In this article, I want to discuss meta-learning, the art of learning how to learn.
Most classrooms in the world are teacher-focused. The teacher is the "sage on the stage", the center of attention, the one who teaches while learners sit down, relax, and let them do most of the work. But that model is quite wrong and destructive.
When learners are not challenged and engaged, learning becomes secondary. Learning requires curiosity, motivation, action, and exploration. Without those, learners are only able to learn (a part of) what they are presented with. Sadly, it's how most students learn nowadays. They learn about what they are taught, no more, but often less.
I've observed this first-hand with my kids. While taking them back home after school, I would ask them: "What did you learn about today?". And more often than not, they wouldn't remember. They were not engaged enough to even care. Of course, they learned, studied, and grew. But they did not develop a drive to learn. They weren't curious to learn more. They didn't want to learn on their own. They were passive learners. And to me, passive learners are missing out. They gather the bare minimum of knowledge to get "good grades" according to the system they are a part of.
The problem with teacher-focused classrooms is that students don't have much responsibility for their own learning. And that's the first key issue. Education systems need to pivot to student-centered learning. Students need to take the driver's seat. They need to be engaged, and responsible. They need to take action, learn how to learn, and develop good habits for their future. Without that, they'll remain passive learners for their whole lives. They'll remain stuck with the little knowledge that they will be fed. And surely, without the drive to learn, they'll be missing out. Simply said, the classroom culture determines what will get learned and how students will develop their own systems. If it's teacher-focused, then it will be "dry", and will leave little room for exploration and deep(er) learning. It won't care for how students are best able to learn. It will limit them instead of empowering them.
Learning is a shared responsibility, and it should be clear to everyone. Teachers should teach much less and coach much more. They should help their students create and improve their learning approaches and systems. Learners should be more involved. They should think more, take more responsibility, and develop their own systems to learn by themselves. They should ask more questions, be genuinely curious, explore on their own, and share what they discover with their peers (i.e., become teachers!).
Generally speaking, schools only touch the surface. They introduce topics and their basics, but rarely go deep. Those who truly want to learn need to go way beyond what schools have to teach them. When I compare what I've learned during my bachelor's and master's in IT with what I've learned on my own, the difference is huge. School taught me the basics. They gave me important pointers and helped me create useful mental models. But those were very narrow/limited. Since then, I've learned so much more.
The language of learning should be taught in schools. Teachers should discuss and explore meta-learning with their students. They should help them reflect and discuss how to learn. They should include the "how" in their lessons. To me, a great introduction to a topic should start with a concept map. What are the keywords, the key ideas, and the links between those? Who are the people behind each? How do the elements relate together? From there, it should almost immediately be up to the students to go about, explore and complete the maps, leading to the creation of their own maps and, more importantly, solid mental models.
It's actually essential for knowledge workers to develop good learning habits. In this article, I'll discuss some of those, and share some ideas about how to develop a solid learning system for yourself.
Mental shifts for learners
As a learner, you need to take responsibility for learning instead of being passive. You need to be active, engaged, curious, attentive, focused, and open-minded. You must always be willing to learn more. Furthermore, you need to develop solid learning habits. Besides, you need to become a teacher and share your discoveries with others.
The good news is that you can change your habits at any point in life. So wherever you are in your own journey, there's still time to become a better lifelong learner. Also, consider that continuous improvement is the key. Wherever you start, there will always be opportunities to further improve.
What is meta-learning
Meta-learning is the key to becoming a better learner. It's all about learning how you learn and how to learn. By leveraging meta-learning, you will be able to design and develop your own learning system. In turn, your learning system will enable you to learn more, faster and more efficiently. You will be able to discover, explore and gain experience on new topics, but also dive deeper into the ones you are already familiar with.
A framework for becoming a better lifelong learner
In order to become a better lifelong learner, you need to practice meta-learning. But what does it mean in practice? Let me share some pointers with you, in the form of a generic framework. I'll dive into each part in the next sections.
The major elements of this framework are:
- Work on your personal development
- Develop a growth mindset and challenge yourself
- Be open-minded and positive
- Redefine failure: Value making mistakes! Mistakes are opportunities to improve. Being stuck leads to deeper exploration and deep learning
- Reflect on your desired future
- Adapt your personal productivity system
- Learn to focus your attention
- Define clear priorities
- Make time for what matters
- Adapt your environment
- Develop good habits
- Be resilient and keep showing up
- Become proactive. Take responsibility for your own learning and be strategic
- Learn about your own learning style: Learn how you learn the best
- Design and develop your own learning system
- Set clear learning goals
- Learn independently, explore and have fun (seriously!)
