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Want, How, What: the Learning Pyramid for success

Anthony Mai

11 min read

Dec 31, 2020



Approaching learning as a mindless exercise in absorbing knowledge is an ineffective strategy. Using both personal experience and ideas from education theory, I have devised what should be one of the most efficient routes to becoming an expert. This method involves the student building their knowledge according to three distinct layers which make up the theoretical construct called the Learning Pyramid.


I want you to try and think back to the feelings and experiences that you have already had concerning studying in high school.

Many of you have already had negative experiences regarding these things. You may have struggled to pay attention in class, especially if the teacher does not seem to be trying to teach properly. All they do is read off powerpoints and then get you to do endless worksheets. In the sciences, it can also be very frustrating if teachers do not actually explain things to you, but merely tell you facts. The gap between being introduced to new knowledge and then being able to use it to solve problems is bridged by what teachers should actually be doing, which is explaining. Despite that, most high school teachers do not bother to, or do not even know how to, do this middle step. They have failed to do the one thing that only a teacher can do. You can find theory from reading textbooks. You can find practice questions from workbooks and exam papers. It is much harder to find the explanations that transform the words of theory into mental images and logical algorithms that you can think through.

You have been shown one way to learn through your experience at school. And surely you do not need much convincing to realise that the way your school is teaching you sucks.

You can still succeed with the traditional learning style, but the cost is immense. You will have to dedicate an enormous amount of time and potentially sacrifice the things that you truly enjoy like your hobbies or social life.  

There are better ways to learn.

This may sound obvious but when I see how students go about their studies it seems to me that they do not really understand the ramifications of this. Here is another way to say the exact same thing:

Think about the top students in your school. The ones who dedicate all their time and effort to study and are currently occupying the top ranks. You can catch up to, and even surpass them, all while doing less work. Or if you are already one of those top students, congratulations on getting there. If you managed to get there with an inefficient learning method, then you have the potential to widen the gap between yourself and your peers immensely.

I am going to show you how to learn about learning. But this will not amount to anything unless you consciously choose to absorb and reflect on what I want to show you. This is a two-way interaction. You need to start thinking about your learning.

You can’t approach your studies mindlessly anymore.  


The base: Want to learn

The path to learning can be encapsulated within a metaphor which I am calling the Learning Pyramid. The knowledge that each student possesses can be allocated to different layers in their pyramid. As the student builds upwards, they become closer to becoming an expert.

This pyramid that we wish to construct can be divided into three layers. The bottom layer is made up of knowledge about “wanting to learn.”

By reading up to here from the beginning of this article, you have already been building up this bottom layer. To work on this layer, you need to overcome the negative associations that you have built up regarding learning, and reach a state where in the classroom, while studying, or even while you are at leisure, you can consciously choose to learn.

If you have ever read books about self-help, personal development, leadership or entrepreneurship, you will know that the first part always focuses on the innermost aspects, such as mindset. Other relevant things like public speaking, conflict resolution, and organisation come later. Although it sounds overdone because everyone is talking about it, none of the experts writing these books ever skip this beginning section for a very clear reason. The number of people who become successful without this are an exceedingly small minority.

Most people will agree that your mindset is essential as an adult in the outside world. Yet for some reason, there is consideration given to the mindset of high school students in their education.

That is why I describe the way most students learn as mindless.

Let me give you a concrete example as to why lacking a mindset, or a ‘want to learn’ is very inhibitive to your learning journey.


I have never met anyone who does not have an immediate adverse reaction at the mention of this word. You likely first encountered this obstacle in your early high school years. For the first time, you were introduced to multiple assignments and exams within close proximity to each other. You received advance notice of these things, and were given plenty of time to prepare, yet you didn’t and are filled with regret when the due date is right in front of you. The logical thing is to think that this happened because of your poor time management.  

I think that this is the wrong way to think about procrastination. Fushia Sirois and Timothy Pychyl, both academics in psychology, have written a book on procrastination (Procrastination, Health and Wellbeing, 2016). In this, they pointed out that although procrastination can be blamed on a failure in time management, a more profound insight why this occurred in the first place. There are multiple factors at play, but the one that stands out as the most interesting, is emotion regulation.

