Learning Through Information Bombardment

Learning by Adam on 2006-11-05 12:24

This piece describes how to learn a difficult topic quickly, and is pretty close to my own technique.

I’m an especially big fan of the first step: “Bombard yourself with information.” It’s a complete 180 from the traditional academic approach. In school, they have you read a chapter and do a bunch of drills to make sure you have absorbed every bit of knowledge before continuing. This never worked very well for me (or anyone else, that I could see).

In real life, the best way to learn is to immerse yourself in the world of the subject matter. Get in over your head, surround yourself with concepts that you don’t understand. Blast through a book (or a few) without really grasping the concepts. Then dive in and start trying to apply what you know so far (which isn’t much). You’ll blunder around quite a bit; but then as you tackle certain types of problems, you’ll remember “Oh yeah, I think this is what they were talking about in that one chapter…” and you’ll go back to review the details more carefully. Repeat this cycle a few times and you’ll get much further than the careful chapter-by-chapter method.

Even better than a book can be getting a magazine subscription or an RSS feed to a news source specific to the craft or industry you’re trying to learn. Skim the stories as they come in (you won’t understand most of it) and pretty soon you’ll have a bunch of terms and concepts bumping around in your head. They won’t fit together yet; only practice and application will make the pieces fall into place. The academic approach would be like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle by pulling each piece from the box, one at a time, and trying to determine its exact location, refusing to select another until that one is placed. The information-bombardment method is more like dumping out all the pieces to a jigsaw puzzle onto the tabletop and sifting through them, trying to weave the chaos into order.

The reason I think that this approach works so well is what I call a solution without a problem. You might have had this happen to you before: you come across a tool at the hardware store for which you cannot fathom any use. Spending time to try to learn how the tool works would be a waste of time - it’s a solution without a problem. On the other hand, go try to do whatever it is the tool is for first. Once you have a mental model of the problem, examining the tool will make perfect sense.

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