Full-Contact Learning

Most people can probably remember a time in their life where they learned a lot in a short time. Something about these experiences drives knowledge more deeply into the mind. In my experiences, I also wasn’t aware I was “learning”. I was just living life intensely.

I would love to reverse engineer these experiences. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more it seems that these experiences are not easily reducible. It’s the complexity and intensity of the experience that makes it effective. You need a lot of elements, not just one.

People often talk about how they’re a ‘visual learner’ or an ‘auditory learner’. I’m skeptical. Rather than trying to figure out what exactly works ‘best’ for your brain, just attack on all sides so there’s no way for your brain to miss the message.

I call this “full-contact learning” because it puts you so deeply into a new subject. My completely anecdotal theory for the effectiveness of full-contact learning is as follows:

Your brain is like a rider on an elephant. Unlike normal school or reading a book, full-contact learning convinces your brain that there is a serious change in your circumstance. This helps enlist the support of your full mental faculties to help you adapt to new knowledge.

Here’s how full-contact learning works, starting with the concept of an experience funnel.

The Experience Funnel

Many will be familiar with the idea of a sales funnel. An experience funnel is the same thing, except growth and learning come out of the funnel’s spout instead of paying customers.

Let’s think through the elements of an experience funnel for learning well.

The Seven Principles of Deep Learning

Modern science suggests that there a few principles to learning well. Opposite these effective strategies are illusions of competence — ways that we trick ourselves into thinking we’ve learned when we haven’t. A good experience funnel would minimize illusions of competence.

Here are seven principles of solid learning based on Make It Stick by Peter Brown et al.

  1. Learning is effortful. It’s what Cal Newport would call ‘deep work’ or others might call ‘deliberate practice’. It’s not always pleasant. It feels like exercise for your brain.
  2. Lots of retrieval practice. This means recalling things from memory. Do flash cards.
  3. Multiple ways of interacting with the new material. Not just reading a book on the subject.
  4. Interleaving — weaving different skills together during your practice rather than hammering away at precisely the same element for long periods.
  5. Setting new knowledge and activities on your old knowledge. Things don’t stick as easily when they aren’t hooked to an existing structure in your memory.
  6. Elaboration. Putting knowledge into your own words. Teaching or explaining an idea to someone else.
  7. Regular tests. The thing everyone fears. But passing hard tests can really stretch your brain.

Full-Contact Learning

How can we bring together these seven principles and design an experience funnel for optimal learning? I propose ‘full-contact learning’.

I base these on the experiences I had learning economics. I entered college as a jazz music major and, after two years of studying economics, I was able to beat people with PhD’s in essay competitions. I was not any smarter. I just geeked out on the subject hardcore and (by accident) built an experience funnel of full-contact learning at a level beyond most undergrads.

Here are the elements:

  1. An all encompassing, full-immersion data stream. Always expose yourself to knowledge related to the field. This is especially true for things that are currently too hard for you. Read things above your skill level. Go to the library and stand in the aisle that has books relevant to your new learning. Check out a bunch. Read as much as you can. Look at blogs. Listen to lectures. Over time you begin to pick out the common terms and concepts. What was once impenetrable becomes understandable.
  2. Take a formal class in the subject. Non-traditional learners discount traditional classes too much. Classes are not bad. You just don’t want to depend on them for all of your learning. Classes are also good ways to find high-quality material, since a professor has curated the reading list.
  3. Talk with people who know more. Or at least listen to them. Find a mentor who knows more if you can and take them to lunch. Download their brain by asking them questions. Most people are excited to share their knowledge. If you can’t find a mentor use podcasts. You can go online and listen to top people in every field discuss, debate, lecture, and otherwise share their knowledge. Most of these resources are free. Sit in on classes that are above your level. Many professors will allow this for free.
  4. Participate in events in the field. Go to conferences and other events where people will talk about the field. Don’t get too into them, because most conferences are more about social elements like drinking and hooking up rather than content. But they’re a good way for someone new to hear how professionals ‘talk shop’ about their field.
  5. Find a way to do stuff ‘for fun’ related to the craft. When you’re relaxing, you can still be learning more if structure your entertainment to relate to what you want to learn.
  6. Do real work. Full-contact learning would need to include work and studying (in the traditional sense of the suggestions above). Work on its own could become a treadmill. Studying alone too easily falls into illusions of competence or useless academic wheel-spinning. Build something. Real work also helps us create real tests: it’s hard to fake creating a real product or project.

Rather than worry about the complexities about ‘visual learning’ or other proposed theories, full-contact learning submerges you in the field. You’ll use all your senses. You’ll make connections. And you’ll learn. Initially it’s annoying to set up a full-contact learning funnel. But once you’re living your life immersed, the learning will come almost without you knowing it.

Example Full-Contact Learning Funnel for Learning Python

Here’s an experience funnel for learning the programming language Python.

  1. Read and complete Learn Python the Hard Way, do all the assignments to get your basics. Do at least one hour of deliberate practice with this book each day. Time it with a Pomodoro timer.
  2. Enroll in an CS 101 on EdX or Coursera. Read as many supplementary links as you can, most of which will be very confusing.
  3. Listen to Talk Python to Me during your morning commute.
  4. When you’re bored, play CodeCombat, a game where you can use Python to play.
  5. Take a seasoned programmer out to lunch.
  6. Watch tutorials on Python on YouTube while you eat lunch.
  7. After a week or two, solve all the challenge problems in Google’s Python course.
  8. Build an app you’d like to use and put it on GitHub.

That’s it. Do as many of these things as often as you can each day and you will learn. It just takes time.