Getting better at learning on my own

I’m starting to get the hang of this, I think. I had been feeling a little… lost? inarticulate? trying to figure out how I learn how to learn on my own. Of course I had been learning on my own since forever, teaching myself programming out of books and through trial-and-error, learning writing outside the classroom, picking up drawing and sketchnoting by following my curiosity. But I hadn’t thought about it much until maybe 2013. I’m better at describing what I do and what I’m trying to figure out. I feel like I’ve learned a lot, but I’m learning even more now, so I’m still in the process of making sense of it all. =)

Sometimes it is easy to start with the challenges. I listened to those small, doubtful voices in my head, those knee-jerk reactions, and I wrote down the excuses they offered. They were surprisingly easy to prioritize for me. I simply asked myself which excuse made the least sense, dealt with it, and then moved up from there. Here is the list in order of importance, with the bigger challenges first.

  1. Action-focused learning takes time and reflection. No getting around this one! I just have to try things out. Life is short, and paying attention will help me make the most of it.
  2. No discussion / feedback. Not that teachers actually correct homework any more, although I suppose it would have been nice to be able to compare my answers with those in the back of the textbook. Anyway, I do get feedback from people and from results. I just don’t get authoritative feedback. That’s okay.
  3. Implicit / tacit knowledge. I have to pull insights out of other people’s heads / lives / Emacs configurations.  At least I can leave things a little better documented.
  4. No curriculum / sequence / mental structure. This means I could waste time and effort learning stuff the hard way instead of in a logical sequence. Oh well, still better than not learning at all. Talking to people should help with this.
  5. Driven by curiosity – can have gaps. I could miss something important! But then it might not be important after all if it’s so easily missed, yes? Besides, other people are learning other things, so we should get decent coverage.
  6. No textbook – many non-academic sources. C’est la vie. In fact, most of the interesting things I want to learn will probably never have a textbook, since textbooks require a certain audience size and class structure. I can learn how to learn from other people’s experiences, and how to think critically.
  7. Have to define your own assessment. Projects and experiments can help with this. It’s good to have clear goals that I can check off.
  8. Dispersed – time, focus. So what if I learn in a spiral or random-walk spread over time? If I take good notes, I don’t have to lose so much to forgetting. Maybe I can experiment with sprints, too.
  9. Prioritization. In a class, someone else says what’s important to learn or not. On my own, I might estimate value incorrectly, but that’s okay; I can check with other people, and I can listen to why I’m motivated about something.
  10. No clear sense of progress. How do you know how fast you’re going or how close you are? Does that matter? Perhaps I can check my progress by defining my own metrics.
  11. No cohort. Taking a class means having classmates – people you can talk to, people who are roughly at the same stage and with the same interests. I don’t have a clear cohort, but I do bump into people with similar interests over time.
  12. Self-paced learning can be slow because I’m doing it at my own pace. But life is short, and keeping that in mind can give me that sense of urgency.
2014-01-23 What's challenging or different about self-directed learning

2014-01-23 What’s challenging or different about self-directed learning

Looking at the gaps helped me see the ways I worked around them. Here’s what that process looks like. I start with a general question, and then I read or talk to people in order to get a sense of what’s out there. That gives me the vocabulary and the concepts I need to ask a better question, a more specific one. With that question in mind, I can then try things out in real life (everything has to come down to a change, after all). When I do this right, there’s also reflecting and following up. There are challenges for each step, but fortunately, there are also ways I can get better at each of them.

2014-01-27 Self-directed learning flow

2014-01-27 Self-directed learning flow

Fortunately, a conversation about English skills and delegation serendiptously led to a side-conversation about educational theory around reflective learning and experiential learning, which gave me even more ways to think about and understand my process. (See! The lens of literature is great for naming and finding the general elements in things that look idiosyncratic!) I have even more learning about learning ahead of me. In particular, I wonder if structured debriefing can make my reviews/reflections even better…

2014-01-28 Reflective learning

2014-01-28 Reflective learning

It seems all very circular, this learning about learning. Abstract. Ivory-towerish. I think it’s a phase, like the way I probably had to think about typing when I was learning to type, and now I just type. I’ll probably want to keep learning about learning, of course, and I can probably keep learning about learning forever, but I’ll also learn a lot by applying it to something outside itself. I can practise by learning about something that isn’t learning. Delegation, perhaps. Maybe Emacs, too. =)

2014-01-28 Moving past learning

2014-01-28 Moving past learning

In particular, identifying specific experiments or actions to take for the different areas I’m curious about will make it easier to actually do them, instead of just spending time planning. =) If I’m curious about whether strength and flexibility exercises can be an enjoyable part of my routine, I can borrow a yoga DVD and do a half an hour every other day for a month, and I can also try signing up for a class series. (I’ve already requested the DVD from the library.) If I want to learn from people, I can start by identifying the key topics and questions I’m curious about, sharing them, and connecting with people. If I’m curious about cooking with spices, I can choose two spice combinations and try them out.

2014-01-28 Translating my curiosity into actions and experiments TODO

2014-01-28 Translating my curiosity into actions and experiments TODO

Once I have a general curiosity about something, it’s easy to do a survey. Once I do a survey, it’s usually easy to pick a specific question and an experiment to try - if I slow down and make myself do so. Otherwise it’s tempting to just skim through the books and feel like I know something, without actually having a proper opinion on it and without letting it influence my life. If an idea isn’t going to change my life (at least in some way), it’s still marginally useful as something to pass on to other people in case it could change their lives, but it’s still a little bit of a waste. So: more experiments, especially for ideas that I think are valuable.

2014-01-05 How can I keep better track of experiments to try

2014-01-05 How can I keep better track of experiments to try

And really, they can be tiny experiments – let’s try this for one day, or let’s try this three times. I just have to make sure I’m conscious of them. I might as well always have something on the go. I probably always have something on the go, actually. In that case, I might as well take credit for them, and properly reflect on what I’m learning.

So this is where I am now. More experiments, more notes, more tracking, more development of ideas over time… Looking forward to sharing those notes with you.

How do you make sure you translate ideas into action? How do you keep track of the little changes you make?

  • Shardul

    this “What – So what – Now what” is a wonderful sequence.

    • http://sachachua.com sachac

      I love the way other people’s phrases and frameworks help me see things more clearly. =) If you come across other useful things like that, please share!

  • Prabu Ayyagari

    Hi Sacha – another timely and well laid out post, thank you. In your “self-directed learning flow”, you indicate a “map of curiousity”. That intrigues me. I will start drawing my map and will share…. If you have one, I’d love to learn from your map.

  • Judy T.

    Love the meta-thinking going on here, Sacha. Have you looked at portfolios as a way to keep track of your learning & reflective practice? A lot of higher ed and other “soft” sciences use those as evaluations, etc. Lots of examples of digital and conventional portfolios on web.

  • Glenn

    If you haven’t already, check out courses offered by The Great Courses
    (http://www.thegreatcourses.com/greatcourses.aspx). Their courses are
    not only excellent in themselves, but their course booklets come with
    extensive outlines and supplementary reading lists. These can help with the problem of “No Curriculum”. (I don’t work for The Great Courses, just love their offerings.) You can get many of their courses at public libraries.

    This is a great post!

    • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

      Thanks for sharing! I’ll see if my library has something similar. =) It’s always good to see the paths that other people have marked out.