Designing Personal Curricula For Lifelong Learning

In the age of information, we must keep learning or perish


“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” 
~ Henry Ford

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of designing a personal curriculum ever since I was in high school. After a couple years, many iterations, and a lot of books, I’ve now come up with a relatively sturdy framework to base a personal curriculum on. This framework was molded with a single objective in mind: to organize lifelong learning.

I’m sure you’ve heard of that term. Some of you might already be actively engaged in and dedicated to never ceasing to learn. Some of you might be keen on getting started, looking for a framework to boil it all down into simple and understandable steps. Because when you commit to learning all of your life, you will come across ginormous amounts of information, which can be daunting without the right tools to organize and store it.

Either way, I believe that this framework for designing a curriculum will help anyone feel confident about lifelong learning — an endeavor as rewarding as it is challenging. However, before we get into the “how” of my design, let’s begin with a more important question.

Why?

Michelangelo, da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein, et al. were all committed to lifelong learning — but that is not the reason we should build our intentions around, because people tend to give up sooner when fighting a battle that is not really their own. We all need to have our own reasons for committing to lifelong learning. This is worth repeating. Having a strong “why” is just as important as the design of the curriculum, if not more.

There’s a long list of benefits of lifelong learning. Maybe you want to gain expertise in a domain to boost your career. Maybe you want to gain mastery over a topic for the sense of mastery itself (which is, no doubt, a great feeling). Maybe you want to tackle a subject which was a pet peeve of yours when you were in school/college. For me, it is all of these reasons, plus some more.

I also want to keep learning because it is rejuvenating. It is perennially transformative — in that everything I learn helps me see the world with a cleaner pair of glasses, and there is practically no end to my learning because there is none to what the world can teach. This reminds me of a quote:

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”
~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

I strongly believe that being curious is a blessing. It is an unending source of wonder and fulfillment. Those are two feelings we can always have more of in our lives. Learning not only rekindles the flame of curiosity that we all had as children — it also keeps it burning.

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” 
Socrates

These were my reasons, but, obviously, feel free to borrow them if they seem to fit for you. Once we have a mental list of reasons to always keep learning, we must turn it into a pen-and-paper list. For when constant learning overwhelms us (which it most likely will at some point) we can take a moment to remember why we started it all, and go at it with a renewed sense of vigor.


Setting Clear Learning Objectives

The core reasons behind lifelong learning often tend to be relatively abstract (e.g. “I want to know my place in this universe”). In the day-to-day of learning, operating with an abstract reason in mind can be very confusing and time-wasting. Hence, it is necessary to turn these abstract reasons into concrete and actionable learning objectives.

Needless to say, this is not an easy exercise — but doable, nonetheless, with a few good hours of thinking. For example, the core abstract reason behind my learning is to understand how the world works. So I created a concrete list of subjects to study which would give me a fair idea of how various economic, political, scientific, technological etc. factors interacted to make the world “work”.

In this way, I converted my abstract objective into a list of subjects to learn, including but not limited to physics, economics, biology, politics, and philosophy. I did this by first typing out a list of subjects based on intuition, getting a feel of all of them on Wikipedia, then deciding if the gestalt of these subjects would be good enough for my abstract objective (i.e. understanding how the world works). I then added or removed subjects from my list accordingly — and thus ended up with the right set of subjects.

“I read my eyes out and can’t read half enough…the more one reads the more one sees we have to read.” 
~ John Adams

Designing the Curriculum — Stock and Flow

The guideline that I followed while designing this framework for curricula was to keep it as simple as possible. Previous iterations of this framework had vast amounts of complexity in order to “perfectly” deal with the vast amount of information that comes with lifelong learning. But then I realized that I was trying to kill a fly by deploying a cannon. I switched to a simple, minimal, and yet effective framework, and it is a breeze to deal with.

Framework:

We basically divide each subject we have into two sections.

  1. Stock (i.e. the fundamental concepts of a subject — e.g. binary numbers, recursion in Computer Science)
  2. Flow (i.e. non-fundamental and relatively new concepts of the subject — e.g. blockchain in Computer Science)

A useful descriptor of stock concepts is that a considerable number of flow concepts emerge from them. More examples can be the concept of total, marginal, and average utilities in Economics, the Music Theory in music, the process of frying in cooking, etc.

Needless to say, many concepts will seem to fall in the grey between stock and flow. I recommend you use your best judgement to classify them as correctly as possible. As for me, I go with stock whenever in too much doubt.

Now, the reason behind this classification is not only to organize the vast number of concepts to be learned. This classification also helps us in deciding the sequence of learning those concepts. The sequences that go with our learning are crucial; imagine being taught calculus before you’re taught subtraction. For this very reason, stock concepts have primacy when it comes to learning sequences. We go through the flow concepts only after we’re done with the fundamentals.

Note: The primacy of stock concepts comes from the idea of beginning with the first principles -- something I’ve talked about in greater length in this post. It’s not necessary to read it to understand this one, but give it 5–6 minutes if you can.

After thoughtfully classifying concepts of a subject as stock or flow, we can embed them into a sequence of learning (which I call a sol). Note that not only can we prepare sols for concepts in a subject, but also for the entire subject list itself. In fact, I strongly recommend you do this if you have a medium-to-large list of subjects to deal with.

When we’re done creating sols for individual subjects (and hopefully a master sol containing all the subjects to be tackled) we’re pretty much done with the organization of our learning content. We just have to make sure we keep it updated as new developments arise in the fields we’re concerned with. Reviewing our sols once in a while also helps greatly.

The only thing that remains after preparing sols is making study and revision schedules. There are only three things that I’d like to mention regarding those:

  1. Learn stock subjects/concepts before flow ones — if there are any interesting new developments in the subject/concept, just note them down and deal with them after you’re done with the stock part
  2. Don’t delve too deep into a stock subject/concept — just the fundamentals, and leave the rest as flow concepts
  3. I follow the Leitner system to revise old concepts. It is a system of spacing out our learning in a way that maximizes retention — which is super crucial when dealing with loads of information. It involves using physical flash cards, but several people prefer doing it on their phone for convenience. For this purpose, there’s an app that I’ve made myself called Remember.
The Leitner system: a depiction
Note: Study skills are a crucial set of skills for any lifelong learner. The difference that increased retention, longer attention spans, etc. can make is enormous. You can literally study in two years with good study skills what you can in four without. 
I personally used this super valuable playlist of CrashCourse videos (the channel run by Hank Green), and I'm forever indebted to the team:
CrashCourse (Study Skills)-- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhuwS5ZLwKY&list=PL8dPuuaLjXtNcAJRf3bE1IJU6nMfHj86W
Upkeep of study skills is as important for a lifelong learner as is typing for a programmer. 

Conclusion

Well, I guess that’s all! To summarize:

  1. Decide why you want to commit to lifelong learning
  2. Decide on what subjects you want to tackle
  3. Organize those subjects into learning sequences
  4. Create a study and revision schedule

While I’ve tried to tackle a seemingly broad topic — i.e. curriculum design — I’ve tried to kept the scope of this article as narrow and minimal as possible. But that leaves me torn because there’s so much more to be learned about learning that I want to talk about. I’ll leave you with some extra resources for further reading, and hope that you’ll go out looking for some on your own as well.

“Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.” 
~ Albert Einstein


P.S. None of the links mentioned anywhere in the post are sponsored. They’re my personal suggestions (and preferences).

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