Learning About Learning

“Adults are obsolete children,” is an oft quoted saying of Dr. Seuss. One of the major characteristics that differentiates adults and children is adults actively try NOT to make mistakes. I don’t think this is wrong, I just don’t think it is right. Mistakes are how we learn as children and the amount of mistakes children make are precisely why we learn fastest when we are a child.

(A book was recently written about just this idea. The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success by Megan McArdle. You can listen to an excellent interview with the author on the podcast Econ Talk.)

Robert Chambers in his new book Into the Unknown: Explorations in Development Practice (I promise, this is the last time I quote large swaths of this book on my blog) lays out “Twenty-one tips for nomads on learning journeys”. It seemed to me a summary point that underlies all of these following 21 points is, don’t be afraid to fail.

1. Disempower yourself – Examine your power, institutionally and interpersonally. Is it a learning disability? Does it inhibit and distort your learning? Do people tell you what they think you want to hear? Do you lack critical feedback? How much critical feedback have you had from anyone in the past week? Do you need to disempower yourself so that you can learn from others better?

2. Reflect critically on you mindset – Reflect on how your life experience, disciplinary training, concepts, vocabulary, and personal interests structure your view of the world. What are your favorite words? What do they tell you about yourself? Is what you find good? Does it matter? Is there anything to work on?

3. Keep a reflective diary – If this is on your desktop or laptop and you want to keep it to yourself, hide it with an improbable label in an improbably place, but not so improbable that you forget it.

4. Be alert for ahhas! – Keep awake and alert for the unusual. Remember that ahhas! are not all big and life-changing. They can be small things, but a source of pleasure and learning, and nice to share with others.

5. Do something new – Try every day to do something new: explore a new place, follow a new route, eat a new food, read a new article or story, see a new video, play a new piece of music, meet a new person, remember a new joke, play a new game, entertain a new idea. At the end of each day ask yourself what new experience you have had. What have you explored or discovered?

6. Suspect anything you often repeat – If you repeat something in public, in a speech or lecture or workshop, and are not contradicted, you are embedding it in your belief system. Moreover, when faced with an audience, you are liable to mould what you say–recounting an anecdote for instance–to fit the occasion and to sound and go down better. After a few repetitions the initial qualifications (‘it seems likely that…’ or ‘very probably…’) slide into simple assertions which you believe.

7. Turn things upside down, inside out, back to front – This is the easiest route to originality. Take hold of the other end of the stick. See things from others’ point of view. Stand on your head. Revel in reversals. Challenge convention from below, beyond, above, inside, and outside.

8. Work on you listening – Not listening must be one of the most widespread human failings, particularly among those who are energetic, fit, enthusiastic, and committed. They ‘love the sound of their own voice’. When with others how much do you talk, and how much do you listen? How many times during the day have you interrupted someone in the middle of their talking? Particularly anyone junior to you. What marks out of ten would you give yourself for listening to others during the day?

9. If you end up where you planned to be, doing exactly what you planned, worry – It may be all right. You may be able to take legitimate satisfaction in ticking boxes. But does it mean that you have missed out on something? Did you have your head down so that you did not notice something new, or did not seize an opportunity?

10. Ask who you ‘other’ and how they see you – When you talk, who are ‘they’? Who do you ‘other’? Who do you refer to as ‘these people’ or ‘those people’? People of other ideologies, political parties, professions or disciplines, ethnic groups, genders, classes, education, tastes, habits, physiques, interests, clubs? What does this tell you about yourself? Does it matter? We all ‘other’ some people, even when this doesn’t fit the flattering image of the humane, pluralist, tolerant, mutually respectful person part of us might like us to be. On the other side of the coin, how far can you go in seeing yourself as others see you, others who ‘other’ you? Might even partial success in confronting these questions bring rewards in understanding and relationships?

11. Negotiate, analyze, and maximize your room for maneuver – We all feel ourselves constrained but we all have some room for maneuver, room to make space for doing things differently, for doing new things, for exploring. Work on a strategy for widening that space and exploiting it.

12. Plan time for unplanned experiences – Many do not have this luxury. For the past few years I have tried to make it a rule on any travel to factor in one or two days at the end with no program. Lamentably this is liable to be eaten into by feeling that I should catch up with emails. But several times it has lead to good things I could not have known would happen.

13. Co-conspire and collaborate with other on parallel learning journeys – You are unlikely to be on your own. Heretics, minorities, explorers, adventurers almost always have some like-minded near them and can enjoy the rewards of solidarity when they discover one another.

14. Do different things, and do things differently – Diversify your activities and experiences. Unless it is excessively expensive, dangerous, time-consuming, harmful for others, or bad in some other respect, when in doubt do the more adventurous thing.

15. Treasure incidents, stories, and jokes – Notice funny things that happen. Reflect that often the worse things are, the deeper a disaster, the better tale it will make to recount to family, colleagues, and friends. Remember jokes.

16. Transgress disciplinary boundaries – Trespass with confidence. Remember that your perspective and the (‘naive’) questions you ask are likely to differ from those of others, and that those strongly specialized within disciplines often have a narrow view.

17. Wander around – Wander around physically in any environment. Within (and on occasion beyond) the bounds of courtesy, be curious and inquisitive. Go where other do not go, or other like yourself do not go. Follow up on leads. When someone says they would like to show you something, accept.

18. Look for gaps and connections – Look for gaps in knowledge or experience, and for neglected or unusual connections. Seek out and explore ungrazed pasture.

19. Recognize and offset cognitive biases – Some biases are in mindsets. Some are embedded in and reinforced by preferred and habitual language and activities. Yet other are spatial; these may be the easiest to recognize and offset, as with those of rural development tourism.

20. Play around and enjoy – Don’t take all this too seriously, and certainly not yourself. Take all this advice, which I do not that much take myself with a pinch or several pinches of salt. Anything that you try, make it into fun. Why not? Anything stopping you? Enjoy!

21. Make your own list of 21 – Don’t be limited by these 20 points above. Disagree with them. Add to them. Draw up your own 21.

Disclaimer: By sharing these 21 tips it may suggest that I have these things figured out. Let me be clear, I don’t.

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