How Latent Learning Will Help You Learn New Skills

Progress Isn’t Always Recognizable

Sketch of a maze

Have you seen the film Kung Fu Panda? Yes, that one with the big cuddly panda. If you haven’t, stop reading this post and watch it. It’s a great film!

Just make sure to come back to this post once you’re done.

In the early parts of the film, Po (the cuddly panda) struggles with learning Kung Fu, no matter how hard he tries he doesn’t seem to be grasping anything that is taught to him. After a frustrating session, Shifu (his cute yet lethal sensei) stumbles on Po rummaging through the cabinets looking for something to eat, as food is his source of joy. Unbeknownst to Po, he’s utilizing everything he learned in Kung Fu to get to the food:

Shifu: Look at you.

Po: Yeah, I know, I disgust you.

Shifu: … how did you get up there?

Po: I don’t know. I was getting a cookie.

Shifu: Yet you are 10 feet off the ground. And you have done a perfect spilt.

Po: No, this? This is just an accident.

Shifu: There are no accidents. Come with me.

Why am I talking about this particular scene in a film that is meant for children (it’s still an awesome film)? Well, this particular scene best explains the concept of latent learning.

In this article I’m going to explain the concept of latent learning and why it’s important for you to be aware of it. If you’ve hit a plateau or struggling to learn new concepts then read on.

What Is Latent Learning?

Before we get into the concept of latent learning, let’s understand the official term of latent:

la·tent | \ ˈlā-tᵊnt

present and capable of emerging or developing but not now visible, obvious, active, or symptomatic.

You’re probably thinking:

What the hell did I just read?

Don’t worry I was in the same boat.

Essentially the term latent means being able to develop, but not being aware of it.

What is latent learning?

It’s similar, but with an added learning twist.

Latent learning is realising you’ve learned something only until you’ve performed the task or skill. This manifests either through necessity or if given the right amount of motivation.

In Po’s case, the delicious cookies were his motivation. For days he struggled with learning Kung Fu, as every day passed he became more frustrated with his lack of progress. It was only until he needed to use his new set of skills that it became apparent to him that he actually was taking in everything that was taught to him.

Shifu, his cute and fluffy sensei, realised in order to get the best out of him, he needed to use specific motivation.

In Po’s case; dumplings.

Po trying to eat the dumpling

Its Origins

You’re probably thinking

Ah this is bull. This doesn’t make sense. I’ve been taught that learning only occurs through reinforcement.

If that’s so, let me hit you with a little science to help validate my point.

Feel free to skip this section if behavioural psychology bores you. I on the other hand, find it interesting.

The term latent learning was coined by the psychologist Edward Tolman in 1948 (that’s right, this concept has been around for ages!), although the idea of latent learning wasn’t original to Tolman he did develop the concept further.

As with almost every scientific experiment it began with a handful of rats in a maze.

The experiment lasted for 17 days in total and the rats were split into 3 groups:

  • Group 1 was rewarded with food every single time they completed the maze and were taken out for all 17 days.
  • Group 2 didn’t receive a reward from days 1-10 and were just taken out. From days 11-17, every time they completed the maze they were rewarded with food and taken out of the maze.
  • Group 3 received nothing at all for completing the maze and were just removed from the maze for all 17 days.

What were the results? Group 1 learned the maze and steadily improved as the days went on. Group 3 slightly improved, but at a slower rate. Group 2 on the other hand was a different story.

From days 1-10, group 2 slightly improved at a similar rate to group 3. However, on days 11-17 when the rats got rewarded with food, they improved far better than any of the groups.

If you find it difficult to follow along, here’s a chart that makes it easier to digest:

A graph that depicts that time of completion in the latent learning rat experiment

For group 2, the data clearly shows that the rats were learning the route even though they didn’t display it, but when presented with enough motivation, in this case; food, the rats were able to perform the task at a faster rate.

My Own Experience With Latent Learning

Before this post, I was unaware of the concept of latent learning. Now that I understand it, I realise I would often experience it myself in my own learning journey.

When I had learned Swedish to surprise my partner, I would often surprise myself when I would pull out a word that I didn’t know I had in my Swedish vocabulary. After saying the word out loud I’d think to myself,

Where on earth did I learn that word?

I must have come across the word in the past, forgotten about it, and through necessity I was able to recall the word from somewhere deep in my brain.

The same goes for when I learned how to touch type. I don’t consciously think where every letter is placed now. When the need arises, my fingers instinctively hit the correct keys. I surprise myself at times, especially when touch typing in a different language.

I’m experiencing latent learning in the current skill that I’m trying to learn; front end development. I’ve been watching quite a few online tutorials as I’m trying to learn basic concepts. Although it’s a lot to take in, I’m surprised when the need comes to writing out a specific set of code, I’m able to recall the information.

It’s quite scary what you pick up but not realise it until the time comes.

What’s Motivating You?

I guess you’re probably thinking to yourself,

That’s all well and good, but how does latent learning help me in my learning journey?

It’s a fair point. We’re all trying to find the latest hack to learn at a faster rate, or the latest tip to retain all the information.

Unfortunately, I’m here to tell you that latent learning isn’t the latest method to attain the limitless effect.

However, if you’re struggling to learn new concepts or you think you’ve reached a plateau in your area of skill, don’t be discouraged. When you think you’re not learning anything new, you are, you’re just not aware of it.

When the need arises or if you have the right amount of motivation, you will be able to utilize the learned skill and surprise yourself that you always had it in you.

Like Po, our cuddly furry panda, we just need to find the right motivation to unlock the skill. For some, it’s needed rest. For others, it’s a tight deadline, or possibly a completely different approach.

Everyone is different.

It’s important to experiment and figure out what works for you.

Learning A New Skill Takes Time

Learning new skills or concepts takes time and the right amount of motivation for it to manifest.

Stay patient and just be aware that you are learning even when it it doesn’t feel like it.

I feel like I’m writing this post more for myself than for anyone else.

I know I struggle with impatience and easily get frustrated when I’m not improving at the rate I think I should be. At times like these (which is often), I just need to remind myself that I am learning and I should keep going.

If you’re in the same boat just remind yourself of the concept of latent learning. You may not realize you’ve learned a new skill or concept until the need arises. When it does, it’s a great feeling.