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Learning to learn

Learning to learn

For years, I produced a blue and white card to a uniformed official after every transatlantic flight, on it identifying myself – occupation: student.


It felt rather odd writing it at the time and now equally so not writing it anymore. What one does for a living is a question that generally begs either a title or a verb in response, such as ‘fireman’ and ‘librarian’, or ‘editing ads’ and ‘building homes’. The title ‘student’ marks not only an exception to this interrogative structure but also an exception to our broader socioeconomic constructs.


Growing up in the developed world, we dedicate broadly two decades of our lives to the primary pursuit of learning, which on both a societal and personal level is an astounding proportion of time to be exempt from direct industrial or professional productivity. Considering average life expectancy, this translates to roughly a quarter of our lives, during which we are simultaneously free and bound to formally pursue a basic (or for some a greater) understanding of our internal and external worlds, an ephemeral grace period during which we learn to think, act, and be.


From the mandatory math in primary school to the optional Latin in secondary school through to choosing a university degree (possible with neither math nor Latin classes), we are granted increasing levels of choice as we progress through our pre-defined learning. Then, somewhere between reselling textbooks and expiring student discounts, we reach a point where all external obligations are removed; we see past the light at the end of our academic tunnels and straight into the intimidating/empowering void beyond the edges of the scholarly blueprint we’ve known since childhood.


Then what happens? Surely our education is more than just a finite corridor we merely pass through and move on from? Martin Luther King Jr. defines education as intelligence plus character, Benjamin Franklin as an investment (one yielding a great return of course), and William Yeats as a burning fire – all dynamic but persistent states, so arguably our learning continues. While the options available for this remain grandly indifferent to one’s progress (at least on an individual level), there is a certain group of graduates who stand out at this transition point – the autodidacts.


These are self-directed learners whose classrooms extend beyond four walls, whose teachers extend beyond faculty members, and whose learning extends beyond degrees. From code to social network nodes, and nutrition to carbon emission, the way they learn is abstracted from their subject matters. At the core of their practise is a universal will to learn and a shared proactive frame of mind. 


Here, traditional definitions and methods of instruction break, as do their boundaries for learning. A new intellectual ecosystem is formed where the roles of subject, student, and teacher all blend, yielding a dynamic, 360 degree syllabus. This syllabus contrasts our schooling in that it is able to adapt, respond, stretch and re-orient based on the learning experience.


The self-directed student is granted access to a position of strategy with respect to their curriculum, like receiving editing rights to a formerly read-only document. The ability to shape the curriculum and its delivery adds a game-changing design element to the experience, affecting not only growth of knowledge but fertility of mind. With the compound impact of cognitive prerequisites, the significance of this power added upstream in the process is even more emphasized.


The sheer volume of possibilities demands introspective clarity of thought to face. In other words, being able to learn whatever you like, however you like, forces you to think about what you really want. A seemingly simple choice now becomes a deeper strategic decision and reflection of one’s values.


Indeed, where standard education emphasizes the subject matter, the what, self-directed learning better balances the triumvirate of subject, method, and purpose – the whathow, and why respectively.


Deciding between the two options of Spanish or French as a second language during school hours, for example, remains a preference-level choice. Conversely, deciding between an online statistics class and an infinite number of other pursuits on your own time becomes more than just a preference. It calls into question deeper considerations – things like the opportunity cost, the possible depreciation of knowledge, the future applicability, the fit versus existing skills, the economic return on investment, and your hourly worth just to name a few.


Self-directed learning can be a complex cerebral process. Yet if the aim is to know ourselves and our world better, to make better decisions, to think – that is, to truly consider, hold, reject, break down, synthesize, and create new and existing ideas within new and existing parts of our minds, then perhaps the process of learning is itself the most appropriate way to learn.


Though there are as many different ways to learn as there are people, the strengths of autodidacts lie not in how they differ but rather in how they are similar. Having to know more about something you don`t know is epistemologically challenging. How realistic is the assumption that the more we know, the more we will know what we want to know more about? Even more frustratingly, how do you know what you need to know if you don`t know what you don`t know?


Facing these questions takes a unique combination of skills. To structure, persevere, and prioritize in the face of ambiguity or setbacks is a basic foundational requirement. It’s also no coincidence that it sounds like an interview question meets Everest climber’s biography. The transferability of the skills developed in self-directed learning – autonomy, dedication, self-regulation, adaptability, resourcefulness, is the ultimate cognitive weapon.


Ken Robinson, in his popular 2006 TED Talk on creativity and education said that “everyone has an interest in education […] it is education that is meant to take us into the future that we can’t grasp”. There is no doubt that in our ever-changing world, ability to learn is our greatest offense in standing out against white swans and our greatest defense in reacting to black swans.

While autodidacts have been present across subjects and time, its recent resurgence is only natural, mirroring the changes we have seen in the labour force. Over the last decade, our technologies have advanced at a ruthless pace, pressing our jobs and skills to evolve with it. Value no longer lies with the individual with the most knowledge, but with the one who can best acquire and use it in a relevant way.


What we need to know to succeed tomorrow is going to be different from what we need to know to succeed today. The key to bridging these vicissitudes lies in continuous, self-directed learning. And perhaps then you can produce a blue and white card to a uniformed official after every transatlantic flight, on it identifying yourself – occupation: autodidact.


But first, what you need to learn, is how to learn.

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