WhatIThinkSoFar
Apr 1, 2017 · 18 min read

Education in this book

Education and learning are themes that appear throughout this book in a few different ways. First, this book contains interesting facts. Second, you might learn about my opinions and ideas. Finally, I might learn something from you if this book causes you to get into contact with me.

All of the other chapters in this book involve education in some way. Education is about learning how to learn. Happiness requires you to learn what makes you happy or not. Work is about learning how to be successful. Design is about learning how to build products that people love. Health is learning how to live a healthy life. Dating is about learning how to have a great relationship. Science teaches us about our universe.

My educational background

I was always a smart kid growing up. I think this is because my parents taught me a lot. They had both been teachers when they were young adults, so they loved teaching kids. They spent time teaching me math and reading. They also gave me plenty of educational books and games. (Of course, that’s not the only way to be a smart kid, as there are plenty of smart kids without those things.)

In high school I loved reading the history textbooks so I thought I might go to college for history or political science. I was also very good at math so I thought maybe I would be a mathematician. Then I discovered computer programming and went into computer science instead.

I got a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Engineering. I also got a business minor and took some classes on entrepreneurship and creativity. After college I worked two jobs in Silicon Valley as a software engineer. I also did an online programming bootcamp called “Bloc.io” to learn Ruby on Rails and improve my front end web development.

The purpose of education: Why should we teach?

Why should we teach others and why should we learn from others? For one, we learn skills that help us improve our lives and increase our capabilities. We teach because we want to help others improve their own lives.

Another motivation is that we want to live in an informed society. For example, we educate others because we believe it will be valuable for democracy and justice. We teach children, both our own children and other children, so they learn how to live happy, peaceful lives around us.

We all start off knowing almost nothing. The world is full of challenges, obstacles, and frustrations. Hopefully the things we learn allow us to overcome those challenges. Hopefully we learn enough so that we are able to do the things we want to do and feel the happiness we want to feel.

Different methods of learning

There are lots of different ways to learn things. Some examples: you can learn by by taking classes, talking to your friends and family, by reading books, by going to school and college, by watching videos, by reading websites, etc. Some education comes from formal education, such as grade school, high school, college, trade school, graduate school. Other education comes from informal education, such as books, private lessons, online tutorials, etc.

For formal education, there are a lot of different questions we could investigate. What should be taught? Who should pay for it? What should that money be spent on? What tests should be given to students and what material should should those tests cover?

As an adult, informal education is very important to me. There is still a lot of valuable learning I could do even though I have already finished a lot of formal education.

I tend to learn best by reading really good books and written guides. That’s why writing a book appealed so much to me.

Explain things in a way that is easy to understand

Explanations can be easy to understand or difficult to understand. When something is explained in a way that is easy to understand, the listener will learn much faster and more completely.

Being able to explain things well is an extremely valuable skill. We tend to overlook how much of a difference a great explanation can make for our listeners.

There are a couple keys to a great explanation. How the information is ordered matters. The most important information should be expressed as soon as possible. Otherwise your listener will be waiting for you to get to the point. New or confusing information should be given in an order that allows the listener to best understand it. A good explanation will also be concise. It won’t distract the reader with unnecessary information. The descriptions will be simple and effective.

Understanding ‘Why’ motivates us to learn and teach better

The most important question to ask and to teach is “Why?”. If you’re a student, you’ll be more motivated to learn about a subject if you understand why you should learn about that subject. Additionally, you will study hardest if you believe what you are learning is actually important.

If you’re a teacher, you also will do a better job if you believe what you’re teaching is important. You won’t be very inspired to teach well if you think the topic is unimportant.

This reminds me of parents trying to change the behavior of their children. If you explain why a behavior is desirable or undesirable, they will be more likely to listen. Similarly, adults will change their behavior when they understand why.

