Teach yourself: 10 tips on how to un-school

11 August 2014
11 Aug 2014
West Lafayette, IN
10 mins

A couple weeks ago, I took a trip to Niagara Falls. In the suburbs of the city, there’s a high-quality, authentic French restaurant that I visited during the trip. The thing is, that restaurant doesn’t really offer much choice in terms of menu items. it’s maybe got nine or ten you can choose from, and then the Soup de jour. But compared to large, brand restaurants like TGI Fridays, it’s menu selection is pretty tiny. But the part that makes it work for the restaurant is that for the 10 or so menu items that it serves, the quality and service is awesome. So if you’re down with something from the small menu selection, you’d love it. But if none of them suit your taste, then you’re out of luck.

If you look carefully, schools* are pretty much the same way. They’re designed to teach a few things from a limited skill set. It has a set of standards that it’s trying to meet, and in meeting those standards, there are schools that really excel. But what if you’re interest isn’t one of the things the curriculum emphasizes? What if you’re into culinary arts, business, graphic design, hip-hop, or programming? Granted, most schools offer some material over these less-emphasized topics. But you can’t deny the fact that because most schools emphasize the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and the core (science, social studies, english, and math) skill sets significantly (read: ridiculously) over the more creative – and admittedly more fun – skills, someone who wants to study medicine, for example, will come out significantly more prepared for the field and further studies than one who decides to pursue culinary arts or computer science. And therein lies the premise for the importance of teaching yourself. Teaching yourself isn’t just effective at supplementing skills not adequately dealt with in schools, it’s also helpful when studying something and you don’t exactly understand something explained in class. Not to mention the hundreds of hours you’ll teach yourself to do new stuff in college and out.

Many people find themselves wanting to learn something new or brush up on a forgotten skill and not knowing where to start. Some people just buy an Idiot’s Guide and settle. Others search google every now and then. Some people might even join club or an online community, and take a couple of courses. I’ve tried many of those, and found what worked for me and what didn’t. Obviously, what works for one doesn’t work for all**. But here’s my top 10 ways to learn something new (or forgotten), by yourself. Have something you want to learn in mind? Let’s go.

1. Why are you interested?

This is a critical question that people forget to ask when they go into learning something. I don’t mean this in a don’t-do-it-for-the-money kind of way. I mean that you have to find your reason for why you want to learn this particular topic. This way, you can set yourself a concrete and very specific goal that you can work towards when you’re in the middle of a large field. Any discipline, when you get into it, is like a giant cloud of fog. If you don’t define yourself a super-specific direction to aim towards, you can end up just wandering in the field of knowledge forever, and that’s not a good thing in the long run. I’ll take an example: I love linguistics. I love to analyze and filter through different languages and their grammatical rules, and I love to see a history of a language through time. But the reason I went into linguistics isn’t because I “wanted to learn linguistics”. I went into it thinking I’ll create my own language. So I researched first how letters are created. I learned about different scripts and how to classify them, and how grammatical rules and exceptions can be used to form natural-sounding languages. Before I knew it, I knew (to a fair extent) something about languages. The point is: find yourself a reason why you’re so interested. Is it something about what you can do with the knowledge? Are you asking a question? Do you want to be like someone who excels in the field? A specific goal defines your direction.

2. Ask a question?

If you already have a question that you want answered, great! Keep that in mind and repeat it to yourself. Even if you aren’t necessarily looking for an answer to a question though, a question guides you well and gives you a reachable goal to work towards answering. Any question about a field will do, but the more specific the better. Do you want to know how to program? Then what’s a specific program you’d like to build? Are you going into playing an instrument? What’s a song you’d like to learn to play? Want to study history? What particular event in history do you want to know about? Even if the question you’re asking now doesn’t exactly match up with what you want to do in the span of time with your knowledge, a specific question will help guide you into a field easily and pull you into other areas of a field without the confusion that normally comes with overwhelming knowledge. When I went to build a language for myself, I asked, “How do you create new letters?”. Have a question in mind? Is it specific? Good. Go on.

3. Wikipedia: the magic of hyperlinks***

Now, I know Wikipedia’s not exactly the website for rocket science, but if you want to just get started (i.e. if you aren’t trying to get a college degree with it) and get your feet wet, it’s the best place. Because Wikipedia has an excellent network of related concepts through hyperlinks, it’s easy to just start at an article and find ten more that are related. Google your question, find a Wikipedia page about it, and read. If you don’t know a word, click on it. Repeat. This gets you surprisingly far into giving you a more 3-D feel for what the field you wish to learn is like. It may also give you a more specific direction or question to pursue.

