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November 5, 2018
There are a whole bunch of books out there about epistemology and I haven’t really read any of them. This post isn’t scientific, but it’s my attempt to explain the way I think about learning new stuff, and I think it has pretty general applicability, especially when you’re thinking about trying to encourage your kids to be autodidacts.
Very generally, there are two ways to learn. You can learn “passively” by reading or watching or listening. You can also learn “actively” by working on your own projects.
Passive learning is when you learn by consuming material from a book or a video or an instructor, etc.
I love passive learning. One of my very favorite things to do is to curl with a dense book about some arcane topic and just dig in. I could read forever about how the world works. The problem with this method of learning is that we generally want to learn things in order to accomplish some goal. Endlessly reading theory doesn’t accomplish a goal, unless your goal is to know more stuff than anyone else (which is a fine goal, by the way).
But even among people who love knowledge for the sake of knowledge, people like academics, there is still the goal of publishing papers and writing books to try and grow the total knowledge available to the world.
I tend to flit from subject to subject, and it’s incredibly interesting and I know a lot more than most people about a lot of different things, but I haven’t yet accomplished much with all of that knowledge.
The other problem with passive learning is that we don’t tend to retain as much knowledge if we don’t use that knowledge for something. Though I think this is a bigger problem in situations like schools, where kids are expected to remember large groups of disparate facts without enough context.
I personally believe that if you have enough context in which to place facts, then you don’t need nearly as much repetition to retain the facts. For example, you might have trouble remembering individually the year that Hitler came to power (which doesn’t really matter), and you might have trouble remembering the year that World War II started (which doesn’t really matter), but when you learn the whole story about Hitler rising to power and how that relates to WWII, it becomes much easier to put those two events in their proper places in history.
Likewise, you may not have any idea when the “Dark Ages” started or ended, but if you know roughly when the Roman Empire fell apart, then you automatically know roughly when the “Dark Ages” started, and if you know roughly when the Renaissance happened, then you know roughly when the “Dark Ages” ended. Rather than a string of random facts, history becomes a story where one thing leads to another and everything has it’s logical place. The precise years aren’t nearly as important as the big ideas contained in every age.
I think active learning has a proper definition that says it is any kind of learning that involves feedback, whether from an instructor or a task. Since I mostly learn on my own, I tend to think of active learning as trying to build something, whether it’s a computer program or writing a real story or trying to puzzle through how some piece of the world works and checking my work against the Wikipedia.
If you want to build something, active learning is generally underrated. Even things that people think of as incredibly complicated generally got their start as a fairly simple idea. The important thing about those first ideas is that they got built. Lots of people have ideas, but not lots of people actually build things.
When we started building websites, we went to all of the coding websites and tried to learn how to code, thinking it would make us better website creators, and learning some HTML and CSS definitely helped, but by and large, you don’t need to know how to code to make websites, especially if your websites need to be maintainable for the people you build them for. Making simple, beautiful websites for small business owners doesn’t require anything more than a WordPress template or Squarespace or Showit, and these options are all mostly drag and drop.
Something as complicated as making websites is mostly just a matter of diving in and learning how everything works. It’s a matter of finding designs you like, and learning to emulate them and learning good design principles through trial and error.
Until kids learn to read, they almost only learn via active learning. Everything in the world gives them feedback constantly. They learn that sharp things hurt by touching them. They learn how to pronounce certain sounds by having those sounds endlessly repeated to them by parents.
By the way, I think this is one of the major advantages of working from home with your kids around and of homeschooling. Our kids get constant feedback whenever they want it from the people who care the most about giving it to them. The way that school is structured, with so many kids to a classroom, by it’s very nature doesn’t allow teachers to give individual kids all of the attention they need, though they strive valiantly to attempt it. Daycare is the same way, lots of kids vying for the attention of just a few adults who can teach them things.
I’ve been known to say that if our goal is basic literacy and arithmetic by the time the kids graduate high school, I don’t think we need a curriculum. The kids just existing in the same house as Kyrsten and me for 18 years will guarantee basic literacy and arithmetic, because it’s just an expectation that reading and writing and doing basic math is a fundamental part of life, and the kids will get constant, high quality feedback about the accuracy and quality of their reading, writing, and arithmetic.
…we need both passive and active learning to excel. You can learn to talk simply by talking with someone who knows how to talk, but it’s really a pain in the ass to try and figure out all of physics on your own from first principles. Much better to listen to the Feynman lectures and head over to Khan Academy. Then you can try and puzzle your way back through the whole thing from first principles.
Raising Abundance is mainly a daily personal journal to look back on while we live our unconventional lives with the additional hope of helping others do better and get more out of life.