Reflecting on difficult classes

Some of the classes I took in high school and college were really difficult for me. Usually it was because I didn’t know the “big picture”. I didn’t understand what it was I was supposed to be learning or why. They would teach me concepts, but I didn’t have enough background information to understand why these concepts were being taught. It made getting a good grade much more difficult.

Now I have a much better understanding of the big picture. Looking back, the material I was being taught does not seem very difficult at all. Now I’m able to describe the concepts and explain why they were being taught.

Meaningful projects

I was assigned a lot of projects for my classes. I worked on these projects either individually or with a team of my classmates. Sometimes I would do a really great job on the project. I would be motivated to produce really great work and be very creative. However, I didn’t always give my best effort or produce a great final product. Sometimes I was not motivated at all.

I think how meaningful to me the project was determined how motivated I was to work on it. All of the projects were graded by teachers. A meaningful project was one that had value to me in addition to the grade. I wasn’t inspired by getting good grades, but I was inspired by doing interesting work. It was something I was proud of for other reasons besides the grade.

For example, one time I took a class on databases and got to build a little social network. It was really fun to work on. I learned a lot. I loved showing it to others. And it was something I wanted to keep working on after the class ended.

I wish I had done more projects during my education like the ones that I am proud of. Great projects can open up really meaningful opportunities.

Difficult tests

It feels terrible to do poorly on an important test. Imagine you’re taking a college class and you fail the first big test. It makes you feel angry at yourself and feel bitter towards the class. It makes you dislike the class. That’s how I felt when that happened to me!

This is very demotivating. The next time you need to study for the class you’ll be at a disadvantage because of your emotions. You’ll feel like the material is too difficult and lack confidence in your ability to learn it. You won’t like studying because you won’t be enjoying the class. This only makes it harder to focus on learning and catching up to the students that did well.

If I was a college professor, I would grade the first big test but I wouldn’t have it count towards your grade for the class. I would tell the students that it doesn’t count but that they should take it very seriously anyway as a way to measure their understanding of the material. That way, even students who did bad on the first test would continue to be motivated to do well in the class.

Learn by teaching and explaining

One of the best ways to learn about a topic is to teach about that topic. The process of having to explain the topic will improve your understanding. You will be able to see the big picture and understand how each of the pieces fit into that picture. You will notice new connections and think of new questions.

Attempting to write this book has encouraged me to learn a lot about the topics I cover.

You don’t need to literally be teaching someone else either. For example, you can create a study guide for a topic. You’ll learn a lot by doing so, even if you don’t show anyone else the study guide. This is a much more effective way of studying than just reviewing your notes. I remember my calculus teacher had us prepare for the final exam by creating a study guide and turning it in. I understood calculus much better after creating my own study guide for it.

When I work as a programmer, I occasionally come across a problem I don’t understand. Sometimes when I am explaining the problem to someone else, whether in person or via an email, I will realize what the cause of the problem is. This is so common in programming that there is a term for it: “rubber duck debugging”. The name comes from figuring out how to fix bugs in code just by explaining your code to an inanimate object, such as a yellow rubber duck.

My own experience with creating educational content

Last year I wrote a guide explaining how to use Git™. Git is a software tool that programmers use to help manage the code they write. It is a widely used tool, but it is also very difficult to learn how to use.

Writing the guide was a lot of fun. I shared it with some of my friends who are programmers and they were very appreciative. I also learned more about Git while writing it.

I encourage people to try creating their own educational content. It could be a written guide or a video or a series of pictures. Then you can share it with friends or publish it somewhere online.

You can read my guide to Git here: www.github.com/kevinverre/kevins-guide-to-git

Growth mindset

A “growth mindset” is when you strongly believe in your ability to learn and grow. A “fixed mindset” is when you believe that you have strengths and weaknesses that cannot be changed.

Imagine you are struggling with a particular class or subject in school, such as math. You notice that your math skills are weak right now. How do you react to your poor performance in that subject?

