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Hacking Learning

I’ve realized recently that one of my primary goals in my free time is to learn to learn efficiently. Thus, the stress I put on myself to learn a lot quickly is really a desire for methods that will help me (1) beat procrastination to focus on the things that really matter to me and (2) actually learn the material I go through, to the point where I can solve real problems and retain information long-term. I’d previously thought that I just had too long of a list of things I wanted to learn, and that stressed me out, so I started looking at people’s advice and research on how to get it all done. But I ended up not reading so much about organizational strategies, which I thought I needed to focus on because of my ADHD, but on how to revise the learning process itself–not how best to manage my list, but how to be effective at tackling each item on it. I’ve developed a professional interest in learning itself, not just what to learn.

There are three main prongs that I’ve been pursuing that take up most of my time of late:

(1) Thinking about pedagogy, and in particular how learning professionals can best support independent learning outside the classroom: I’ve read a lot about continuing and professional education, adult education, online classes and their effectiveness, and what makes successful online (and in-person) learning communities tick. A lot of this has been focused on a major shift in my thinking–from focusing on how to be a good teacher to how to be a good learner, and from fostering good learning by being a good subject-matter teacher to fostering good learning by being a good community builder. A lot of this has focused on observing various online lecture series and the forums that grow up round them (both officially supported, like the Coursera or MITx discussion forums, and unofficial communities of learners that band together online and otherwise to tackle learning together, like the StackExchange forums and the people who organize group read-alongs with discussion of a book).

(2) Researching and attempting to implement new learning strategies without the constraints of classroom instruction, and moving beyond the standard model of “lecture-take notes-read-revise notes-repeat-do problems” as a way to learn. At some point I abandoned my attempts to plow through lots of material and turned my attention to how that plowing can stick long term, and that meant that I couldn’t ignore the research on learning techniques anymore. It’s exciting, mostly because the research is so much more multifaceted than I thought–what started out as a corrective or defensive investigation for me to overcome the limitations ADHD and anxiety put on me became an active interest in the habits of highly effective learners for its own sake.

(3) Thinking about what it means to have a professional code of ethics in the teaching profession, and more broadly, what a Hippocratic Oath for teaching would look like and how to hold ourselves accountable outside of the assessment-based or value-added models that dominate the NYT Education section. This was sparked by a transformative encounter with Atul Gawande’s book on the Checklist Manifesto: what are a teacher’s professional obligations? How does professional development balance with daily interactions with student? To what extent is it ethical to try a “teaching experiment” with high risks and potentially high rewards, if it might mean your current class doesn’t do as well as it could? Partly this is my attempt to understand teaching as a profession, and to recreate it in my mind as a profession–society doesn’t exactly encourage us to think of teaching as a complex profession with its own societies, standards and ethics codes like law or medicine, but I think it should.

I’ll have more details on lots of this in future posts, but for now a few sites that have provoked my thinking on these things:

The StackExchange plaforms – check out math.stackexchange.com or physics.stackexchange.com, including their “Meta” sites, for examples of an online learning community and discussion of what direction it should go.

Scott Young’s extensive blog articles about effective learning strategies at: http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog, including, for example, his MIT Challenge (to learn the curriculum for 4 years of MIT courses more quickly and without the support of a formal school environment), and his extensive focus on the psychology behind how we learn best.

Physicsforums.com, for a perhaps older model of online learning in standard BBS format, where a community feel is created by prominent users but attention is more focused on discussion and less on answers to specific questions than on StackExchange sites.

Udemy, Coursera, MITx, Open Yale, and MIT OCW, for examples of online content offered by major universities.

Switching to Intrinsic Motivation

Psychological research shows that giving external rewards can decrease the likelihood that someone will continue an activity longterm. This is an important principle for how to school effectively (or rather, how not to): conventional wisdom, which says that rewarding behavior that contributes to desired habit formation is good, is sometimes wrong.