To put it in simple terms, it is not that we procrastinate because we have a poor understanding of when things are due. We procrastinate because the task at hand sucks. If you know the journey is not going to be smooth, of course you do not really want to start in the first place. Here is the crazy thing. Doesn’t this perfectly match up to the negative associations students have towards study?

We need to look at procrastination from a new perspective. Procrastination is not damning evidence of your inability. It is a signal that that way you are learning is rife with negative experiences.

You might have thought that not having a strong “want to learn” is still adequate but that is far from the truth. Things like procrastination are a symptom of this. The first step on your learning journey is building awareness of how your current environment is hindering you, and then making the conscious affirmation that you want to break out of that.

So now you have reflected on your experiences in education and can hopefully see how these experiences have adversely affected your ability to learn. Previously, I also made the claim that I know a better way to learn which will allow you to make explosive strides in your ability. These two ideas; a desire to escape from your current situation, and anticipation of a brighter future, become the initial driving force for the “want to learn.”

The middle: How to Learn

It is only when this bottom layer has been established that students should move onto building the middle layer, which encompasses knowledge about “how to learn.” Much like the “want to learn,” this is another area that is underrepresented in the traditional education system. It is difficult to define the abstract ideas that relate to this area, though in education theory, the term that has been used is metacognition. This is also colloquially referred to as “thinking about thinking.”

To get an idea of this, let’s start by thinking about the subjects that you currently study. You can imagine a box for each of these subjects in which you can compartmentalise theory such as definitions and equations.

As you try and sort what you know into these boxes, you should encounter knowledge that feels like it should not be squeezed exclusively into a single box. It could be something that feels universally relevant. It could be an everyday scenario that serves as a good analogy but doesn’t feel like formal theory. Another example could be the methods you use to cement new information into your memory.

This information can go into a new box called metacognition.

This is the secret subject that you should be studying alongside your regular subjects. And while it might feel like you are just increasing your workload, the gains are immense since the knowledge you learn will be applicable to all of your other subjects.

This is just one reason why the learning method that I am advocating is so powerful. It is grounded in efficiency, with students having the potential to improve in all of their studies simultaneously.

One of the first things to work on to know “how to learn” is self-evaluation. Since you are still in the early stages of becoming a learner with respect to your school subjects, let’s use a different example where you might be further along. Some good ones would be learning a sport or musical instrument. You begin as an ignorant learner. This is categorised by requiring a teacher or coach to identify faults and provide instruction. Without that guidance, the ignorant learner has no idea what they are doing wrong.

As you would have experienced yourself, with time and practice comes the development of self-awareness. When you are practicing the skill, you can tell yourself where you are making mistakes. You have the ability to self-evaluate your status as a learner. Obviously, the external feedback of an expert is still very valuable and will continue to be until you reach the pinnacle of that skill, but the important thing is that your development is now learner-centred.

All of this is applicable to your school studies as well. Most students lack self-awareness about how they are doing. When they are being fed new information, their attention is focused on absorbing, when it should be on questioning.

How does this relate to what I already know? Does it contradict anything? Do I really understand what this means?

Another sign that students are not evaluating their learning is that they do not think about the purpose of their study. Practice questions are done when assigned by teachers. The only objective is to complete the questions. Compare this to what your metacognition should be.

What knowledge is this testing? Which parts am I finding difficult? What can I do about my areas of weakness?

This is how you should think about thinking.  

The final step: What to Learn

The two previous layers of “want to learn” and “how to learn” are pretty much ignored in the traditional education system. The apex of the pyramid is “what to learn,” and it is what most people will typically think about in terms of learning. You can see in the pyramid analogy that starting with this is unwise. The lack of foundations means that students will run into obstacles very quickly. What do these obstacles look like?

