In my previous post, I discussed the reasons impelling me to find better ways to learn, and the notion of Personal Learning Environment (PLE). Here, I’ll go into the nitty-gritty stuff that actually constitutes my learning: the contents, tools, and processes. I’ll also present some ways to possibly shape up and improve that whole mess.
READER, BEWARE: All this might be a little too personal and long-winded for anyone else than me to be interested… but so be it. This blog is an attempt at achieving a little more clarity in my thinking before anything else. However, all thoughtful comments are welcome of course.
Without further ado:
WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT LEARNING
I spent most of my childhood without access to TV or video games. As a result, I developed the habit of reading a lot, every day. Until high school, this habit was rooted solely in the hunger for stories found in comic books and novels, on which I fed voraciously. It led me to start writing my own stories, notably lengthy pen-and-paper RPG scenarios.
In university, I started reading more and more non-fiction out of sheer necessity: essays and reports had to be written and handed in. Most of what I read was compulsory reading; and although I often took a detective’s pleasure in digging deep into library resources to craft an argument or unearth some interesting tidbit of data, throughout my undergrad and master’s program, I mostly kept a begrudging, utilitarian approach to knowledge as a mere tool to obtain my degree. As soon as the essay would be written, I would promptly bury all gathered material into the depths of my drawers, and only in rare cases would anything remain lastingly in my memory.
It now appears to me that subconsciously, I resented the whole university system as a vast and intimidating machine in which I had been pushed, and through which I had to keep walking in order to make my path through life. I didn’t feel empowered, but, with the exception of a few more interesting courses, enjoined to prove my worth repeatedly in ways I couldn’t choose. Perhaps this explains in part that I only began reading non-fiction frequently and out of personal interest at the very end of my university years, about ten years ago (I am about to turn 33) — in other words, after feeling myself freed from the tedious demands of the machine.
At the start of this month of October 2018, I became officially enrolled in a PhD program at the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability, University of Cumbria, in the UK. Ten years ago, it would have been difficult for me to believe that I would make such a move, and decide to go back to the academic world. I think this choice has been motivated, at least partly, by the books and articles that I read over the past decade. These works have recently led me to the conclusion that if I am to live a meaningful life in the world, I should embrace my hunger for books and ideas, and leverage it to channel what I learn and have learned in ways useful to others. I am beginning to consciously accept my own role as that of someone who deals in knowledge — pretentious as it may sound.
(future posts are in the pipeline regarding my actual PhD topic)
The gravity of this realisation, with its related sense of cosmic mission — and the prospect of having to hand in a thesis in four years’ time — made me feel that I should reflect on how I learn, or attempt to learn, and on the ways to improve this process.
HOW DO I GO ABOUT LEARNING STUFF?
I won’t try to delve into cognitive science or epistemology hocus-pocus here (I’m far from qualified anyway). Simply, as part of my attempt to build a more satisfactory PLE and stop feeling like I’ve already got Alzheimer’s disease, I’ll describe:
- what I am trying to learn;
- the tools I use, and the ways in which I use them;
- the pros and cons of my current learning processes;
- ways that could help me improve these processes.
In the next article, I might apply some techniques used in action research to evaluate whether anything is actually being improved.
Fields of study
Since leaving university classrooms, I have mostly been learning “informally,” i.e. as an autodidact, content related to the following disciplines:
- Chinese and Japanese languages (I spent nearly a decade living and working in China and Japan);
- Climate change and sustainability (I’ve worked for an environmental consultancy);
- Translation theory and practice (I currently work as a freelance Chinese-French-English translator);
- Monetary systems and local exchange solutions (I’m now doing some work with people in this field);
- Rock climbing.
Apart from these fields, which are easiest to circumscribe, I have also been reading a fair deal about politics, economics, and topics generally connected with deep social and ecological issues.
Sources and tools
I learned Mandarin Chinese and Japanese (I’m fluent in the former, and at an upper-intermediate level in the latter) mostly through a blend of:
- grammar manuals;
- everyday conversations;
- and the daily use of SRS software (Anki).
My professional and rock-climbing skills have been honed through practice, a bit of reading, and growing callous (which is what happens when you get calluses, right?).
I tend to explore the more general fields I am interested in through:
- articles accessed online;
- online videos & documentaries;
- occasional talks/conferences.
I’ll leave aside language-learning processes, as they seem to me like a world of their own (especially given the necessary memorisation of vocabulary); see, for instance, this blog for good insights on learning languages as an autodidact.
Instead, I will focus squarely on what could be termed (for lack of a better term) “awareness learning” — i.e. discovering, understanding, critiquing and possibly integrating in one’s mind ideas and information relevant to broad insights into (in the immortal words of Douglas Adams) of “Life, the Universe and Everything Else“.