If you have a “fixed mindset”, you accept that you are bad at math and that math is one of your weaknesses. You won’t try to get good at math because you don’t believe it could ever become one of your strengths.

On the other hand, if you have a growth mindset, you believe that your math skills could greatly be improved. You believe that you can grow into someone who is great at math, even though you currently struggle. You don’t believe that being bad at math is permanently part of who you are.

Some people I know have a growth mindset and others have a fixed mindset. The people with a fixed mindset limit their possibilities. For example, I have a friend who was bad at math and science when he was younger. As an adult in college, he doubted his ability to learn difficult math or technical subjects. Instead he focused on writing and poetry. He didn’t have very much belief in his own ability to develop new strengths.

In contrast, I also have friends that exemplify the growth mindset. They are willing to try new things and challenge themselves in order to grow. They find success and happiness doing things that they never previously imagined doing.

Video games are a great metaphor for why you should have a growth mindset. The first time you played Mario Kart, Call of Duty, or League of Legends (or whatever game you play), you were awful at it. You began as a noob! You didn’t know what was going to happen next or what strategies were effective. But after playing the game a lot, you learned how to play much more effectively.

So the next time you struggle with something, you think you aren’t smart enough, or you don’t think you’re capable of something, just remember that you just need more experience or instruction. Don’t underestimate how much you can grow.

Instead of thinking “I suck at calculus”, try thinking “I don’t know enough about calculus right now.”

But don’t underestimate how difficult or valuable it is to grow either. Sometimes I neglected to put in the time and effort required to learn a valuable skill. (Example: some advanced programming concepts.) Why? My confidence in being able to learn caused me to procrastinate actually learning it. I probably missed out on some opportunities because I didn’t push myself to grow.

Sometimes you should go for it even if you don’t know much

There are a lot of skills you can learn just by trying. For example, say you want to make an iPhone app. That’s the type of project you can just go for. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you’re doing because there’s no risk. Just start working. If you get stuck you can reach out for help. But don’t let your lack of knowledge scare you off from getting started.

Asking questions and getting answers

A great way to learn is to ask questions. But asking good questions and getting good answers can be difficult. Sometimes someone will have an important question but not ask it. Maybe they are afraid to ask or embarrassed to ask.

Sometimes someone will ask an important question but not receive a good answer. Maybe they didn’t ask the right person or people.

Why did I read so much fiction for school?

When I was in high school, I took an English literature class every semester. Sometimes we read nonfiction, but most of the time we read fictional books. We would discuss the books in class and also write essays about them. These were the classes I struggled with the most during high school. At that time, I didn’t understand why I was being taught fiction. I didn’t understand how to discuss the important parts of the book during class. I also didn’t know how to consistently write good essays.

Fiction novels and poetry can teach us a lot about the real world. The writing can express ideas, thoughts, feelings, morals, inspiration, and lessons. The authors use their writing to teach the reader what they think and feel. We can use this to help us come to our own conclusions on what we think and feel. Fiction can help us explore new, complex ideas.

However, it wasn’t clear to me at the time why I was being asked to read so much fiction. The lessons in the books were sometimes very subtle. I didn’t always know how to connect those lessons from fiction to my own life. Also, reading lots of good books did not feel like it helped me to become a good writer!

If I took those English literature classes now, I wouldn’t struggle like I did. I’ve learned how to be a much better writer (more on that later, in “How to be a good writer”). I’ve also learned how to understand the important ideas within fictional novels. These skills would allow me to now consistently write good essays and consistently participate well in class discussion. Now I understand why fiction is valuable to students. I just wish I had been taught how to be a good English student earlier.

Nonfiction reading

I love reading nonfiction! I’ve read many nonfiction books and I have many more that I want to read. I read nonfiction books while I was still in high school, during college, and after college. Many of these books I read on my own for fun (outside of school). Some I found on my own, others were recommended to me by other people.

