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Why Learning Goes Far Beyond the Classroom

learning
Photo courtesy of Brian Hathcock

When I was in my final year of high school, I was far more laid-back about studying for exams than most of the other kids. One day I was pulled aside by one of my teachers who told me: “these are the most important lessons you’ll ever learn in life.” I understood that what they were trying to say was how important it was to study, since the outcome of my exams would hold a lot of weight in terms of what I’d be able to achieve in my future career. Nevertheless, this statement always struck me as slightly misguided.

I was constantly reminded throughout high school and college of how important the educational years were in preparing me for the big bad world beyond, but when the time actually came to leave college, I was not so surprised to learn that I hadn’t been given all the answers, and the real world was still a great unknown.

Personally, I don’t think all lessons are limited to the classroom. On the contrary, I believe learning should never stop, not when we’re 21 or when we’re 81. It shouldn’t matter if you’re an apprentice electrician or a Nobel prizewinning physics professor – there is still more that you can learn about your craft and life in general.

If you have a particular job, hobby, or skill you want to get better at, look at ways of doing this that will reinforce the knowledge you already have. Just because you’re not in the classroom anymore doesn’t mean you can’t set yourself new lessons that will help you to make improvements. The world is ripe with free sources of information, and as long as you know where to look (I usually start with a Google search) there’s no reason you can’t follow your own personal plan to get better at anything.

Do you have a skill you’d like to improve upon? Why not set yourself a list of short-term and long-term goals, and then seek out information from your local library or an online source to help you get started.

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Are You Using the Best Tools to Develop Your Ideas?

Brain cloud
Photo courtesy of Thomas Lieser

A powerful tool that is often neglected when it comes to developing new ideas is mind maps.

For those not in know, mind maps are diagrams of interconnected words, symbols, tasks and ideas, that flow from a central idea in a series of paths. That may sound a little confusing, but mind maps are actually incredibly intuitive when you get down to them. There are no set rules regarding how you’re supposed to lay out your ideas (like, say, with a pie chart); you simply make connections between different elements much in the same way that the human brain does when it makes associations between similar items.

Whenever I need to lay out ideas for a new project I’m working on, I’ll begin by writing the central idea on a blank sheet of paper. Then I’ll gradually fill the page with headings, subheadings and concepts, all stemming out from the central idea. I find that the act of simply writing these elements down in this way helps me recall them a lot better later, and it can also be a great time saver when you need to organize your thoughts quickly.

Mind maps can be used to develop pretty much any concept you can think of, from planning a birthday party to planning the next forty years of your life. Although there are several good mind mapping software packages available online, I would recommend using the less costly pencil and paper method instead, for better retention of the facts.

How do you organize your ideas? Do you use mind maps, make lists, or find that brainstorming with other people helps make better sense of your ideas?

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How Do You Tell a Renaissance Man from a Bum These Days?

Feeling locked into a career choice?
Photo courtesy of Jhayne Holmes

I’m not a great fan of chit-chat at the best of times, but one of the questions I really hate answering is “so, what do you do?” Most people think it’s a simple question, but for me the answer is pretty complicated. I do a range of things, and the range varies from year to year, or sometimes even month to month. A lot of people find this difficult to understand, and often assume that “I dabble in various pursuits” is a euphemism either for mafia involvement or chronic unemployment.

When I came up through the education system, a jack-of-all-trades was definitely seen as a master of none.  The only accepted “right” way to go about choosing a career was to pick something and stick with it, to go as far as you could in one field while ignoring everything else.  If you had several interests you wanted to pursue and weren’t willing to give up any of them, you weren’t seen as ambitious – you were seen as flaky, wishy-washy, and unable to commit. The question of “what do you do?” was supposed to have a one-word answer, end of story.

Fast-forward to the present day: this attitude is slowly changing. It’s becoming more common for people to cast nets in several directions, and then use the knowledge they gain through experience to move on and explore other avenues of interest. Even ten years ago, confusion was pretty much the universal response when I said, “I’m working on several things right now.” These days, I’m encountering more and more people nodding and saying, “yeah, me too.”

What’s more, companies are starting to perceive the Renaissance employee as being flexible and diverse rather than wishy-washy, and there’s much less stigma surrounding a desire to do many things. That desire, after all, does not necessarily indicate a tendency toward laziness; many energetic and accomplished people find it difficult to settle on one particular area of work.

Does that mean that by doing lots of things, you’ll never be a real expert in anything? Not necessarily. If we use Dr. K. Anders Ericsson’s “10,000-hour rule” as a general guideline, given a 40-hour week, it takes approximately five years of study and applied effort to become an expert in any particular field. Obviously this measurement can vary depending on your natural proclivities, but even if we use a conservative estimate of being able to master three professions in a twenty-year period, that’s still two more than most people take on in a lifetime.

If you’re less concerned with being at the absolute top of your field in everything you do, and more concerned with simply enjoying a wide range of experiences, you can do even more. You don’t have to be the number one world leader at something to make decent money or be respected for your ability level.

If you only have one passion in life, great, go for it.  If you have several, that’s also great – there’s no reason you can’t go for all of them, and it may even help you out in the job market when a potential employer sees that you are bringing more than one set of skills to the table.

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How Cheating Has Opened the Door for Real Learning

Classroom Cheater
Image courtesy of Jared Stein

Traditional classroom learning is losing a significant amount of its practical value. How do I know this? I already had a hunch it was true based on my observation that friends with work experience were getting decent jobs more readily than friends with advanced degrees. However, something that happened recently drove the point home from another perspective.

I was offered a freelance writing gig through a friend of a friend, and after some inquiry, discovered it was a position with an “academic writing” service. Translation: students who have to work multiple jobs to pay for their university education do not have time to do things like actually acquiring the education, so they pay academic writing services to do some or even most of the work for them. Shocking.

Also eye-opening: it’s not very difficult to find people who, for a fee, will disguise themselves to look enough like you and take an exam on your behalf. If the exam time conflicts with your schedule or you just don’t feel confident enough to take it, simply hire a stand-in. Many university classes are large enough that no one would notice.

Against university policies? Almost certainly. Unethical? Without a doubt. And employers aren’t stupid – what exactly is the value of a degree if there’s no way to determine whether or not the person holding the degree actually earned it?

As technology and the internet provide increasingly refined ways to cheat, I think we’ll definitely be seeing even more of a shift toward companies placing less emphasis on degrees, and more on the demonstration of skills and experience. Luckily, the internet also provides resources for those interested in learning these skills on their own. As a bonus, with self-learning, you also develop valuable meta knowledge (i.e. learning how to be your own teacher in the most effective way), which in itself is extremely useful.

While I still think there’s plenty of intrinsic value in a traditional education (after all, I’m currently looking into graduate programs myself), I think from a practical standpoint we need to start reassessing that value in a more modern way. Teachers and guides are useful, of course, and even necessary in many areas, but the focus now needs to be on education for its own sake, not on the degree certificate as the end-all-be-all.

After all, in a world where you can basically purchase a degree, the person who can actually demonstrate knowledge, regardless of how they acquired it, will be king.

What could you start learning today, on your own, that would enrich your life or job prospects down the road?

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