Saturday, December 14, 2013

Practical Autodidactism is Inherently "Messy"

By Josembea (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or FAL], via Wikimedia CommonsHopefully you haven't forgotten our little mission in autodidactism! . . . you did, didn't you! Oh . . . well, I'll remind you.

My greatest educational curiosity right now how great men like Clarence Birdseye and Leonardo Da Vinci taught themselves. That is, they were primarily autodidacts that depended on their own self-teaching to expand their knowledge. This is of great intrigue because these men not only made a mark in history, but also have managed to be productive and well-off too, such as Clarence Birdseye, who became a millionaire from his inventions. (Or think of Thomas Edison.)

This flies in the face of the usual picture of learning, inoculated from school, where a person recluses himself in a library and studies books day in and day out. The traditional schooling method of learning primarily in a classroom-like fashion may be fine for bringing up children, but the fact that people like Birdseye are able to become so intelligent, competent, productive, AND rich says that an entirely different method of learning is practical. After all, for such men as him to become so wealthy means he has no time to camp out in libraries. The autodidactism of great men is a totally unacknowledged subject in today's culture.

Speaking in that line, I came up with another realization as a piece to the puzzle: Learning, regardless of how organized one makes it, is inherently "messy." That is, there may be a logical and necessary order for knowledge to accumulate and progress -- one can't skip arithmetic for calculus, after all -- but the overwhelming numbers of options, of next steps, is so great it'll appear chaotic on the surface.

I state this because it brings to me the final comfort I need to depart totally from classroom-style learning, for having been involved in it for so many years one starts to think that learning is necessarily textbook-style. When out in the world, it's hard not to think that, if you're going to learn from a book, you must do the chapters in order, and you cannot skip sections or partially read it. It all must be in order and entirety.

The other, autodidact style isn't exactly unorganized, but it should be less strict in that it ought to acknowledge that logically ordered options can go every which way in mass numbers.

For instance, recently I was impressed to see a "knowledge map" at the website Khan Academy about mathematics*. At the beginning, obviously, it starts with stuff like addition and subtraction, the starting point that's absolutely necessary for everyone universally. Learning mathematics is impossible without starting there, and for the next steps on the Map -- such as to multiplication and division -- it's a linear path with no tangents that can be made. You must move in the linear direction at the beginning, in that logically defined order.

(*I can’t directly link to it. You’ll have to get an account and select knowledge map under the "LEARN" tab on the far left to see it yourself.)

However, as one moves towards things like geometry and calculus, the number of options becomes insane. It's no longer a straight line from one mode of mathematics to another, but a near-mess of lines going every which way. As one's knowledge of math deepens, it becomes possible to choose which grouping of math concepts to learn next, given the prior established background, but it's no longer necessary to move from one system to another: The options grow and grow and grow.

Since this increasing range of options applies to all knowledge, being an autodidact can appear messy and disorganized since there's essentially an infinite amount of learning options you can exploit next, with little to nothing saying you must choose between any one of them rigidly. To bring back the textbook, it's like we're taught to believe we must study chapter 1, 2, 3; but in reality you can start right at chapter 6 if equipped with the right knowledge, and then skip again to chapter 8, 11, 14 directly after that.

To give a firmer example of how "optional" knowledge can be, consider learning the term "dog" for the first time. Now, in order to comprehend and understand this term, we must have seen at least a small number of different species of dog in order to understand what this term means. It doesn't matter how many dogs an individual needs to see in order to comprehend the term -- and it's hard to keep track of given we don't think about this stuff as kids -- but the thing of note here is that it can be a smorgasbord of species that formulates the term.

If it takes an individual three different dogs to formulate it, then perhaps he could grasp it by seeing a Boston terrier, wolf, and bloodhound. Or he might see a cocker spaniel, dachshund, and great Dane. Nothing in logic says the options must necessarily be a chocolate lab, golden retriever, etc. However one comes to understanding the term dog, there's a grand number of species from which to understand the concept from.

Put to practice, that means that in autodidact ventures one shouldn't be too concerned with how things "must" progress. In reading a book, it's okay to skip around to only the sections of interest and need, out of order. As long as one is thinking properly, then the mind still moves forward.

However, this options upon options thing can be frightening in figuring out how to gauge one's learning. In studying a textbook cov er to cover, it's easy enough to figure how to track one's progression in understanding the text; when it comes to the infinite options on a daily basis, it can feel almost impossible to be able to set a proper metric. So, with so much "messiness," how can one know that learning is actually taking place and keep motivation up?

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1.) Figure a way to get daily feedback, such as an "Everything You Know" journal

When it comes to so many subjects across so many mediums, including interpersonal conversation, I find my favorite feedback mechanism is my Tell Me Everything You Know journal, wherein I write what I learned about during that day, including the most significant thoughts I had. I don't write much; I keep it short by writing everything in the terms of memory cues, just something that would exercise my memory enough to recall it. Instead, I emphasize the thoroughness of my recall in my head and speech, so that I save time. (Literally writing out everything would take forever.)

2.) Tend to your thinking habits

When I mean thinking, I don't mean daydreaming or passive internal monologue; I mean thinking. The most important element in becoming an autodidact is to change one's habitual thinking methods.

For instance, if you read a book on logic, try to incorporate the logic terms into your everyday thinking, and actually perform the logic methods. When learning about math, figure out a way to utilize the calculations in daily life so that it becomes a habit. On and on.

Though, this is an area I ought to refine my views on, for it still requires a mode of selectivity. This type of change in habits doesn't entail constant application of concentration, for that would lead to fatigue too fast too often. Know to set the right habits to be applied at the right occasions or else fatigue will set in.

3.) Concentrate

Concentration is essential to learning in that you can keep the object of learning in the mind long enough to make an impact without getting derailed. Additionally, the more *intense* the concentration may mean an ability to learn faster as well.

4.) Make your thoughts memorable

Of course, to retain all the information, one needs to have some kind of understanding of memory. Though, instead of learning formal memory systems such as the loci system, focus on what actually makes things "stick" in the mind, and focus on turning those attributes into thinking and behavioral habits. As to what those attributes are, I recommend Your Memory : How It Works and How to Improve It as the best resource on how memories work and how to improve them. (Don't worry too much about the systems.)

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There's a lot more beyond this, but this at least chips in another piece to the puzzle. The closer we get to tailoring a fully formulated mode of autodidactism like that of great men, the closer we get to cultivating like minds.

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