It has been painful to realize how much of my motivation for learning, which I take to be an unqualified good thing, is external. It would still be painful, were it not for my newfound focus on not making my time-allocation decisions moralistic. Some examples: I signed up for MITx’s 6.002x course and stopped it about 6 weeks in, just before the midterm. A large part of the reason I stopped was simply time: I was working 50-60 hour weeks, and with that and family commitments, I felt the work just couldn’t get done (unless I cut out all my relaxing time, which is an ideal recipe for burnout). But my behavior after stopping is illuminating: I didn’t continue as I could, just learning a few topics or following along at my own pace, but abandoned the project entirely. The most painful reason for this I have to acknowledge is that I enjoyed being graded on the assignments and having the prospect of a certificate of completion on the horizon – that was definitely part of it, and I’m not proud of that. There were other reasons, though: (1) I was less enthralled by the specific material in 6.002 as I was intently curious about the MITx project, and the same impulse that meant I couldn’t pass up being part of the pilot meant that I didn’t need to see it all the way through as a subject learning experience to get what I wanted out of it. And (2) It is a big commitment to follow through on 10 hours or more a week of assignments for a course you’re taking alone over several weeks, and I chose to distribute those hours over several more relevant projects.

Which brings me to the second major pitfall in my self-educating methods, the tendency to plan extensively rather than dive into learning something. There’s a certain, odd, amount of fear here–it’s not like I’m going to set off a landmine by trying to learn about the role of tRNA before I’m ready. The worst that can happen with lack of planning in a learning context is that you have to go back to some more primitive concept or learn a concept more slowly, deviating from a plan. I’m still learning that, though, and finding that to really move forward I have to make it a habit to ignore my anxieties about starting a learning project. (This is a maximally general life principle for me: making it a habit to push aside limiting anxieties.)

In the past, I have often relied on standardized tests, syllabi, quals reading lists, and other conventional school benchmarks for measuring “progress” in my learning. For that matter, I’ve always had a lot of anxiety and a strong need to measure this progress–something I’d like to get out of the habit of doing. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not in a degree program at the moment–there’s no benchmark I have to reach that’ll have consequences if I don’t reach it, learning-wise. The only way I can fail is by not learning what I want, in terms of the large-scale bucket-list style learning objectives I have for myself. The other major way I can fail, most dangerously, is failing and not realizing that I’m doing so, by speeding through drills and concepts and not understanding them as deeply as I’d like. While making lists encourages speedy and superficial learning, contributing primarily to the goal of appearing smart by serving as a proxy for having a credential in the subject (“it’s on my list of things I’ve learned”), I know in my heart of hearts that “wanting to look smart” is a false goal I’ve accidentally acquired out of anxiety. The real goal is to learn more in certain areas I’m fascinated by, and not even the ones I just tell people I’m fascinated by and havent’ followed up on.

So, back to studying MIT’s 7.014 intro biology course, with a TV break in between, because we all need them. For another post – how being in a teaching role can exacerbate anxieties about learning, but also how it can help achieve the deeper understanding that is the ultimate goal.

Unlearning School and Learning to Learn

June 25, 2012 1 comment

I’ve spent less time reading and learning recently, and more time thinking and struggling about how I want to live my life. Not being in school and still wanting to learn things, I have had to face how much of my motivation to follow through on something is external–how much I embark on projects I think I “should” do to be a more learned person, rather than following my nose with things I enjoy.

There’s some value to setting out pathways and structures for getting where you want to be. But I’m starting to understand that each brick of those paths has to be one you lay yourself, after some consideration. I know now that pushing through syllabi quickly isn’t the route to true understanding, and to learn a subject well you have to dwell on the things that confuse you, not skip over them (something that the pace of formal schooling and the fact that exams don’t necessarily focus on the things that are hard for *you* personally tends to encourage). I don’t have grades to worry about or perishable resources (university resources) that I’m wasting this year – but I’ve mostly still been acting like I do in how I learn. I have to face the fact that it’s much more important to just learn something than to procrastinate doing the hard thinking by making lists and roadmaps and bucket lists for things to learn. I truly am curious about the things I’m trying to learn about, but I still seem to treat the learning process as an inherently painful and goal-directed one, rather than something that I can go through playing to my strengths and interests.

I also have to face up to what my motivations for trying to learn things are. To a certain extent, if I’m honest, they’ve been “to know everything.” Of course I don’t actually have that goal–but, for example, I tend to insist to myself that I have to learn a particular subject as outlined in a university syllabus, and to diligently scramble to find a way to process and remember everything a course throws at me, rather than picking the things I’m most interested in to focus on. I’m well aware of the importance of one’s audience to the content and style of what one writes, but I haven’t successfully extended these basic principles to the learning process and what its aims are: I say, “I want to learn basic molecular biology” and force my sleepy eyes over pages of biochemistry that I know I won’t remember the details of, even though nobody else but me is insisting that I follow standard learning maps, and it’s well known that we don’t retain what doesn’t interest us.

