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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?

Thinking about my reading

I read widely and voraciously. Every month, I check the list of new releases at the library and request the titles that interest me. From time to time, I’ll pull other books off the shelves. When I have a new research interest, I borrow 7-10 books about it. Most of the time, I skim tables of contents and jump to the specific chapters I’m interested in. Few books deserve a close reading and lots of notes. For example, out of the twenty-seven books I lugged home a few weeks ago, I took notes on three:

Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Ann M. Blair, 2011: Yale)
Loved the historical notes on note-taking, indices, and other good things. Learned a lot from this. Very geeky, though.
Epictetus: Discourses and Selected Writings (trans. and ed. by Robert Dobbin, 2008: Penguin)
Interested in Stoic philosophy.
Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (Adam Grant, 2013: Viking)
Research validation for strategy of giving; role models to look up and learn more about? (ex: Rifkin)

I was thinking about why I read a lot of books and when it might make sense to adopt a different strategy. One of the nuggets I picked up from Too Much to Know was this viewpoint from Seneca:

Instead Seneca recommended focusing on a limited number of good books to be read thoroughly and repeatedly: “You should always read the standard authors; and when you crave change, fall back upon those whom you read before.”

Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Ann M. Blair, 2011: Yale)

Restricting myself to a small canon feels slightly claustrophobic, but I can see the point of rereading, absorbing, enacting, experimenting, digging deeper. After all, the limiting factor is rarely knowledge. More often, our growth is limited by action and reflection. For personal growth, it’s not a matter of reading more books — although sometimes the right book can unlock some more understanding through a different perspective. I still like the way that reading lots of different books leads to interesting connections between diverse ideas, though, so I don’t think I’ll quite give that up. Maybe I’ll just reread particularly good books (or at least my notes of books!) more often, as I set up, go through, and review exercises and experiments associated with them.

Breadth and depth in reading

Breadth and depth in reading

Why do I read books, anyway? What do I get out of them? If I’m clearer about what I value, then maybe I can get better at choosing promising books, and also at understanding how I feel about various books. I had been looking forward to reading this social media book for a while, but I found myself a little disappointed in it. It was thorough and probably very useful, but it felt… dry. Another book was vibrant with stories, but didn’t translate into actions I was moved to take. Why do I read? What resonates with me?

I started by writing down different reasons, and then I ranked them in terms of importance. The results surprised me.

What do I look for when I read? - What are my goals?

What do I look for when I read? – What are my goals?

It turns out that I read primarily to find different approaches that I can consider or try out. This probably explains why books that proclaim the One True Method rub me the wrong way. I prefer books that lay out several strategies and describe the situations where each strategy may be more appropriate. I can use those strategies myself, and I can also pick up ideas to share with others. I can still read single-strategy books, but I have to do more of the comparison myself, and there’s always the suspicion of confirmation bias and cherry-picked stories.

On a related note, I like the way that books present a collection of ideas. When I search for information on the Net, I often end up with a zoomed-in view and little context. It’s understandable. That’s how I write on my own website – in disconnected chunks. With a well-structured book, I can learn from the related ideas that the authors include. That said, I prefer it if the authors actually worked on figuring out logical connections instead of throwing everything together in a grab-bag of miscellany.

Books are also handy for chunking ideas in a mental shorthand. For example, having read Taleb’s book, I can use the “black swan” as a mental shortcut for thinking about the certainty of unpredictable events. Reading books about communication makes it easier for me to see patterns and work with them. The danger is that I might oversimplify, smooshing real-life observations into these neat pigeonholes – but it’s probably better than not knowing what to even look for.

What kinds of books suit me well?

What kinds of books suit me well?

There are probably books that suit me better and others that suit me less. I can’t tell all these things from the titles and I refuse to be limited to bestseller recommendations, but I can get a sense of what a book is like from a quick read of a chapter. I’ll still read books outside this model once in a while, but it’s nice to know why some books end up dogeared and others skimmed.

As for closer, repeated reading, I think it comes down to being moved to action, identifying the triggers for change and the new actions I want to take, keeping notes on the experiment, and circling back to the book to check my observations against the author’s notes. There’s also this idea of not just being driven by my own questions (since I’m still learning how to ask good questions myself), but to very very carefully pick good teachers and sit at their feet (virtually, of course). Epictetus comes highly recommended throughout the ages, so he might be a good one to start with.

I’ve been reading all my life, and there’s still so much more to learn. =)

How to read blogs efficiently with a feed reader

Books tend to be better-organized and more in-depth, but these days, I get more current information and insights from blogs. Reading lots of blogs can take time, though. Worse, it’s easy to get distracted by the interesting links and ideas you’ll come across. Next thing you know, it’s two hours later and you haven’t even started working on your project.

Here are the tools and strategies I use to read blogs. I hope they help!

I subscribe to blogs I regularly read, and I read them using a feed reader. Some blogs are great for inspiration and serendipity. Other blogs are written by people I’d like to learn more about, and I don’t want them to disappear in my forgetfulness. Instead of subscribing by e-mail, I use a feed reader to organize the blogs I want to read in different folders, so I can prioritize which folder I want to read first.

You might not have come across feed readers yet, or you may already be using one without knowing what it’s called. Feed readers (also known as aggregators) are tools that go to all the blogs you’ve subscribed to and get a special version of the blog updates formatted so that computers can easily understand it. The tool then displays the information in a form you can easily read.

