Best Way To Learn Any Subject: Curation
“If you want to learn something quickly, you need to immerse yourself in that thing and immediately implement what you’re learning.”
Benjamin P. Hardy
“How To Learn in Two Days What Normally Takes Six Months”
Why is content curation so relevant for learning?
Because the best way to learn something is not by memorizing facts, formulas, numbers or dates as we are taught since elementary school. The best way to learn anything is by diving into it.
When you memorize something, all you do is imprint that fact or info into your memory in a way that can be easily recalled. But memorizing that fact has nothing to do with actually “knowing”, which entails your understanding or comprehending of why that fact it is the way it is.
For example if I want to learn what is a circle, and I check up on Wikipedia, I will read: “… It is the set of all points in a plane that are at a given distance from a given point, the centre;”. That appears to be easy to understand and memorize. But memorizing this fact doesn’t really make me understand how to create one if I was a programmer wanting my software to draw one. Where do you place all those dots that need to be at the same distance from the centre? How do you establish their individual locations?
There’s nothing in that Wikipedia sentence that lets you really comprehend the logic of a circle and how to create one from zero in a purely mathematical way.
You think you know what a circle is because you have seen it, drawn it and learnt what it is by definition, but in reality you have only memorized descriptions of the circle, not what it really is or how it is built.
You rarely have had the opportunity or the encouragement from someone to ask why a circle is the way it is and how to conceive a formula to describe one.
Over the course of your lifetime you have learned, or known many more things with this same approach. You think you know, but you really don’t. You take for knowledge a description, a picture, a sentence. But these are just labels. They do not contain the understanding of why that thing is the way it is.
And thus, it has become a habit to take authoritative info for granted, to take descriptors and labels for reality, and to think you have learned or know something simply because you read it, heard it or someone has told you about it.
It is the same as someone who has read, studied and seen other people swim. He can and will say that he knows what swimming is, but, obviously he has only seen and memorized what swimming “looks like”. He does not really know what it actually feels like when you swim and how to do it.
Google for Learning?
Google is not a solution when you want to learn something: Google provides you with a straw to taste and explore the oceans.
It may be good at pointing for you the most popular articles, but this is not always what you are looking for.
Relying on Google to explore a topic, learn and find out more, is not the most effective way to do it.
The best way to do it is to identify, groups, associations, experts and other researchers (academic and not) in your field of interest that have spontaneously taken on the task of finding, vetting and organizing the best information available out there.
LibGuides is a great example.
If I want to learn in depth about a topic I need to go through as many Google results as I can, and evaluate, by reading them, how each one of these content pieces can help me find out and make sense of the topic I am interested into.
I could be lucky and find among Google top results a web page that is not another article on the topic, but it is a curated collection of resources prepared by a subject-matter expert, a teacher or a professor, to help anyone dig and dive deep into that topic without having to look all around the Internet to find all of the relevant pieces.
For example look at this resource: EdShelf.com
And if you pay attention to it, Google does list more and more of these type of pages. Whenever you search for something where the results would require you to go and wade through many different websites and pages it is very likely that you will find a curated collection of resources created by a subject-matter expert.
Though Google is not very good yet at evaluating the quality of these “collection” pages and the expertise of their authors, present day search results would seem to indicate that it relies more and more on individual curators to do part of the information organizing job that is supposed to do itself.
Analogy: How would you react if you decided to go buy a suit and the best shop in town was a windowless place that at its entrance would present you with a written list of the best items available in the shop ranked by a secret algorithm.
You have to choose your suit, from that text written list, and it is tens of pages long.
I would immediately think that:
- if I can’t see what the suits looks like I have to go inside the shop multiple times and see each suit one by one
- if I don’t like what everyone else wears, I would guess that my favorite suit could be in the lower part of the list. But how much time would it take me to wade through all those suits one at a time?
- the list is good for inventory, admin purposes and accounting but it is very inappropriate to help me identify my ideal suit, simply because I cannot specify the criteria by which I want the list to be sorted by. I am forced to rely on someone’s else evaluation and judgement, though I am not given the opportunity to know precisely what these criteria are.
- how do I get to discover new looks and fashion ideas if you are giving me only the top, best, most popular suits?
Okay, information is not a visual item like a suit to wear, but even if you go look for specific information to a shop specialized in information items like a library, a newsstand or an information desk, what you get is an organized view of a subject and someone asking you for more info about what is the purpose of your search so that they can provide you with the exact info you are looking for.
Curation Increases Resolution
By curating something you “see through it”. You can see more aspects, viewpoints, elements and facts that make the “whole picture” of something.
The resolution of the information you curate increases with the depth of your curation efforts. The more you explore, dig, verify and put together, the more “defined” the understanding and comprehension of the subject you are curating becomes.
By exploring, questioning, analyzing and comparing different viewpoints, opinions and ideas on the same subject, one can develop a much greater understanding and comprehension of it than by reading and memorizing even the most authoritative textbook on the topic.