I know in principle that I (myself as an instance of “anyone”) learn best when I need the knowledge or tool to answer a question I care about. It’s obvious in the writing case, where good writing is shaped around an argument and an angle, not a braindump of everything related to the subject at hand (even a structured one). I know how articulating that “objective” line at the top of a resume can suddenly make my motivations and story about myself cohere when I feel at my most scattered. So I’m going to try to spend less time making lists of subjects I want to learn and collecting syllabi as crutches, and more mining my memory for questions that I’d like to know the answer to, enough to learn the foundations of a subject area. (Of course, happily, this is a synergistic process: having a genuine question leads to systematic study of things you care about, or need to care about to satisfy other cares, which leads to more questions you genuinely want to know the answer to.)

Doing things for external reasons has its egotistical aspects, but for me, it’s also been part and parcel of depression and self-worth struggles. I spent a lot of time thinking I’m only worth as much as I give to other people, and in that framework, self-improvement that doesn’t have clear and direct external impact is not valued. When depressed, I can convince myself that having wants is selfish, that wanting alone time for self-care is selfish. But that belief gets you nowhere, including in your ability to help others. We are all alone with ourselves for most of our lives, and it is in that time alone that we form and re-form the habits and values that will dictate how we interact with others and treat ourselves: social interactions can reinforce a habit or spark interest in a change, but it is always you alone who will have to see the change-project through and have a vision for why it’s important. And it is you alone who will have the complete and unvarnished account of your progress to measure yourself with, you alone who can serve as judge when nobody else is looking to keep you honest to your best self.

So: I want to find ways to make the values I have articulated to myself as important into habits that are borne out in my life. I  want to learn to be a better and more honest judge of my own character, still able to hold court in matters not of public record. Most importantly, I need to find ways to undercut the moralistic overtones of my “self-improvement” project and understand to my core that being my best self is something that will bring me better quality of life, not just something to shoot for to get gold stars or self-congratulation or the moral high ground. I want to feel good because I’m living the way I want to, as I mosey in that direction–not because I’ve attained the “improved self” goals I obsessively set out for myself evenings. If I set goals, I almost don’t want to tell anyone about them specifically unless there’s real support I need that I’ll only get that way, because not keeping them private makes me vulnerable to external motivators like “showing I’m a reliable/dedicated/moral person” and “being known as having admirable goals.” I also need to get past the point where I have certain goals seemingly only to show those things to myself, but for now I think I’d settle for only wanting to impress myself–that’s going to be hard enough.

So if I detail any goals here, it’ll be to catalogue a journey that’s important to me, and only for that reason. To the extent that I’m open about changes I want, I pledge to talk about my failures as much as my successes. I want to talk about the things in my life that have led me to want changes badly, and the ways I’ve prevented myself from taking action towards those changes, because focusing on how great the changes would be if implemented hasn’t done much for me so far but make me feel bad.

On a related note, I’ll be talking soon about the strong impulses towards military service and religious devotion that I’ve had throughout my life, and how the hell a liberal atheist came to have them. I’ll also get specific about what I’m having to unlearn and how I plan to live with myself while doing that.

Categories: Personal - Essays

Emotional Investment in Science and Literature

February 12, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve been exchanging emails with a friend who, to make a very long and complex story short, switched from French Literature to Statistics, and doesn’t trust herself to study the humanities right now because they’re too much about emotions, human problems, and the works stay with you and get into you.

I remember starting to feel that way about halfway through my sophomore year, when I was taking quantum mechanics and topology alongside 3 English classes and having a lot of anxiety about my future as a writer xor (I thought it was xor then) scientist. Many of my friends were going through major league mental health struggles, and I just wanted an escape. Science was my escape then, because it wasn’t about “petty” human problems; it’d be there no matter what. It was impersonal, yet had personal value for me–the best solution in that situation. At the same time, I started to view writing as an illness. My American Drama class focused on the lives of the playwrights, and I began to wonder (though I’d never do so now) if all artists weren’t plagued with self-destructive habits and impulses towards insanity. I had enough drama in my life, and I didn’t trust the writer’s truths. Moreover, I thought that being a humanities scholar meant that you had to be good at life–you had to be a wise and generous-spirited human being, and I didn’t trust myself to ever be that.

