Embrace the Unknown
or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned How to Learn
“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” — Shakespeare
Learning has been coming up a lot recently. First, when will artificial intelligence allow machines start learning to do more of the tasks typically undertaken by humans? Second, what should we (humans) be doing to educate ourselves so that we can thrive in a world increasingly run by AI?
People spend a lot of time, money and effort trying to educate themselves. But, if you’ve spoken with any teachers recently, you’re likely to have heard the phrase “testing isn’t teaching.” There’s a potential corollary to that line: is learning how to take tests really learning?
In the business world, there are two major trends that shed light on what is valued in the economy. They speak to each side of our brains: reliance on data to drive decision-making and an acknowledgement that creativity and design often add disproportionate value.
To get ahead, you will need to be a high-performer in one of these areas, if not both. But when it comes to developing effective curriculums — in a formal academic setting or on your own — the emphasis on rote learning is hiding the fact that we’re not actually building the cognitive skills necessary to thrive when the machines take over.
How we learn has been on my mind since I heard a recent interview with Naval Ravikant, the founder of AngelList, by Tim Ferriss, when Naval described his insatiable curiously for learning. He fed this curiosity with a constant diet of books. His simple hack was that he treated books like social media, where he skips to sections that interest him and doesn’t finish others that don’t. Learning how to learn, he said, was the most important skill you could develop.
Around the same time, I read yet another article about the extent to which curriculums were based on teaching to the tests, while a different article focused on two books tracking how much parents take on the work intended for their kids, preventing them from learning and making decisions on their own. I’m sure some (Test Companies, helicopter parents) will argue that doing well on tests and mastering will enable kids to succeed, get into the “right” college and thrive in life. I’m sure their hearts are (mostly) in the right place.
But, their arguments are weak. Memorizing dates and formulas will help you answer test questions looking for those same dates and formulas, but they don’t require you to think critically, make judgments in the absence of perfect information or create something new. The ability to take standardized tests is not something that will set you apart.
Where’s the development of Naval’s learning how to learn? Where’s the enabling of curiosity?
The saddest part about this is that the academics involved with their respective disciplines know that memorization is not a function of actual scholarship.
As Lies that my Teacher Told Me has shown regarding History, there are contentious debates about “facts” based on conflicting primary source materials and first person accounts that drive researchers to prove and disprove each others’ theories. Yet, even AP history text books relate history in a matter-of-fact fashion with respect to dates, motivations and impacts.
In Math, what’s more interesting: memorizing a handful of formulas that will be quickly forgotten, or what Terry Tao is currently working on:
Imagine…that someone awfully clever could construct a machine out of pure water. It would be built not of rods and gears but from a pattern of interacting currents…Now imagine…that this machine were able to make a smaller, faster copy of itself, which could then make another, and so on, until one has infinite speed in a tiny space and blows up.
Of course, looking at the historical record as a continuum or understanding the mechanics of algebra are necessary building blocks in order to delve into high-level questions. But how many times were they framed as such when you were in school? What would have captured your attention and your curiosity more: learning facts for the sake of regurgitating them, or learning them because you are working towards much greater questions, some of the most interesting of which have not been (and might never be) answered?
“The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” — Aristotle
Summing up Naval: spark your curiosity and give yourself the tools to learn quickly.
These “known unknowns” have even grown into their own field of study. This article is worth reading in its entirety, both for its examples of “teaching to the test” at the highest levels of medical school and for its humility-inspiring notion that even know-it-alls don’t know that much:
The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline — where knowledge meets ignorance — extends. The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.
It is only when we know what we don’t know that we can seek to learn. And that will feed your curiosity, creating a positive feedback loop in which more learning and knowledge begets more and more.
“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” — Einstein
…the longer the shoreline…
This might seem overwhelming, a Sisyphyian task that will never end. But, as anyone who has ever stood on the shore and looked out at the sea will tell you, it’s a hell of a view.
Follow me: @dostermueller.