Monday, May 07, 2012

What Leo Babauta Has Learned about Learning

Leo Babauta is an author and proprietor of Zenhabits, and other websites. He helps his wife homeschool his children in San Francisco, and describes his current views on learning:
When teachers succeeded in getting me to learn, it was only because they made something seem so interesting that I started to care about it. But then I learned on my own, either in class while ignoring everyone else, or more likely after class in the library or at home.

That’s because someone walking you through the steps of learning something doesn’t work — you aren’t learning when you’re just listening to someone tell you how something works. You’re learning when you try to do that something — putting it into action. That’s when the real learning begins and the superficial learning ends — when you try something and fail, and adjust and try again, and solve countless little problems as you do so.

The best teachers know this, and so they inspire, and help you to put the learning into action. As an adult, I’ve learned a lot on my own. The stuff I’ve just read, I’ve mostly forgotten. But the stuff I’ve put into action by playing with it, by practicing, by creating and sharing with others — that stuff has stuck with me. I truly learned it.

How to Learn (or Teach)

The teacher’s job, really, is to fascinate the student. Fascination is the key to learning. Then help the student put the fascination into action.

It follows then, that if you’re teaching yourself, your job is exactly the same.

Here’s how to learn:

  • Get fascinated. As a teacher, you should fascinate the student by rediscovering with her all the things that originally fascinated you about the topic. If you can’t get fascinated, you won’t care enough to really learn something. You’ll just go through the motions. How do you get fascinated? Often doing something with or for other people helps to motivate me to look more deeply into something, and reading about other people who have been successful/legendary at it also fascinates me.
  • Pour yourself into it. I will read every website and book I can get my hands on. Google and the library are my first stops. They’re free. The used bookstore will be next. There are always an amazing amount of online resources to learn anything. If there isn’t, create one.
  • Do it, in small steps. Actually doing whatever you want to do will be scary. You can learn as much Spanish vocabulary as you like, but until you start having conversations, you won’t really know it. You can read as much about chess as you like, but you have to put the problems into action, and play games. You can read about how to program, but you won’t know it until you actually code. Start with small, non-scary steps, with as little risk as possible, focusing on fun, easy skills.
  • Play. Learning isn’t work. It’s fun. If you’re learning because you think you should, not because you’re having fun with it, you will not really stick with it for long, or you’ll hate it and not care about it. So make it play. Make games out of it. Sing and dance while you do it. Show off your new skills to people, with a smile on your face. Do it with others. I believe most learning is done on your own, but doing it with others makes it fun. I like to work out with my friends and with Eva. I like to bake bread for my family. I like to play chess with my kids. That motivates me to learn, because I want to do well when I do it with others.
  • Feel free to move around. I will dive into something for a couple weeks, and then move on to something else. That’s OK. That’s how passion for a topic often works. Sometimes it will last for a long time, sometimes it’s a short intense burst. You can’t control it. Allow yourself to wander if that’s where things lead you.
  • Test yourself. You can learn a lot of information quickly by studying something, testing yourself, studying again to fill in the holes in your knowledge, testing again, and repeating until you have it by heart. That’s not always the most fun way to learn, but it can work well. Alternatively, you can learn by playing, and when you play, allow that to be your test.
  • Disagree. Don’t just agree that everything you’re reading or hearing from others on a topic is correct, even if they are foremost experts. First, experts are often wrong, and it’s not until they are challenged that new knowledge is found. Second, even if they are right and you are wrong by disagreeing, you learn by disagreeing. By disagreeing, you have already not only considered what you’ve been given, but formulated an alternative theory. Then you have to try to test to see which is right, and even if you find that the first information or theory was right and you were wrong, now you know that much better than if you just agreed. I’m not saying to disagree with everything, but the more you do, the better you’ll learn. Don’t disagree in a disagreeable way, and don’t hold onto your theories too tightly and be defensive about them.
  • Teach it. There is no better way to cement your knowledge than to teach it to others. It’s OK if you don’t really know it that well — as long as you’re honest about that when you’re teaching it to someone. For example, I’m a beginner at chess, but I will learn something about it and teach it to my kids — they know I’m not a tournament contender, let alone a master, and yet I’m still teaching them something they don’t know. And when I do, I begin to really understand it, because to teach you have to take what you’ve absorbed, reflect upon it, find a way to organize it so that you can communicate it to someone else clearly enough for them to understand it, see their mistakes and help correct them, see where the holes in your knowledge are, and more.
  • Reflect on your learning by blogging. You soak up a ton of information and patterns, and you can put that into action, but when you sit down and reflect on what you’ve learned, and try to share that with others (as I’m doing right now), you force yourself to think deeply, to synthesize the knowledge and to organize it, much as you do when you teach it to others. Blogging is a great tool for reflection and sharing what you’ve learned, even if you don’t hope to make a living at it. And it’s free.
Leo's emphasis appears to be more on didactic learning and minimal skills learning. And in general, Leo is right that one has to teach oneself, rather than to be taught by a teacher. If you recall, Doctor Arthur Robinson said much the same thing about his own experiences homeschooling his 6 children as a single parent.

If one wants to assist in creating dangerous children, of course, one will need to dive more deeply into more complex skills learning. For that, a certain amount of master : apprentice learning may be required, since many things that should be learned cannot be obtained from textbooks, the internet, learning videos, or wandering and blundering around on one's own. Some things have to be learned from someone else who put in the hard work and hard knocks to learn that special, rare knowledge -- whatever it might be.

Dangerous children will learn core skills at a relatively early age, then push that special knowledge beyond what they were taught. This will require special types of teacher : student arrangements which are not typical of today's conventional factory style, cookie cutter government education.

But learning should be fun, for it to become self-sustaining. It should begin very early in life, and it should last as long as life. And for it to be effective, it needs to be very, very dangerous.

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