4. YouTube.

Besides housing the universe’s largest collection of cat videos and copyright-infringing music videos, YouTube often has how-to videos and step-by-step explanations for literally everything you can think of. In many cases, there’s nothing more effective than having a real person explain something with drawing and words to you, and that’s exactly what YouTube as a platform provides. Good YouTubers often also have online presence in other platforms, such as Twitter and Instagram, where you might also be able to ask questions directly or find more answers. Everything from 2-minute tutorials to 2-hour lectures, YouTube’s got it. Learn to make use of it. In particular, KhanAcademy (also at khanacademy.com) has pretty good, easy-to-follow resources for certain topics.

5. Get a Book (also, don’t forget to read the thing, too)

Need I say more? Get a book that’s highly rated by other people and read it. While the internet has more information, a book presents less in a way that makes more sense in order. It often helps you mentally organize all the information you’ve gathered into neat little imaginary boxes in your mind.

6. Do something with it

Once you have a fair amount of information at your disposal and an idea of how to answer your question (from #2), the best way to go forward is to start using it in real life. For me, that meant starting the bare-bones of a new language. Depending on your question and field, this “application” will vary wildly. It may be cooking or crafting something. It may be making a photograph collection or writing a simple application on the computer. It may be reading a book in a foreign language or figuring out real-world problems with physics equations. Whatever it is, find an application for your newfangled set of knowledge and get working. A helpful tip? Set it up so that it’s not so easy to quit after you begin. Maybe tell other people what you’re doing. Set up a business or find a friend who’s into the topic you’re learning. Often the best way to learn is through mistakes, and you can’t make them without first using what you have.

7. Find yourself people who are better than you

When you’re in the middle of learning and using what you know, one of the best ways to accelerate your pace of learning is to find someone better at the subject than you are. Find a teacher, a friend, or a neighbor. Don’t just ask them questions, either. Discuss with them. Argue about the things you feel you know (Argue rationally, though. Don’t get violent.). Talk about the things you learned over a snack. Maybe find and join a club or an organization. Often surrounding yourself with people who are better leads you to learn much more and be motivated.

8. Teach your Cat

You’ve probably heard of this one. Teach someone (even that invisible man on the wall will do) what you know. This does two things: 1) It helps you organize the things you know so that you can make sense of things easier, because to teach well, you have to learn to categorize your knowledge into relevant “piles” of information. 2) It gives you a sense of what you know and what you don’t know, so you can see the areas you need to work on and the areas that you excel at. Maybe make a video tutorial online. Teach your little brother or sister. Give a lecture to your cat about architectural design.

9. Headlines Galore

If you’re teaching yourself about anything of value, there’s always other people doing the same thing, and that means there’s always new advances happening about your topic somewhere in the world. Even if your topic is math or history, there’s going to be some new mathematical theorem proved somewhere or a new insight into a historical mystery. Be at the forefront of your field. It’s alright if you don’t understand much of what the news is about; having some idea of how what you know fits into the rest of the world brings relevancy and a new sense of practicality to your learning process, and that adds fun and motivation. Find headlines. (Google Alerts is a good way to get relevant news each day, week, or month.)

10. Love it

The best way to keep motivation and learn effectively is to have passion. Love what you do, because that way, even if things don’t go right or something happens to stop you, you’ll pick back up and go on. On the same topic, if for some reason something suddenly feels boring or you lose interest, don’t be surprised. It happens. Just give yourself some time, and you’ll either pick right back up, loving it, or you’ll find some other interest (And that’s perfectly fine, too). It took me a full 3-year pause in taking piano lessons to really learn to love it, so work hard, but remember not to push yourself to hard when you don’t feel like it.

Schools are an excellent place to learn certain skills, but for many of life’s most enjoyable and creative endeavors, self-learning is much more effective, and because you can learn through a method that works for you, it helps you learn faster and achieve more. If you’ve ever found yourself wishing that you could do something or know more about a certain topic, it’s never too late. Nelson Mandela once referred to education as “the most powerful weapon which we can use to change the world”, and I firmly believe that. If you want someone to make changes to the way the world works, be that change you want to see in the world: nothing’s stopping you. Go learn how to do it. Get a book. Google something. Watch a youtube lecture. Mastering a skill or a field isn’t easy, and nor is changing the world. But regardless of what you’re trying to do it, if you believe in the reason you’re doing it and you have a passion for your interest, it’ll be the most worthwhile thing you do, and you’ll certainly have a heck of a lot of fun doing it.

* Talking about primary and secondary schools here, not universities.

** Case in point: it’s pretty difficult to learn baking from Wikipedia articles.

*** By the way, the bounty of hyperlinks within Wikipedia is why it’s almost always #1 on Google Search.

Meaning, not definition

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