Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Sherif Mostafa’s LinkedIn on January 24, 2020. Sherif is a Machine Leaning / AI Product Manager at A Fresh and frequently writes personal blog posts on careers, tech, and the impact it has on our world.
Innately, we enter this world as remarkable learners. Even though we barely know anything about the world, we are possibly at the height of our learning rate — rapidly learning some of the most complex phenomena, such as speech and movement. Driven by an unconstrained curiosity, we assess everything around us — touching it, putting it in our mouths or rolling around in it, no matter how sticky, dirty, or uncomfortable it might feel. When we first learn to express ourselves, we have far more questions than what any adult around us would be able to answer. We are receptive to the slightest encouragement cues — be it clapping, a smile, or getting attention. Any progress we make is celebrated. With nothing to lose, we have no consequential perception of embarrassment or shortcomings. We have no sense of time, and therefore no apprehension of the time it would take us to learn something, or how much time we have to learn it. The things we like, we tend to keep doing. When something doesn’t work out, we are equally happy to move on, without regret for the time we’ve already sunk into it.
Notice how our natural learning behavior combines a heightened curiosity; an inclination to explore that curiosity without hesitating; some aspect of knowledge gain; and a receptiveness to positive reinforcement. In my opinion, that entire cycle of curiosity—exploration – knowledge – reward is the quintessence of learning.Sheirf/
Cultivating Our Learning
I get the impression that over time, as we go through our educational and professional experiences, our learning ability oftentimes tends to decrease, despite possessing a stronger foundational knowledge base. We might become less curious, or deny ourselves indulging those curiosities. We might develop an inner critic, leaving us with a tendency to not do anything at all rather than doing it imperfectly, or discounting our progress as unremarkable.
Of course, as we mature, some of that decrease is organic, similar to how a puppy is more curious and explorative than an adult dog. But I also can’t help wonder, how much of that is attributable to social and educational conditioning. In my previous blog post, Mindfulness in our Umwelt, I expand on the idea that our surrounding world and how we experience it can have a profound and lasting effect on us.
For example, some child psychologists discourage saying “no” when disciplining toddlers, claiming that it hinders their development of a sense of autonomy and initiative. Instead, they encourage distracting and redirecting the toddler’s attention.
Furthermore, I find that many of our educational experiences have a passive undertone — that learning is prescribed by a curriculum, delivered by a teacher, and measured purely in terms of knowledge gain. This is even evident in linguistic expressions like ‘receiving an education’. This passive connotation not only downplays the remainder of the learning cycle (curiosity—exploration—knowledge—reward), but also creates the false misconception that it is better to be taught by someone, than it is to teach ourselves.
A high school experience can overstate checking all the boxes for college admission preparation, while understating the fundamental learning skills that would help a student continue learning independently after high school. Similarly, a college experience can overstate the importance of test scores, class rankings, and credit units to complete a degree, while missing the mark on preparing students to navigate a world that provides no curriculum, no defined tests, and no normalized quantification of progress.
I also find that society places more value on the brand names of the educational institutions that we attend, and less so on the actual learning experience that a given individual was able to derive during their time there — that topic warrants a blog post of its own.
While I don’t have a concrete method — nor am I qualified to provide one — for how to reform our educational systems, I do think there is an opportunity for many of us to rediscover our natural learning abilities, and to adjust our perspectives on learning to highlight the complete intrinsic learning cycle. After all, we don’t really learn what we are taught, as much as we learn what we choose to.
I wholeheartedly believe in the concept of lifelong learning, arguably more than I do in anything else. Information truly is ubiquitous today, whether it’s the ability to search the web for quick answers to a breadth of questions, or the accessibility of online textbooks and courses to more comprehensively delve into a specific subject matter. For those fortunate enough to have attained foundational linguistic and mathematical skills, these resources can be far more powerful than any college course, especially if coupled with self-motivated learning.
Lifelong learning becomes even more impactful when considering that it has a compounded effect over time. As one learns more about a subject, they are able to acquire more specialized knowledge in a faster and more complex fashion. Likewise, as one becomes more familiar with a wider range of subjects, they are able to more quickly draw cross-domain analogies and transfer learning patterns. In my own experience, I can attest that the majority of skills that I apply in my current professional role, I have self-learned outside of my formal education and even professional mentorship.