The more you know, the greater your sensitivity, awareness and capability to capture subtleties, nuances and key differences that may go completely unnoticed to the normal person.
This is why, curating any subject you are interested in, allows you to:
“…enjoy subtleties that are virtually inaccessible to everyone else.
It’s the same way with classical or jazz music — learning about the music changes the music.
What the music expert hears has more notes, more instruments, more syncopation… than what I hear when I listen to the same piece.
Of course I don’t mean the music technically changes, but if the way we experience it shifts, it is AS IF the music itself shifts.”
- Kathy Sierra
Learning is the Fruit of Experience
True learning is the fruit of an experience, of immersing and confronting oneself with the matter / information that one wants to learn about.
A good example of this learning by direct immersion and confrontation with the reality to be mastered, is what Prof. Seymour Papert devised over 30 years ago to help children learn geometry and math in an effective manner.
To do that, he created a very simple programming language (Logo) to help children learn. Logo is in fact specifically designed to program the movements of a turtle in space (either physical or digital). Thus, by having to confront themselves with how to intsruct a turtle to do certain movements, these kids conceptualize the problem and devise programmatic solutions that make do the turtle what they want.
Though it may not appear obvious unless you have tried yourself, having to code something like this, forces you to truly understand the geometry of space and how circles, squares and triangles are made. By actually interacting with that reality you want to master, you effectively get to explore, understand and verify how it all does really work.
By becoming the circle itself, the students literally dives into the reality that he wants to learn about and discovers by trial and error how things really work.
In the same way, curation, can be utilized as a new, alternative, learning approach, based not on the mere memorization of facts, but rather on the personal exploration of a subject as an investigative endeavor.
This learning quest, which gives best results when supervised and guided by someone already knowledgeable on the subject, should take into consideration as many sources of information on the subject as possible, differing and contrasting viewpoints, research data and real-world examples.
With this approach, based on personal investigation/exploration/research, it is the learner who gradually makes up his own personal understanding of the subject, rather than being told what the subject is about. In addition, the learner can also appreciate the different ways in which the subject at hand can be looked at and interpreted, and its value relative to his specific interest and pursuit.
In this context the learner stops memorizing and taking for granted information served to him from above and starts to personally explore (alone or in collaboration with others) and investigate the matter at hand, so that, he can arrive at his own understanding and comprehension of the subject.
By exploring, critically evaluating and gradually making sense of a subject, a student truly learns and owns the subject at hand.
Rather than diligently memorizing the notions written by others inside his textbooks or the theorems presented to him in class lectures, the learner who curates the subject he wants to learn, develops a true understanding of the subject and a personal opinion about it. I would venture to say that he now “owns” the subject, rather than simply “knowing” about it.
In this light each student becomes not just a learner, but, as it should be, he becomes also a reviewer, an investigator, an explorer and a contributor to the ideas and understanding surrounding that subject.
By utilizing a curatorial approach to learning we move from a dimension of teaching, where established truth is to be passed on to others unquestioned, to a continuous and open learning process in which everyone is both a learner and a researcher.
The great thing about this, if you think about it, is that under such circumstances everyone who curates a subject by refining, adding value and personal viewpoint becomes a researcher-contributor to that very topic. And since curation thrives on sharing, everyone involved learns from this collective effort .
So whether we make this happen inside a corporation or on the public Internet, the benefits of learning in this fashion are great, as it not only improves the level of our understanding of any subject, but it allows us to operate as a global brain, where each individual is a neuron participating in the process of receiving information, elaborating it and transmitting it onward.
Global learning, true cooperation, collective intelligence thrive on this kind of behaviors: exploring, collaborating, sharing, remixing.
Thus curation, is a natural flywheel to discover and learn more about anything, since the sharing of our research and discoveries with others, always invites feedback, criticism, comments, advice and suggestions in an infinite endless learning loop.
What I Would Like To See
What I advocate is a future where personal study (what you today call schools) is actually driven by personal interests and not by a pre-defined curriculum designed for the in the 1800’s for the industrial era key needs (factories, workers, obedience).
What I would like to see is that we allow our future generations to better understand subjects they want to learn about and master, by having them explore them, by validating and analyzing multiple diverse viewpoints and by stimulating their ability to detect patterns, relationships and connections between apparently unrelated or disconnected facts.
The goal is to move away from top-down imposed study curricula to student-driven learning curricula. The top-down study paradigm imposes and prizes rote learning that makes us feel “knowledgeable” when in reality we know next to nothing about anything.
Learner-driven study is instead driven by exploration, research, investigation, looking into, verification, play / test of a subject chosen by the learner himself. It requires diving into a subject as an investigator, an explorer, a researcher, who has no preconceived ideas or prejudices and wants to find out, in person, how things really are.
Learner-driven study is about human beings taking individual responsibility for knowing what they want know and for collaborating and cooperating together in this process.
Last but not least, such a learning approach would finally allows us to stop delegating the organizing of the world’s info to a third-party company driven profits and not by social interests, while taking the matter gradually into our own hands.