DRMacIver's Notebook

Learning and teaching

Learning and teaching

As far as the fox vs hedgehog split goes, I’m thoroughly on the fox side. Nevertheless, I often find it interesting to think about what my big idea would be if I had a big idea.

The one I’ve suggested before is:

If you have a problem, you should look into what people who have had similar problems do, and learn from that.

I think this is the right idea, but maybe it goes deeper than that. It’s something more like… the skilled practice of learning from each other underpins everything.

And I think most people are shockingly bad at it. It’s mostly not their fault, we don’t give people the opportunity to be good at it, and we don’t teach them to be good at it.

I think it starts not with being bad at learning from others, but with being bad at helping others learn. If you’re in an environment where there are very few good learning opportunities, such as a school, you’ve got very few chances to actually learn to learn, because you essentially start on hard mode. Skill development requires you to try to learn things that are slightly outside of your comfort zone, and most of us aren’t so much thrown into the deep end as set to paddle with the sharks.

One reason why why we’re bad at it is that the things that we most need to learn afrom each other are ones that it’s very hard to talk about. The piece of mine that is currently going aggressively viral, People don’t work as much as you think is not particularly good - I dashed it out in about an hour while half asleep - but it is so valuable to (some) people because I’m telling them things that nobody else has. People tend not to talk about this publicly because they’re ashamed, embarrassed, or scared to do so, and so a valuable learning opportunity is lost, and everyone is left needlessly in the dark and stressed out.

Another reason is that most things are just very badly explained. I don’t think explanation is that hard, but most people never really learn to do this. They assume concepts the other person doesn’t have, they fail to use examples, they forget what they’re trying to explain. It’s all easy to do if you’ve not practiced explanation. They’re also often wrong - there’s the classic problem that if you ask someone who never had to explicitly learn a social norm works (e.g. because they grew up with it and are neurotypical), they’ll probably give you a helpful, clear, and utterly wrong explanation because that’s not how their knowledge of it works.

The combination results in a fairly hostile environment for learning, and I think most people go around confused about major aspects of their lives. Certainly I’m sure I do (I have in the past, and I have no reason to believe I have recently figured out the final pieces).

What’s the solution? Well, sadly there probably isn’t a singular and straightforward one.

You can read more, and I encourage it, both books and people on the internet. You can watch other people on YouTube, TikTok, etc. In general I’d recommend learning from people with more niche followings - the big names are (or can be) worth listening to, but people who have similar experiences to you and have learned a different piece of how to navigate them are where the really useful information is at.

It’s also worth learning to communicate better, and I think the best possible place to start with that for this problem is to explain your own experiences. Be the person who has similar experiences for others.

I’m a big fan of people writing more openly and honestly about their lives like I’ve been doing recently. Maybe under a pseudonym or a Twitter alt, but telling people about the problems you face helps them realise it’s not just them, and when they respond or when they pay it forward and talk about something else, maybe you’ll get to realise it’s not just you either, and you can compare notes.

As well as writing in public, I’m a big fan of private one-on-one communication with trusted friends. Talk about your problems with your friends, learn from them, and generally try to figure out the world together. Maybe eventually we’ll start to make sense of it.