Remembering that, trying to answer my friend, I have to wonder what changed. I wrote earlier that I’m driven more towards humanities as a profession now because I want to teach about human solutions to the problem of life and being human. I want to clarify that I don’t see science as impersonal, and that’s why I’m not driven away from it: I just want to claim science for my personal life, and I don’t see a tremendous amount of room to do that in the formal discourse of the profession, so I feel no great need to enter into that discourse.

The thing that’s changed, and that really in the past year I think, is my attitude towards my writing work. I can still be ravished by a poem; some of them still sit with me for months, and that’s as I want it to be. But in studying this literature, I find that I move from personal response to analytical response in the course of my writing, and I derive great value from that movement. My papers are begun in a moment of personal discovery or revelation, and I get a lot of comments on them to the effect of “it’s interesting to see an active intelligence working its way through the piece”–I don’t try to hide the process of discovery of an interpretation and repackage the interpretation as an explication. Literary study still has that childlike impulse to wonder for me, and the calmer joy of figuring out how something works from the inside. It’s often a process of taking an undifferentiated intense reaction and making it intelligible to myself, which in some ways makes it manageable. Making the reaction manageable allows me to incorporate it into my everyday life without being overwhelmed by its powerful, visceral effect on me. Criticism, as I want to practice it, is about, as Forster put it in Howard’s End, “building rainbow bridges between prose and passion”–taking  the insight of a late night, the murky feelings of the soul, the things we don’t speak of, and gesturing towards them out in the open. Or as Roseanne Cash told it in a stunning Kirkland Conversation lecture I was at, it’s about being an artist and going to an emotionally utterly vulnerable place, and being able to come back from it every day to pick up your kid from kindergarten–but not lose the basic insights from that lonelier, scarier, less prosaic place.

The other thing that’s changed is my understanding of myself as a writer–not just someone who writes, but someone who is interested in the writing profession. When I had that rough sophomore fall, I wasn’t seriously considering what it’d be like to be a paid writer–I was wondering if I had it in my soul to be a writer, if I felt deeply enough, if I trusted myself and had the potential for emotional virtuosity that I thought the great literary writers had. (I was also bent on a ridiculous standard of comparison.) Now I’ve had several paid writing and editing gigs, and I see my writing as something I approach as a professional oftentimes. The writing process is one of deep thought, fiddling and rewriting, organizing and arranging and making countless decisions about word choice and structure. It’s about being a technician with words–and even when the topic is deeply personal or emotional, the writing process itself gives me space and distance to process those feelings without being overwhelmed. The conversations I have with others trying to be writers are about craft, where to submit to, good topics to pick up, blogs to follow–making writing an everyday part of life, managing its emotional side. As I’ve grown into myself as a writer, and started identifying as a writer and not “an aspiring writer” or somesuch, I’ve absolved myself from the requirement that writers be wise or struggling or specially tuned to humanity. In an important sense, writing is just another thing I do–and with that perspective has come a returned sense of play, of the kind of wonder and discovery I’m accustomed to from science. And so much less angst!

Alongside that–I work with artists at my job now. It’s easy to see that a lot of young artists just don’t take themselves seriously as artists and professionals: they won’t show up, or they won’t be professional in their communication or how they manage things. But I’m also close with a lot of artists who are consummate professionals now, and I’ve heard how the “what you been up to?” conversation goes–the most common answer? “You know, just working.” Most of us who want to be artists (including writers) are doing just that–working a lot, producing a lot, trying to find ways to make it work. No great wisdom about anything. Just muddling through.

Speaking of getting involved in writing communities, I’m going to start putting up more related blog links and things I’m reading–I do see this blog shifting more towards a discussion of the ground between arts/writing and sciences, and I’m happy with that shift, so I’m going to run with it.

Here’s a fascinating blog I’ve spent the morning reading the backlog from: http://celebrating-science.blogspot.com/. It’s from a writer with a residency at Durham among scientists. Lots interesting there about how writing and science are both driven by the process of asking questions, for a future discussion.