My Take on Learning

I took Calculus II in the summer of 2010, along with Physics II while holding down a 50-hr/week internship at a F500 Corporation. I never got to attend lectures. I depended on Sal Khan and PatrickJMT’s calculus lessons. I must admit that I was retaking them to upgrade my GPA. However, I was able to pull off an A in Calculus and a C in Physics, without attending any lectures, labs, or tutorials. It’s probably something not to be proud of or be speaking out about in public; however, it’s something that needs to be mentioned to highlight an important revelation:

I paid $1800 just to receive two letters posted on my transcript.

Literally. I didn’t pay to have the professors lecture me. I didn’t pay to have the TA’s guide me throughout the tutorial sessions held weekly. I didn’t pay for the fancy gym. I needed two grades on my transcript and I had to gather some knowledge, do well in the tests and prove that I have a good understanding of what was delivered in class and the textbook.

My problem with the current education system

We are forced to learn a certain amount of content by a certain amount of time with very little support. This makes us worry so much about “learning enough to get a satisfying grade” rather than learning to enjoy what we learn and applying what we learned for practical benefit. I learned a lot about Civil Engineering but most of it was to achieve a certain grade, to be completely honest. I could not go deeper into concepts I enjoyed learning about because there was something else that was needed to be completed to avoid getting a bad mark.

Maybe I am not smart enough to consume knowledge at a pace comparable to the speed of light; however, I believe this mindset of learning to achieve grades rather than using the learning for practical benefit is embedded in university cultures, especially those in developing countries.

The problem with learning to collect grades

We are often in the mindset to learn to achieve a certain grade. For example, when an assignment is to be completed, we often look for the information that we need to know in order to complete the assignment. We completely block out our curiosity to learn beyond what is required to know to complete the assignment.

When we block our curiosity, we are inhibiting our ability to think outside of the box. Only when we are curious can we attain new information that we can use to create new connections and provide new ideas.

This is why I believe that the most innovative people in the world did not achieve the highest grades in college. In fact, a high percentage of them do not have college education because they thrived on their curiosity. They always asked the 5 W’s (Who, What, When Where, and Why) and How.

The power of being curious

For the past 5 months I have been learning how to code with minimal guidance. My only guidance was reading Quora and Stackoverflow, from which I was directed to other websites that provided more in-depth guides. However, because I was interested in learning how to build certain features without much limitation in time, I did not restrict my level of curiosity. When I first found out that I should learn Javascript over Ruby on Rails and Python, I was more curious and searched for what makes a great Javascript developer. From this, I came to know that I should have knowledge of certain frameworks, concepts, and syntax. For example, I did not know what asynchronous functions were. Note that I do not have to necessarily know these concepts in order to build the features I wanted to, but my curiosity level had reached such a point that I felt that I would be cheating myself if I did not learn the concepts behind the features that I was interested in implementing.

My curiosity led to a huge confidence in breaking learning obstacles and has built a huge momentum.

By going through a concept and not understanding it the first time, I did not stress. Rather, I took my mind off of it for a few days and was persistent in revisiting the concept a second, third, or fourth time over days, if not weeks or months. Even now, I have concepts in my mind that I do not fully understand but due to my previous experience of thinking about a problem for a very long time and finally understanding it, I have this confidence that the concepts that are only somewhat clear to me at the moment will be fully understood in due time, as long as I am persistent.

This is a mindset that I never got from learning in any university course because I am not able to take my mind off of problems and revisit them after months. I had to worry about finishing them in a few days so that I could attain a certain grade and move on to the next course. That knowledge is not as connectable as the knowledge that I gained out of curiosity and persistence.

What is connectable knowledge?

Any piece of information that is stored in your mind is connectable. However, certain pieces of information are more connectable than others. This is dependent on the frequency with which you add additional information to the existing information that is in your mind from your previous thoughts and your experiences.

Knowledge that was gained over a few days is not as connectable as knowledge that was gained over a few months because the knowledge gained over a few months had consumed more of your brain, or in particular, more neurons than did the knowledge that was gained over a few days.

Having a lot of information that are connectable increases your ability to be creative as the more knowledge you have to connect with other knowledge, the more new thoughts you produce which lead to thinking outside of the box.

Also, the harder you work to understand something, the more it will stay in your mind and the longer it stays in your mind, the more ability you have to extend that knowledge with new knowledge to understand even harder concepts. This recursive process allows you to accelerate your understanding of a concept with respect to those around you that have not spent a lot of time thinking about a problem and trying to understand the solution to that problem.

I have experienced this when learning front end development and currently experiencing this when learning back-end development and algorithms from MIT’s Introduction to Algorithms textbook.

If there was one takeaway from this article, it would be to learn by your instincts. Always ask the 5 W’s and How when facing any concept. How can you use this concept to fix a problem in your life? How can this concept be used to fix problems in other peoples lives? Learn for practical benefit and hope of achieving something big using the knowledge rather than for a piece of paper or a job.