We have already seen that one these is procrastination. Another one can be running out of time. Without metacognition to make links between theory within the same subject as well as between subjects, students are learning through the clumsiest brute force method. Their prior knowledge is not helping them process new information and this is why even motivated students will struggle to keep up with the workload since their method itself is inefficient. Another result of this is a lack of confidence because the student knows deep down that they don’t actually understand what they are learning. This manifests itself as negative experiences every time they need to use that knowledge, making the act of study itself difficult. It can also be a cause for poor exam performance where this mental fatigue leads to silly mistakes and an inability to extrapolate in unfamiliar situations.

Now let’s assume that you have done the right thing and built a good foundation on the previous layers. Now you are finally ready to learn “what to learn.”

One of the core ideas that you can work on for this layer is how to understand a concept. It is my personal belief that most teachers take a completely inadequate method to explain concepts to students, and I will use an analogy to justify.

Imagine you are an art student learning how to draw from the very beginning. Think about what would happen if your teacher put a complicated drawing in front of you. This one was done by a expert. All the techniques have been done masterfully. Perspective, shading, framing. Then your teacher says you are going to learn by copying it. How do you think your copy will turn out? There is a technique and intention behind every stroke and you will likely completely fail to capture that through the superficial understanding you currently have.

How should you actually learn to draw? It makes sense to start with the fundamentals such as the basic forms. Squares, triangles and circles. Then there are variations to each by changing proportions, such as rectangles and ellipses. Eventually, you will be able to recognise that shapes in the real world can be broken down into these forms. As you progress, the complexity of the thing you can decompose into basic forms will increase.

So how does this relate to learning at school?

In its simplest form, explaining a concept involves two steps; decomposition and synthesis. Most teachers fail to adhere to this because they just think about what the finished product looks like and begin to describe different parts of it haphazardly. This is the equivalent of asking the student to copy a completed drawing.

Concepts with any degree of complexity cannot be simply understood this way. I am not going to blame teachers too much since most of them are just reciting the same way they learnt when they were students.      

The proper way to explain a concept however begins with decomposing it into a series of standalone ideas. These are often the basic form of theory such as standalone definitions or interactions. It is only once the separate parts are understood that synthesis into the interconnected product is possible.

If students understand decomposition and synthesis, then when faced when new information, even if taught poorly at school, they can use these techniques to self-teach.

Building the Learning Pyramid

Let’s go back and summarise what the Learning Pyramid is. It is a core component of the philosophy of Atlas, with three layers to it:

  • Want to Learn

  • How to Learn

  • What to Learn

So far, I have described building each layer up sequentially, but the journey is far from over. You will reach a stage where you have built up the “what” layer to its limit, as dictated by the size of the lower layers of “want” and “how.”        

That does not mean that you are finished. If you want to go even higher, you must return to the lower layers and extend them. This is where the true nature of the Learning Pyramid is revealed. If you do not want to be held back by a height limit, then you must continue to build each of the three layers proportionately.

The examples that I have mentioned here are merely the first steps for each layer. To build on your “want to learn,” you must go beyond the desire to overcome the obstacles in front of you. Through reflection, you should discover your passions and true goals. At the end of the day, you are studying your school subjects because you have been told that the knowledge in it is useful. But there is obviously a wealth of learning to be had regarding everything else in the world. As you work on understanding your goals, you will develop a much clearer awareness of why and what you want to learn.

I talked about self-evaluation and metacognition as part of knowing “how to learn.” Metacognition encompasses an enormous area of knowledge which you can continue to explore. Some aspects to learn about include how to improve your engagement in class, how to transfer prior knowledge from another subject, and different techniques to revise.

From there you will find the knowledge that you can absorb will expand. “What to learn” then begins to cover links between seemingly disconnected concepts, extension concepts, and intuition regarding unfamiliar concepts. These are the aspects that will signal that you are becoming an expert in a subject, which is when you can conceptualise knowledge as an interconnected web rather than discrete facts. You will be able to flexibly use knowledge from anywhere on the web, as well make incorporate new knowledge with little effort.

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