- Share what you learn and teach others
- Monitor/Assess/Review/Reflect on your progress: Reflect on your own learning, your approach, your strengths and weaknesses
- Review for recall and retention
- Continuously improve
- Continue improving your learning system
- Continue working on your personal development
- Celebrate progress: Tiny progress is progress
- Manage your knowledge: Personal Knowledge Management (PKM)
Learn more about yourself and your learning style
First, you need to better understand yourself. Personal development is key. You need to consciously explore your current habits, your behavior, the way you think, what motivates you, etc. You need to have a clear understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. Not only around learning but around life in general. There's no point in developing a learning system if you're going to sabotage yourself all the time.
Personal development is another lifelong journey. You'll never be done, but you can start anytime. In the context of learning, it's essential for you to know how you learn. This means understanding your own learning style. If you are old enough, then chances are that you already have some ideas about that. Still, do take some time to think about this question: "What are my key ingredients for a successful learning session?", and try to understand the conditions in which you can learn best. The conditions include many different aspects like the environment (e.g., place, loudness/quietness), your mental state, the modality (visual, aural, kinesthetic, reading/writing, or multimodal), etc. To help you explore this, check out questionnaires like the Learning Styles Inventory or Neil Fleming's VARK questionnaire. Understanding your learning style will help you design a learning system that really works for you and to create a supportive environment.
Always remember that your present situation is not your final destination. The best is yet to come
You need to be open-minded, positive,and enthusiastic about the future. You need to reflect on the future you want for yourself and what it means for you. That's why you need to develop a growth mindset and challenge yourself. Those are two sides of the same coin: know where you want to be, who you want to become, and rise up to the challenge of becoming a better version of yourself. You have to learn that you can "do it", and be successful on your own, and on your own terms. In turn, this will clarify the path forward. You are much more likely to make choices in your long-term interest (as opposed to shortsighted ones) if you reflect regularly on what your future should look like.
Be loyal to your future, not your past
Or as Alan Kay put it:
The best way to predict the future is to invent it — Alan Kay
Finally, you also need to redefine failure. Mistakes are valuable. They are opportunities to grow and improve. Be grateful for your mistakes, and don't let "the system" make you feel bad. Life is about learning, and mistakes are part of the way.
What is a learning cycle and how to design yours?
A learning cycle is a (relatively) systematic approach that you can follow to learn something new. Some have been devised by scientists and education experts like John Dewey, David A. Kolb, Alan Mumford, Peter Honey, Alistair Smith, and others.
At the core, a learning cycle should at least include the following elements/stages/phases:
- Set clear goals: Know what your learning objectives are
- Discover: Discover the basics of the topic you're willing to learn about.
- Explore: Find out about the sub-topics, and the relationships between those, find the experts in the field, learn about recent and trending ideas, etc. Turn unknown unknowns into known unknowns. Try to connect what you discover with concepts/things you already know.
- Experiment: Practice whatever you've learned about. Make assumptions/guesses and validate those. Find ways to experiment. Gather more knowledge to enable you to move further. Turn known unknowns into "knowns"
- Observe: Make observations. Identify your mistakes, and find out what went wrong.
- Conceptualize: Create mental models and concept maps
- Teach: Share what you've learned with others
- Reflect/review: Review what you've learned, identify gaps in your knowledge, your weaknesses and strengths, and determine what you need to know/do next.
Those phases are actually key elements of the Feynman technique.
Generally speaking, consider that theory and practice are always complementary, which is why they're both part of the above learning cycle. You need to explore the basics from a theoretical point of view, then find ways to experiment in order to gain practical and hands-on experience. What you are really after is building solid mental models, as those are much more impactful and "portable" than knowing tiny details about very specific/narrow topics. Teaching is also very beneficial as it makes it much easier for you to understand your current weaknesses and knowledge gaps.
As a side note, I want to emphasize the fact that people and communities are key elements of learning. If you only focus on the subject matter, you will only gain a "dry" view of the topic. It's essential to complement the "raw knowledge" with knowledge about the people and communities behind everything you learn about. Find out who the experts are, find out what they've done so far, what they're talking about now, who they work with, etc. Simply knowing about the experts will open up many doors in front of you, and will enable you to learn much more.
Finally, consider that fun is a key part of the equation. If you can't find ways to have fun while you learn (or work!), then you won't be as effective. Fun is essential while learning and working.
As a systems thinker, I value systems and processes a lot. I've already published some articles about this topic. We all need systems, whether we think about those consciously or not. The garbage needs to get out of the house/apartment, we need to get the groceries, we need to be productive, etc. In the same way, we all need a system to learn. If we don't design it, then it's ad-hoc, pseudo random, built empirically. But there's always time to consciously design/craft our own. The advantage of doing so is that we can become systematic, have a clear process to follow, and improve over time.
Adapt your productivity system to learn better
Your productivity system should empower you. It should enable you to learn in the best possible conditions.
First, you need to learn to focus your attention on what matters, get and stay in "the zone". But you can only do that if you have defined clear priorities for yourself. So it all starts with goals and objectives. If you work on your personal development, then chances are that your goals should already be clear. What you need next is to define priorities. You constantly need to focus on what will move the needle the most.