I was inspired to read because I wanted to be smart about the real world. I felt like I was learning so much. These books were written by professors, journalists, psychologists, economists, scientists, engineers, biologists, marketers, bloggers, etc. I mention some of my favorite nonfiction books throughout this book.

I wish I had read more nonfiction books for school. I think teachers should start asking their students to read more nonfiction. Reading nonfiction can be very valuable.

Recently, there has been a rising interest among readers in psychology, business, and self-help books. There are more nonfiction books to choose from now than ever before. I think that there will be many amazing nonfiction books written in the future.

One of my favorite nonfiction books was How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It describes how to be more likeable and how to convince people to agree with you. It was first published in 1936 but it still holds up amazingly well today. Reading it helped inspire my love of nonfiction reading.

Carnegie writes that we should not “criticize, condemn, or complain” because arguing rarely gets people to agree with our way of thinking. Instead, be a respectful, empathetic listener and be encouraging.

Topics that aren’t taught enough in school

I learned a lot in school. But there were some topics that I wish had been taught more. These topics are very practical and would’ve helped me outside of school. Examples include: entrepreneurship, business, personal finance, economics, how to be a good writer, non-fiction reading, psychology, dating and relationships, cooking, etc. Some of these are mentioned elsewhere in this book.

Learning about careers

As a student, I learned a little bit about the various careers and jobs I could have in the future. But there was a lot more I could have learned. I now know a lot more about many different careers: what types of educational requirements they have, what skills they require, what salaries they can earn, how stressful they are, what type of people they attract.

How to be a good writer

I learned how to be a good writer when I was a senior in college. I learned by reading a book on how to be a better writer. I wish I had learned those ideas a lot sooner. It would’ve made the writing I did for high school English class a lot better.

The book was titled Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup. It explains how to write in a way that is easy and enjoyable to read. For each lesson, it showed how to re-write example sentences and paragraphs to be clearer.

The book discussed word-order within a sentence and sentence-order within a paragraph. Sentences and paragraphs are easiest to read if they have a logical starting point. This starting point is usually something that is familiar to the reader or easy to understand. This way the reader isn’t confused by something you wrote. The end of sentences and paragraphs should be a logical ending point. The end of a sentence or a paragraph naturally get more emphasis.

Another tip was to be concise and get to the important points quickly. Words or sentences that don’t serve a valuable purpose should be removed. Many sentences can be re-constructed to use fewer words.

For this book, I try to make the writing clear and easy to read. However, there are still many improvements I could make to the writing style. It takes a lot of time and effort to write well. Good editing can require just as much time as writing.

Taking too many classes at once

One semester in college I tried to take too many classes at once. That meant I had too much studying, learning, and work that I was supposed to do. I didn’t get my best grades that semester. And I definitely didn’t understand the material from those classes very well.

But it did teach me a lot about my limits. I learned that I can’t be like Hermione in Harry Potter, who used a time travel device to take more classes than she had time for.

Why college costs so much

Going to a university in the United States can be expensive. There are probably many reasons why college costs so much. One important reason is that the demand for a college education has increased. Universities are willing to raise tuition prices because many students will attend despite the increased cost. Scholarships and student loans allow more students to afford a college education.

The price will stay high or increase as long as enough students enroll at the current price. A university will only decrease its tuition if the university feels it cannot attract enough students to enroll at the current price.

Is college worth its high cost?

The reason college is very popular despite its high cost is that there are lots of benefits to attending college. You can have a great educational experience and learn valuable skills. You can use your degree to get a job. You can meet great people. In many cases, going to college is a great value for your money.

However, you should be realistic about the benefits of any college program. Some college degrees offer great economic benefits by leading you to a high paying job. Which school you attend and what you study will affect your opportunities.

“Bootcamp” classes as a way of learning outside of college

In the field of computer programming, there are lots of educational companies offering customers programming “bootcamps” that teach you how to write code. A bootcamp is an intense class over a short period of time. I enrolled in one such programming bootcamp a couple years after college and it was extremely helpful.

