I’ve always had trouble with the traditional methods of learning: classroom approaches, study groups, and intensive memorization never really did much for me. But now I feel like I’m beginning to settle into a method that may work for me, and I’m interested in sharing it with all of you.
I call this strategy the experimental method of learning. That might be strange coming from a man who abhors doing research or experiments of any kind, but stay with me here.
I don’t think this method will work for *every* skill — things that are more theoretical like quantum physics and skills that need advanced equipment like medicine might not work here. You could modify the strategy slightly to get it to work, but I haven’t tried. What I do know is that this strategy works for language-learning, creative skills (art, music, writing), business skills (finance, marketing) and probably most forms of engineering or construction. You’ll see why when I explain.
The example I’ll be using throughout is that of computer programming, which is a skill I’ve wanted to learn for a long time and took years of figuring out before I finally find a groove. The main pain point I had about programming was that the lessons you’d get on something like Codecademy and FreeCodeCamp were so starkly different from reality. On these websites, you’d get a module like “Python Lists”, and the little guide will tell you to add something to the coding area, and you’d do it, submit your progress, and get it either right or wrong. You repeat this ad-nauseum 100+ times and all of a sudden you’re a certified Python beginner. Seems simple enough.
Then you try doing the same thing in an actual coding environment. You get on VS Code and make a Hello World program. You click run and nothing happens. You check the debugger.
ERROR – PYTHON NOT FOUND
Oh, I guess that makes sense. Python 3 doesn’t just grow on trees, you know. Better install it.
So you go to the Python site, you install it to your computer. Reopen VS Code, try the whole thing again.
ERROR – PYTHON NOT FOUND
You sure about that, smart ass? It’s right there, right in the folder it was installed to. Well, as it turns out, that’s not quite the folder VS Code reads Python in. You find out you get better luck installing the VS Code Python plug in. You try one more time.
ERROR – PACKAGE [Pick your poison] IS NOT FOUND
Alright, you know where I’m going with this. The reality is that programming is probably 1% syntax (what Codecademy teaches you) and 99% installing libraries, learning APIs, and trying to figure out how the hell to connect these paths back to your IDE. But you would have never known that if you had followed the course formula.
So, how do you get around this? Enter the experimental method:
- First, learn the basics. For programming, it’s the syntax of the language you’re trying to use. For music, it’s basic theory (scales and chords and such). For art, it’s understanding deconstruction, lighting, portions, etc.
- Second, experiment. Figure out something you want to make with your skill — for me, it was a simple console-based trading game. Read up online on how to use component parts, then put these components together to create your project. This is most of the work in learning.
Experimenting helps you understand that learning is often not as straightforward as it looks. It is challenging, for sure — I probably spent hours trying to get basic python libraries to run in VS Code — but the outcomes from learning are more effective, and at the same time you’re learning by doing things you want to do.
If you’re having trouble figuring out a good learning paradigm for yourself, I would suggest trying this one out. It might be the one you’re looking for.