Second, you need to make time for what matters. This means putting what really matters front and center. Make your objective your main priority. When a day starts, follow the advice of Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky: choose a main focus for the day, and focus all your energy on that before trying to do anything else.
Third, you need to make sure that your environment enables you to do your best work. That means removing "noise", interruptions, and generally anything that would take your attention and focus away from what matters.
Fourth, you need to develop solid habits that will support you. You want to "waste" as little energy as possible to get into action. Habits will enable just that. Once you get used to spending X minutes/hours every Y to make progress, it will become second nature, and won't require much willpower. Start small, develop habits, and then increase the intensity. The same goes with exercise by the way.
Finally, you need to be resilient and show up every day. In the long run, this is what makes the most difference.
Become proactive and set clear learning goals
Having clear goals, solid systems, the right attitude, motivation, and focus will certainly take you a long way. But you will get nowhere if you don't become proactive. Don't wait for knowledge to come your way. Take responsibility for your own learning and be strategic. Do what you need to do to learn what you need. And if you don't know, then first focus on understanding what you need to learn (i.e., turn unknown unknowns into known unknowns).
Share what you learn and teach others
As I've explained in my article about the Feynman technique, sharing/teaching what you know and learn about will help you discover, observe and understand the gaps in your knowledge. So, take every opportunity to do so, you will rarely regret it.
Sharing knowledge is giving a gift to others, "paying it forward". You not only help others grow, but you also gather feedback and insights about your current level of knowledge.
Note that sharing knowledge can be done in many ways: you can talk, organize seminars or study groups, write articles, create videos, etc. There are countless ways to share and teach!
Monitor, assess, review, and reflect on your progress
A key part of making progress is observing it. If you regularly assess and review your progress, you will be able to reflect on it and identify ways to improve. You will notice if you're moving too slowly, spending too much time on unimportant or non-impactful elements, etc.
I insist on this because it's the only way to continuously improve. If you don't look back, you can't see how to do any better. And continuous improvement is really key. You will always need to improve and adapt your approach, your systems, and yourself.
Celebrating your wins, no matter how small is another important piece of the puzzle. In the same way that you need to have fun while learning or working, you need to celebrate your progress. Take time to recognize when you've made progress, learned something new/cool, and be grateful about it. It may sound cheesy, but it really matters.
And not, it's not about throwing parties every day because you've learned something, but at least take a minute to think: "Hey, I know about this now! Cool!".
Manage your knowledge
As you might know, I'm passionate about of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM). It's actually a key part of my very own learning system. To me, learning without managing the acquired knowledge is almost useless. I don't trust my brain and memory with my knowledge. Of course, my brain does accumulate knowledge and information all the time, and I have memorized a ton of things. But I prefer storing my knowledge in more reliable ways. Specifically, I prefer to use Tools for Thought (TfT) such as Obsidian.
I've written about the reasons before, but to summarize, the main one is that we need to externalize our thinking to enable deep thinking and long-term retention. By storing knowledge and ideas in a dedicated tool, we are better able to make links/connections between those, to think deeply about the ideas, etc. Over time, building a solid personal knowledge base creates leverage.
If you're curious about this but don't have much time to explore on your own, then take a look at the Obsidian Starter Kit. It's something that I have created to help people like you quickly dive into personal knowledge management in a practical way. If you prefer to learn about the theory, then check out the Personal Knowledge Management Library. It's a collection of resources about the topic.
In this article, I've introduced the concept of meta-learning and shared a framework that you can leverage to become better lifelong learners, or so-called self-regulated learners.
I've shared ideas about how to leverage personal development and productivity systems to empower you as a learner. I've tried to convince you to take the driver's seat, become proactive, reflect on your future, set clear goals for yourself, and rise up to the challenge. I've insisted on the importance of open-mindedness, positivity, and on the fact that you need to redefine failure.
I've also introduced the idea of a learning cycle and shared a generic one that you can use as a basis to design one for yourself. One that corresponds to your own learning style and enables you to learn independently, explore, and have fun.
I've also insisted on the fact that sharing what you learn is a great way to empower others and enable you to assess, review and reflect on your progress.
Finally, I've made the link with Personal Knowledge Management, how it could enable you to put your knowledge to good use, store it in a more reliable way, and enable you to think more deeply.
If you want some more tips about learning, then check out my other article on the topic.
- Creating learning friendly classroom cultures
- Meta Learning
- Learning styles
- Learning Styles Inventory
- VARK questionnaire
- Meyer *, J. H. F., & Shanahan, and M. P. (2004). Developing metalearning capacity in students: actionable theory and practical lessons learned in first‐year economics. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 41(4), 443–458. doi:10.1080/1470329042000277020
- Self-regulated learning
Hello everyone! I'm Sébastien Dubois. I'm an author, founder, and CTO. I write books and articles about software development & IT, personal knowledge management, personal organization, and productivity. I also craft lovely digital products 🚀
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