Learning How To Learn

Posted by Alan Barr on Sat 14 July 2018

Learners Group

I am a self-learner and a way that I entertain myself is learning a new subject. In fact my own blog is a byproduct of this learning process. If I did not at least create some type of documentation then my pursuits in learning new subjects would only be for me. Being part of technology is a constant treadmill of learning as new technologies come into being and others phase out over time. The company I work for places a large emphasis on internal discussion groups covering a variety of topics. Some of those are linked to books while others are explorations of a theme. The group I joined recently is titled Learners and is an eclectic group of people across the company that are passionate about learning. When we began we wrote down topics and begun to randomly draw to give 7 minute speeches on the topic.

Preparing for my speech

Each week we have had time for only three speeches including questions. The topics have varied greatly covering Vikings, gardening, emerging economies, fringe science, monotremes, dreamtime, and more. The previous week I obtained my topic on Ring of Fire (Volcano). I am not big into geology but I figured I knew enough of the basics to dive in quickly. Recently I've been reading books on learning and coaching and felt like I could apply some of the techniques though I felt like I did a few because it matched my established learning practices.

The Talent Code by Daniel Boyle and How We Learn by Benedict Carey were a couple that reinforced the mechanics of learning. My first step began with digging into as much material I could find online and reading through all the related ideas akin to the Ring of Fire. Wikipedia, US Geological Survey, and whatever poppped up in Google for about an hour or two. Based on that reading I typed up a potential outline of what I think I might want to cover. Then I took a break and let it sit. A big part of learning is forgetting and testing how much we've recalled. I came back to the outline a couple times later in the week but left it alone and only thought about ways to make it relate to me personally. I wanted to avoid slides but due to how technical the mechanics of geology like plate tectonics are I thought the visuals would help a lot.

Finally the night before I attempted to consolidate my stray thoughts into a slide deck using TED talk principles and storytelling. I settled on a structure of explaining what the general concept is then focusing on three parts, plate tectonics, the types of plate movement and a short story in how it relates to me, and finally highlighting three of the most explosive volcanic eruptions in recorded human history and how the last one had a global impact.

The next day I spent some time practicing the flow of the speech but not enough to have it set in stone. I gave the speech and it was a success. I wrote down a few notes to share some metrics and had a news article related to a major volcanic event and did my best not to read my own slides out loud. Overall I would say that this flow is exactly how I approach learning new technologies and any new thing.

As it applies to testing and software development

Software development is a constantly changing endeavor and testing software does not change nearly as fast but approaches can change based on the technology at hand. Being flexible and looking at any particular task from different angles is required. Testing and the creation of software is a highly creative endeavor though at times there can be tedium and grunt work. Another book I thoroughly enjoy is A Whack On the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech. It provides excellent resources in establishing a creative habit and approaching a subject with fresh eyes. While there are many ways to begin testing a product people appreciate if you can explain your process and teach it to them. If you're not able to vocalize these activities it makes testing appear more like superstition than technique. If you are lost and without a map stop and draw your own and begin to follow a direction and tweak as necessary. Finally the best way to learn is to teach others what you have learned. As well as using metaphors and analogies to explain concepts in a context others may be more familiar with.

Dangers of Not Learning to Learn

Learning how to learn is a humbling experience and constantly becoming a beginner over and over can be uncomfortable. Realizing that there is more and more out there that has yet to be mastered and realizing your limits. Not taking the steps to learn how to learn is a gamble. Not learning how to learn is a big risk considering there are fewer industries where activities stay static. While modern society does not change that quickly, fields like technology do change. The days that one could master a subject and not continue to adapt are becoming rarer. In my opinion learning how to learn can put into perspective the time investment in learning an area or skill. It can be easy to overlook how much knowledge, practice, and mistakes that go into any skill or knowledge of a domain. The better we understand the process of learning the better we can adhere to a growth mindset and be supportive of others in their journeys.

Make Learning a Habit

Continue to learn and find opportunities to share that new knowledge. Listen to yourself and decide what techniques keep you engaged in the learning process. Take breaks and set aside the material and let your subconscious process it. Review what you have learned periodically and teach it to others. Do not doubt wether you have sommething important to share others will benefit greatly from someone else exploring a new topic.