+, is much more detailed in the extensive Learn More, Study Less but Holistic Learning is a good start for those looking to improve their ability.

He does admit that holistic learning won’t always work: “Holistic learning works with highly conceptual information where there is an underlying system. It doesn’t work well with arbitrary information or skills.” It also won’t work for subconscious learning and skills.

The idea of using all the senses to learn is something quite similar to what Dr Caroline Leaf advocates in Switch On Your Brain, which outlines the different intelligence profiles we all have. And as a student, I often used metaphors to help understand concepts like investment diversification (my friends were like different asset classes) or debt consolidation (emptying water from lots of little glasses into one large jug).

My only criticism of this book is that it gets a little caught up in jargon, like Young’s writing sometimes does. Aside from the problem of make-believe words like ‘visceralisation’ or using ‘metaphor’ as a verb, it also leads to sentences like this: “Interlinking your constructs helps funnel problems outside of their influence zone into realms of understanding.” Given that this book is meant to be about learning more effectively, something simpler might have helped.

If you enjoyed this post, please remember to Like, Tweet, and Share it using the links at the top or bottom of the page. And remember to subscribe to free alerts or follow me on Twitter to be notified when the next review is released. For more on the subject, see Who Needs Good Grades and College Survival Guide – 6 Steps to Success at School.