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Becoming lifelong learners

To become lifelong learners, we may find it hard to break away from the traditional education paradigm. One way to unshackle our self-education is to grab hold of the opportunities for unbounded learning.

  • Bounded learning is based on a fixed curriculum and contains specific educational outcomes.
  • Unbounded learning embraces ongoing personal growth that is fuelled by continuous education. It is based on strategies and tools that foster curiosity.

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  • Unbounded learning cuts out the "middleman" of traditional knowledge providers. It instead encourages students to directly access the best content from various institutions or independent teachers relevant to their goals.
  • Serendipity. By allowing your education to branch off in any direction, you may discover new areas of interest that you could not have predicted.
  • You will not be restricted to specific sources or formats but can explore concepts from various angles (podcasts, books from an expert, YouTube etc.).
  • You believe and accept that you are in control of your educational journey.
  • Everything you learn is connected.
  • New patterns of thought develop over time.
  • Learning together is more beneficial than learning on your own.
  • Study the source material of any interesting article or book you read.
  • Mix and match the content to fit your needs. Don't stick to just one course or book. Try different platforms, formats, and educators.
  • Use thinking tools for unbounded learning. Some note-taking tools are not designed only for linear thinking but support new patterns of thought.
  • Learn with others, whether with a study buddy or a Twitter account, document your learning journey and ask questions.
  • Practice self-reflection. Metacognition is essential and can take the form of journaling.
The working memory

Working memory temporarily stores the information you are working on. But it is not just a simple storage. The working memory enables you to create new thoughts, change them, combine them, search them, or any other function that helps you navigate your life.

By enabling these functions, working memory upholds your thinking, planning, learning, and decision-making.

The working memory model of Alan Baddeley divides the working memory into four components:

  1. The phonological loop. It is mostly the temporary storage of sounds.
  2. The visuospatial sketchpad. The sketchpad stores two- and three-dimensional images of objects.
  3. The central executive. It is responsible for directing attention and manipulating information. It re-arranges ideas and applies the rules of grammar, logic or algebra to find a solution.
  4. The Episodic buffer.

To learn, you must first understand. To understand,

  • your phonological loop must keep track of the sounds of the words;
  • your central executive must continually update the sequences as you go along;
  • the meanings need to be integrated, so you understand.

If any of these processes fail, you'll get confused.

If you practice this skill, you can improve it. To set out how to improve your working memory, it is useful to know how you can measure it.

There is a difference between short-term memory capacity and working memory capacity.

  • Short-term capacity is your ability to temporarily store small amounts of information - digits, letters, words, symbols, etc. The average human span is 4 items; the digit span is 7 digits.
  • Working memory capacity is your combined ability to store and manipulate information.
The phonological loop stores sound

A phonological loop is a kind of short-term memory storage that stores sound. A conversation, listening to music, and understanding a lecture depends on your phonological loop.

As you read, your phonological loop uses sub vocalisation (your internal voice) to translate visual information (what you read) into auditory information, which is then processed to extract meaning. If your internal voice is disrupted, you will find it hard to maintain information in your phonological loop, and your comprehension will suffer.

  • Music interferes with your digit span. Studies found that students performed better when they revised in a quiet environment than the students who listened to music.
  • Many students listen to music while learning because it helps reduce anxiety. Music could also drown out external noise.
  • The recommendation is that is you avoid music when studying in a quiet environment. If you don't have a quiet environment, reduce noise by using earplugs.

The visuospatial sketchpad is essential for understanding mathematical, science, technology and engineering subjects.

You can improve your visuospatial working memory. There are two broad strategies for approaching visuospatial problems.

  • A holistic strategy demands the most working-memory.
  • An analytic strategy consists of noticing the relationship between patterns in a step-by-step way. Break complex tasks into smaller steps and write the steps onto paper.

You can use your visuospatial sketchpad to help your phonological loop and vice versa.

  • Instead of remembering a shopping list, you can throw it into one picture. A list of peppers, milk, chicken and mustard can be visualised as a mustard-covered chicken swimming in milk with peppers.
  • Instead of remembering scientific text from chemistry by summarising the main points, using a drawing-construction strategy is more effective. But the quality of drawings is essential for the technique to be effective.
  • Allocation of attention. Multitasking can generally harm our performance. Each time you switch tasks, it takes some time and energy. (You have to shift your goals and reactivate the rules for the activity.) Lots of task switching will add up to lost time during a day.
  • Manipulation of information. Extra manipulation of information can make your understanding suffer. If you study from multiple sources (several textbooks), it might be good to integrate the information in one place.
Chunking is the secret to expertise

The idea behind chunking is to group underlying items by some sort of meaning or structure. For example, RTCTAIILFSO is easier remembered when it is regrouped to FRAC-TO-LIS-TIC.