What tools and processes do I currently make use of for my “awareness learning”? What are the strengths and weaknesses I can detect in these processes? And how can I work on them?
As for tools, I won’t talk too much about podcasts, videos and conferences, as for now they still represent a rather minute share of my learning resources. I feel I mostly need to deal better with what I read.
SELECTION: I tend to select the books I read in a rather spontaneous and chaotic way. I do maintain a “To Read Next” list, which I organise in themes and sort by subjective degree of importance/urgency; but a glowing review by someone I trust and whose opinion I value can be enough for me to ignore this list altogether, and jump into the recommended volume immediately. (Another manifestation of my systematic / anti-systematic conflicted personality)
FREQUENCY: I try to read essays at least one to two hours per day, or roughly about 10 hours per week. At any given point in the year, I tend to be reading two to three essays simultaneously, and to jump from one to the other.
DIGESTING: When reading essays, I take handwritten notes summarising the content on a notepad as I go. Then, a couple of times per week, I report these notes onto my text editor/notes library, highlighting the more important passages. Finally, if I find the book inspiring and important enough, I write a review on my Another Life blog. I will probably also start writing about my readings on this new blog, too.
- I find this process conducive to “fixing” what I read in my memory — both biological and digital.
- It’s useful for integrating what I read into my natural memory, as it makes me read and mull over interesting stuff three times, at a few days’ intervals:
- when reading it for the first time;
- when copying my notes onto my computer;
- when synthesising these notes into a long-form article.
- It’s also useful to enrich my digital memory bank: when necessary, I can simply open my notes library on my computer or smartphone (it’s automatically synced between all my devices thanks to Nextcloud and Syncthing), make a keynote search, and quickly retrieve the point an author was making. This digital memory bank comes in handy for writing other articles, but also when looking up a quick reference.
- My note-taking and -compiling process is quite time-consuming. In the case of my latest article, on J. Lent’s The Patterning Instinct for example, exactly half a year went by between the moment when I first started reading the essay, and when I finally got around writing about it! It’s a bit of an extreme case — the book is quite long and rich, and I had a very busy summer; but perhaps this shows that there could be more efficiently ways for me to integrate lengthy book content into my memory (or my thinking)?
- Turning my notes into a lengthy summary of a given book is useful as a detailed personal memo, but it’s certainly not the most reflective and critical approach I can adopt. I tend to produce a lengthy screed which is perhaps not very useful to my potential readers, inasmuch as I am simply telling them about the contents I found interesting, instead of putting it into a critical perspective which could be more fertile ground for conversation.
- Finally, I must say I remain slightly concerned whether the availability of my notes as fragments of digital memory might contribute to weakening my “natural” memory — see my discussion of this in the previous post.
The articles I read are of three types:
- Online news media;
- Blog posts;
- Academic journals.
They reach me through three main channels:
- News aggregator
- Email newsletters
- Shared by friends/through social media
(I find many other articles “organically” by following hypertext links and references to other content in those primary sources)
– Aggregator: For a couple of years, I have used Feedly as my news aggregator to follow about 80 active RSS feeds and a few Google News keywords, grouped into a dozen thematic categories. I am currently trying out FreshRSS, an open-source aggregator that I can host on my Nextcloud server.
But although I prefer non-commercial, open-source software, I do find Feedly’s interface more attractive and legible (especially the “Magazine View” layout); besides, its ranking of articles by popularity is useful to see at a glance what content is currently most read and shared by other people — although this is, of course, far from always being a very meaningful indicator of quality or relevance. Finally, Feedly has also recommended other interesting feeds to me which I ended up adding to my personal roster. So I might stick with it after all.
In a given reading session, I tend to focus on a certain category of feeds (e.g. “Nature” or “China” articles), and open the articles that catch my attention.
– Newsletters: I have also subscribed to weekly newsletters from a handful of websites I like, which send me a list of their articles regularly. This prevents me from missing their content, which can easily end up drowned among the flow of many other active feeds.
– Friends/social media: I don’t use Facebook or Twitter, so I only sporadically receive friends’ recommendations through instant messaging software. However, I do use Mastodon to interact with people on two interesting instances (I’m @DaoYang on todon.nl and social.coop), so I sometimes find interesting articles to read on there too.
FREQUENCY: Currently I read between one and two dozen or so articles per week, as I’ve been trying to curb my consumption somewhat. It’s hard not to go down the rabbit hole.
I read articles:
- on my laptop;
- on my smartphone;
- and on my Kindle.
Recently, I started using a “Push to Kindle” browser plugin to send interesting articles to my Kindle, as I try to avoid reading long texts on my computer screen. After pushing them, I also save a backup copy on my computer as a PDF.