These bootcamps and intensive classes can be a great way to learn a lot in a short amount of time. You can go at your own pace, which allowed me to skip over the parts I already knew. The curriculum tends to focus on what the industry is hiring for. For me, I wanted to learn a new programming language and technology (“Ruby on Rails”). How much you learn depends on how hard you’re willing to study.

Educational software and educational games

I love educational websites and software. There are many great educational resources online. New ones are being created all the time.

“Coursera” allows you to access college courses from real universities. “Khan Academy” has a lot of great, free educational videos and resources. YouTube has some amazing instructional videos. “Duolingo” is a clever game for learning a new language. TED.com has videos of inspiring lectures called “TED Talks”. Quora.com allows users to ask and answer questions. There are many more educational resources online.

As a kid I played a lot of educational computer games and board games. I think games can be a great way to learn things. Playing games also helped me get more experienced using computers.

I used a computer game (“Type to Learn”) to learn how to type on the computer. I also practiced math and reading with various computer games, such MathBlaster and the JumpStart series. SimCity 2000 and other Maxis games taught me about the real world. The computer game “Civilization II” taught me a lot about history and politics.

Future online educational resources

YouTube is great because it makes it very easily to upload, share, and organize the educational videos you’ve created. (Recording and editing a video still takes a lot of work.) The success and popularity of YouTube as a platform for videos has inspired many more people to create videos.

YouTube is an example of “Web 2.0” because it allows users to submit content that other users can enjoy. “Web 2.0” is still growing, developing, and evolving.

In the future, there will be new ways for content creators to create and share content. There might be newer and better ways to publish educational content. The content could be lesson plans, study guides, quizzes, videos, links to helpful URLs, or collections of resources, etc. There will also be improved search engines and recommendation engines to help people find the best educational content. As our websites and platforms for educational content improve, teachers will be more inspired to create content for those platforms.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a great educational resource. It has a huge amount of articles and information. The articles are written collaboratively by anyone willing to contribute.

Each article has a discussion page where you can discuss the contents of the article with the authors. You can also see all the changes made to an article over time.

Wikipedia has many articles describing aspects of Wikipedia itself. This includes all the different rules that are in place to try to maintain the quality of the encyclopedia.

A lot of effort goes into trying to keep Wikipedia accurate. If someone attempts to vandalize an article (to be funny or to push an agenda), it can be detected either by other contributors or by automated software that flags suspicious changes. But you may still encounter inaccuracies.

Wikipedia also has weaknesses. Some articles are not very well written. The important information that you’re looking for can be hidden inside of a large article. Information and details can be in a weird order.

Another one of the limitations is the encyclopedia format. Encyclopedia articles are great for many kinds of information, but not all kinds of information. For example, many articles that would potentially be useful are removed because they don’t meet the guidelines.

Even small but good changes can be removed if a moderator doesn’t like it. It’s frustrating if you write something that you are proud of only to have someone else remove it.

A great project for college students is to create a page on Wikipedia or try making improvements to an existing page. It gives you a better understanding of how the pages are edited.

Book summaries

I love reading books and I also enjoy reading book summaries. If I’m curious about a book, I will try to find a summary or review of it.

There are some websites and apps for book summaries. However, I haven’t found one yet that does an amazing job. Looking for great summaries or notes online for a specific book can be disappointing. There is “WikiSummaries.org”, which is related to Wikipedia and allows anyone to edit book summaries. But it has very little content or user activity so it is not very helpful. Writing a good book summary takes a lot of effort.

Creating a summary for a book does NOT infringe on the copyright of that book, as long as your summary is in your own words. Copyright protects the arrangements of words but does not protect the ideas. You are free to express those ideas in your own words. Still, some people might feel that creating and distributing a summary is unfair to the original author.

If you want to summarize parts of this book, go right ahead. Just make sure I’m properly credited.

WhatIThinkSoFar

Written by

Kevin Verre, software engineer and writer

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