20 May 2012

Thought of the day: The self-aware learner

A lot of life seems to be learning self-awareness. Some major examples are being self-aware of your mental/emotional state and being self-aware of your learning process. No one teaches us these things, and few people talk about them.

Actually, that's not completely correct. You go to therapy and talk to a psychologist/psychiatrist/etc. There are different schools of psychology. One of the main branches is psychoanalysis, whose goal is to help the patient understand themselves.

As to learning processes, we spend so much of our lives in school yet we never spend any time thinking about how we learn. Meta-learning is an important topic. As the old cliched saying goes, it's so much more useful to teach someone how to fish than to fish for them. What type of learner are you? Visual? Kinesthetic? When you're confronted with a subject you know a little about it but not very much, how do you approach learning it? How can we teach people how to learn?

One way is project-based learning. Often, a class ends with a one-month long project. This tends to be very short-term and driven by trying to do an adequate enough job for an A. Maybe it would be better to have a class that is entirely focused on a project. Still, that is only a few months in a college course.

How about craft learning? What if you want to be a world-class hockey player or musician or mathematician? This isn't something that can be encapsulated in a class. You need to do a hobby on a semi-serious level for a year or so to get a taste of this. For example, I spent a year learning photography. After a year, I mastered all the basic technical stuff and had gotten a taste of the different fields (e.g. event, portrait, landscape photography). I could recognize what were the big ideas in photography. The use of light and shadow. Colors - warm vs cool colors. Right now, I could probably make a list of what general ideas every photographer should master. Then if you told me what type of photography you wanted to become (say macro), I could write a list of what technical skills you should work on.

Some of the greatest musicians/athletes/actors/etc had a parent who guided them from day one, telling them what to focus on, what skill to learn. A really neat story is László Polgár training his daughters into chess grandmasters. Or they grew up in an area teeming with the best in their field -- like actors and musicians who grew up in New York. These kids could go to the theatre and see world class productions, or find teachers affiliated with Julliard.

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