My main headache is cross-device synchronisation of the articles I read. I don’t use Evernote or anything similar, as it eats up my computer memory, so when reading on my smartphone, I have to keep read articles as open tabs in Firefox and remember to open them again on my laptop.
Storage & organisation
I try to save a copy of every article I read as a PDF document on my hard drive. Each article is placed in a thematic folder.
The most important of these folders (i.e. most directly relevant to what I want to learn) are subfolders automatically harvested by the application Mendeley Desktop. Every now and then, when opening the application on my laptop, I make sure the title and author of each article are correct, and I add basic tags, for easier retrieval.
Very occasionally, I copy certain passages from some articles and group these notes onto “Memes” note files. The idea is to have ready at hand some files with funky, inspiring ideas gathered here and there (for instance, on the topic of “Human Social Evolution” or “Exoplanets”). So far, though, I haven’t used these files much.
Easy access to lots of content from different sources.
- I haven’t found any great way to learn deeply from the articles I read, apart from the occasional search for a tidbit of info here or there. While particularly striking articles or ideas do stick with me a bit longer, going back to what I read just a few months ago, it’s depressing to discover how much I forgot. And stockpiling PDFs is pointless if I never actually open them.
- The more mainstream, output-heavy feeds I follow tend to submerge the trickle of articles from smaller blogs — so I tend to block out the former in favour of the latter. But by doing so, I often have the feeling of missing out on important “general background knowledge” information (geopolitics, etc.) when I focus on blog posts discussing more “niche” ideas.
IDEAS FOR IMPROVEMENT
The more I reflect on how I deal with the essays, articles, podcasts, and other content I regularly access to try and learn about stuff, the more it seems to me that a crucial process has been overlooked in my PLE: the act of remixing, repurposing, and feeding forward (in Connectivist terms) of what I do. To simply keep gobbling up large amounts of content, while it may help me find out about different takes on a similar subject for instance, is bound not to yield much long-lasting impact if I don’t process this information in my own words and talk or write about it. (*)
So the gist of the ideas I’m starting to put into place to improve my learning practice have to do with engaging more actively with what I read.
AGGREGATING: Instead of writing long, individual book summaries in the form of rare (because time-consuming to write) blog posts from my notes, I’ll try reading two or three essays that deal with similar themes (or at least, other shorter essays and articles), then produce one or several articles crossing my notes on their contents more dialectically. This could also be more interesting to other readers than just my future self.
Likewise with the articles I read: I should also try and produce more short blog posts integrating and synthetising the contents of several articles every now and then, perhaps in connection with a certain essay I happen to be reading at the time.
BEING METHODICAL: The above probably also implies that I should be a tad more disciplined as regards the order in which I tackle new books I find interesting, in order to more easily produce comparative reviews. In other words, I should have a little more respect for my own “To Read Next” list.
MICRO AND MACRO LEARNING: To counter my impression of being torn between “mainstream” and more “niche” news feeds, I’ll create a “Favourite Mainstream” category of feeds, to have a general outlook on the goings-on in the world, and a “Favourite Alternative” category, for those blogs and websites that I want to make sure never to miss out on. Then, I’ll try to alternate between one and the other as I dip my brain into the roaring info-rivers of the world.
THE MEMORY ISSUE: I’m not sure what to do about the negative impact on my memory that I suspect might be happening due to the use of my own “digital memory bank,” and the digital notes I store in it. Addressing them seriously would require a (probably lengthy) experimental period, during which I would refrain from taking electronic notes, all things equal, and check for any improvement. But I feel very reluctant to do so, if only because it would be highly disruptive and distracting, and I am now engaged in a rather intense research program. It seems more rational for me to learn how to better use my digital external memory, using it as a platform to power my learning, rather than discarding it altogether.
That’s about it for now. We’ll see if any of this makes sense in practice, and if not, how to make it all work better. If anyone has any further advice, please feel free to let me know in your comments!
Having finished writing the above, I bumped into this article. The fact that some of its recommendations correspond to my own conclusions and the processes I’m trying to set up gives me hope that it may not all be complete hogwash. I particularly like the “Feynman Technique,” to better remember/understand stuff:
There are four simple steps: choose a concept; teach it to a toddler; identify gaps and go back to the source material; and review and simplify.
Must try to use this one more often. First, find a toddler…
(*) In this post, as might appear obvious to the astute reader, I am intentionally avoiding the question of “What is learning?” This is a rather intricate issue, to which I will return in later blog posts, as it is likely to become a focal point of my research. For now, suffice to say that while I’m laying the emphasis here on “remembering” data and information, I don’t think learning can be reduced to just that. Instead, I see it more as an autopoietic (“self-constructing”) process.