  • You can use chunking to memorise phone numbers, passwords or PIN codes by dividing the given sequence into chunks containing a maximum of 4 items each. A phone number could be split with dashes like this: 743-293-045
  • One chunking technique to help your learning is organisation. This is where you categorise unstructured study material into meaningful groups.

Chunking is the secret behind mastering any subject. Chunking draws on your long-term memory resources. The more knowledge you have stored, the less information you need to process with your working memory, and the easier it will be to understand and remember your study material.

To master any subject:

  1. First, build solid foundations of the basics (the elementary chunks such as meanings and concepts)
  2. Then master the underlying sub-skills.
  3. Then attempt to form increasingly more complex chunks.

Cognitive load is the effort used by the working memory to process information. The working memory capacity is limited: If it is overloaded with information, you will fail to understand.

There are three types of cognitive load:

  • Intrinsic load. It is the level of difficulty of the subject. Reduce the intrinsic load by gaining more knowledge of the underlying chunks.
  • Extrinsic load. It is associated with the way the study material is presented. Use a goal-free approach by first playing with the parts.
  • Germane load. It is the effort you have to make to construct integrated chunks of information from the concepts in your study material.

Anxiety is a major cause of cognitive load. Instead of your working memory focusing on the task at hand, your short-term memory is filled with irrelevant information. i.e. maths is hard; I hate math; I want to give up.

  • The effect that anxiety has on your performance depends on the beliefs you have about it. If you believe math anxiety will help you perform better, then your performance will not be impacted.
  • Reframe your mindset to excitement. "I'm excited."
Epistemic wellbeing

We normally think of wellbeing as physical and mental health. But another way to think about our wellbeing is in terms of knowledge - known as our epistemic wellbeing.

Knowledge affects our ability to navigate the world and accomplish our goals. Epistemic wellbeing is the sense that you'll be able to know what you want and need to know for your life to proceed well. If you have access to good sources of information and understand how to get your questions answered, you have a high degree of epistemic wellbeing.

  • Access to truths. It is the basis of epistemic wellbeing.
  • Access to trustworthy sources of information. The internet gives access to much information, but it is only useful if we can separate the truths from the falsehoods.
  • Opportunities to participate in productive dialogue. It is not enough to just passively receive information. The things we want to know about are often complex, and understanding requires more than just a one-off answer. Discussions also lead to new questions and interests.

The amount of false and misleading information we're exposed to by traditional and social media could make us feel like we don't have good access to truths. The rise of conspiratorial thinking - where people are willing to believe wild theories, is another aspect that contributes to our decreased sense of epistemic wellbeing.

In trying to address the epistemic crisis, many feel unable to engage in dialogue and find alternative opportunities to do so, resulting in more extreme views.

  • We're told to double-check the information online and to look for indications that our sources are trustworthy,
  • It's perhaps worthwhile to develop a habit of auditing one's epistemic habits. Consider how you acquire information: Is it likely to lead you to the truth, or is it telling you things you want to hear?
Counterfactual Thinking

There are two types of counterfactual thinking: upward and downward counterfactual thinking.

  • Upward counterfactual thinking: it happens whenever we look back at a scenario and ask the "what if" questions in terms of how our life could have turned out better.
  • Downward counterfactual thinking: this is naturally the opposite of upward counterfactual thinking and it happens when we think about how things could have been worse.
  • Upward counterfactual thinking is linked with depression.
  • Downward counterfactual thinkers use their negative feelings as their motivation to become productive and better their current situations.
  • Downward counterfactual thinking can improve romantic relationships, although it is commonly associated with women.

Even though counterfactual thinking can be used to motivate us to make better choices we should always keep in mind to focus on the present and the future instead of the past.

The Boot Camp Principle

The boot camp principle to get better at something id inspired by military basic training programs and it goes like this:

Go through unrelenting challenges that you are completely unprepared for, day after day, for a handful of weeks, and you'll come out strong and resilient.

Gentle Ramping Approach

Taking this approach to getting better at something means you have to get yourself on a self-imposed routine, where you do a little of your activity—writing, running, meditating —pushing the performance level daily. You gradually increase your mileage, so that your everyday target is just beyond what’s easy.

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