 

Many feed readers allow you to organize your subscriptions into folders. For example, I have an “AA Skill Development” folder for professional development blogs that I skim when I find myself with a moment of time. I add “AA” to the beginning of folders that I’d like to see first in the list, since the folders are alphabetically sorted. Organizing your subscriptions into folders is great because that allows you to quickly read through lots of similar topics together.

I read most blog posts on my phone, quickly paging through headlines and excerpts. I rarely read blogs when I’m at my computer. After all, I could be doing something more productive instead, and I don’t want to get distracted by the links. The Feedly app isgreat for this because it can synchronize across devices. Many feed readers even let you read while you’re offline, which is great for learning things when I’m on the subway. Lately I’ve been skimming through everything, newest posts first. It doesn’t take me a lot of time to do so, and it means that I don’t forget to read the folders down the list.

When I come across something I find interesting, I use the Save for later feature in Feedly. I can then follow up on it when I get back to my computer by checking my Saved for later folder. I usually save this for my weekly review. In fact, I have an If This Then That recipe that copies my saved items into Evernote, and I have an Emacs Lisp script that exports that list and makes it part of my weekly review. That’s probably the geekiest part of my setup, so don’t worry if that makes you gloss over. =)

You don’t have to read everything. You don’t even have to skim through everything. Feel free to use the Mark all as read feature, or to ignore the unread count.

Most feed readers can autodetect the feed for the site you want to subscribe to. For example, if you want to add this site to your Feedly, you can try putting in http://sachachua.com/blog and it should show you the recent posts. I write about a lot of different topics, so if you want, you can subscribe to just one category. For example, if you only want my learning-related posts, you can subscribe to http://sachachua.com/blog/category/learning/feed .

I like using the free Feedly reader, and there are many other options out there. I hope you find something that works for you!

Adapt to your learning style

Books are great, but they’re not for everyone. If you find it hard to get through a book, figure out what your personal learning style is, and adapt to that instead. Do you prefer listening to audio or watching presentations? The Internet has plenty of resources, and many libraries carry audiobooks and DVDs as well. Do you prefer doing things with your hands? Experimenting is getting easier and easier.

2014-01-06 Learn how you learn

That said, reading is a skill you can get better at. If you can become more comfortable with reading–or at least, with getting the most important points from a book or a summary of it–you can access a treasure trove of people’s knowledge through the ages. Here’s a sketch of mine from 2012 on How to Read a Book (Adler and van Doren)
20120306-visual-book-notes-how-to-read-a-book.png

Still, if you’ve got a choice of learning formats, why not pick one that follows your learning style? =) Good luck and have fun!

Planning my learning; It’s okay to learn in a spiral

I’ve been coming to terms with the quirks of my learning preferences. =) I think I should be better at focusing, but really, I’m all over the map, so I should just learn how to make the most of the fact that I learn bits and pieces and then move on. It turns out that’s okay. In fact, people design curricula that way.

Learning in spirals

2014-01-03 Learning in spirals

I’m not the only geek who learns like this. It’s a pretty common pattern, apparently. Here are Sadique Ali’s thoughts on going through the spiral of learning. =) Good to see how other people deal with it! See HackerNews for interesting comments.

So what are the different areas I’m currently learning about? I started by listing the categories that came to mind. Then I wrote down what I was already comfortable with (celebrate your successes and starting point!). I wrote down the next things I wanted to explore. Then I picked ONE of those things and filled in more details for my current focus (or at least, what I’m likely to focus on the next time I come back to the topic).

2014-01-03 What are my current learning areas

This is great. It gives me “next actions” to focus on when I feel the urge to explore a particular category. Leaving myself a note about what’s next makes it easier for me to hit the ground running instead of spending time trying to figure out what to do. I can still change it, of course, but at least I have a reasonable default.

I have the freedom to follow my interests. I also nudge myself to explore specific topics further, because sometimes all you need is to sit down and start, and then you’re motivated to continue. The themes I’ve picked for each day influence me a lot. I don’t set aside each day exclusively for one topic, but I notice where the holes are when I haven’t thought about something in a while. My blog post calendar makes those holes visible, and that encourages me to pick either something I’m comfortable explaining or a question I’m curious about exploring.

What’s a good way for me to keep this table convenient and up to date? Hmm… Adding it to my mindmap or outline, maybe? That way, I can stash resources related to future topics. An Org Mode outline might be easiest to manage as it grows in size, since I can track status and export my notes. Here it is: http://sach.ac/my-learning

Do you learn in a spiral too? How do you make the most of it?

Learning from online role models

Have you identified any role models for the skills you want to learn or improve?

When people tell me they want to learn more about something, I often ask them who they look up to as role models for the skills they want to build. It really helps to have a clear picture of what success looks like, and then you can play “spot the difference” to figure out specific techniques or steps for improvement. You might not want to do everything that your role models do or suggest, but studying them can show you options and ideas you might otherwise have missed.

I get a lot of value even through learning from role models from a distance. Since there are so many ways to learn, I generally don’t want to ask for people’s attention, so I rarely reach out. Instead, I try to build things up so that people talk to me. =) Other people get a kick out of getting e-mails, tweets, or comments from famous people. If you’re one of those — or if you want to ask your role model for more specific advice — here are some tips for building that connection!

2013-11-22 Learn from online role models

(Also, it really does help if you tell people what you’re learning from them or trying to learn from them! =) Sometimes people don’t know what they know until someone asks.)