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How To Learn Something – With Plans and Steps

You take an interest in learning something, X. Perhaps someone recommends it to you. What do you do next? Jump right in?

The first step is making a plan for how to learn X. It may be pretty rough, especially in later stages (for a complex X, you won’t understand how to learn part 5 until after learning part 3). But you need some kind of outline or overview of a plan that goes all the way to the end. You need a concept of how success is possible or you don’t even know which direction or immediate actions could lead to success.

The second step is evaluating the plan: Can you do it successfully? What resources does it require? What prior knowledge does the plan build on, and do you already have it or not?

Step 3 is commonly to expand the plan: you add some steps at the beginning to learn some other things first (prerequisites). These are plans themselves and you need to outline how they will work, evaluate if you’re prepared to do them, check what resources they require, and possibly add more plans before them to learn even earlier knowledge.

In this way, you can be like “I want to learn Atlas Shrugged” (AS) and end up with a big plan, in tree shape, with 500 parts. You don’t have the skills or background knowledge to learn AS right now, so the plan involves learning 8 things first. And for each of those 8 things, you are missing 3 things you need to learn first. And for some of those 3, you’re missing 1-4 things that come before it. And for some of those, you’re missing some prerequisite. Some of the chains could be a dozen or more things long from AS to the earliest knowledge you don’t have yet.

There isn’t one single canonical organization of which knowledge comes early and late, what order it goes in, etc. You can develop a plan and it’s not the only plan possible. What is early in your plan might be late in someone else’s, or vice versa, and both plans could still work. However, plans can’t be random. It’s not subjective or arbitrary. There are facts about what does and doesn’t work, and there are themes where some things (e.g. learning addition) are early or late in most good plans.

Sometimes it helps to start working on something a little to discover what prerequisites you’re missing. E.g. you might try reading a dozen pages of AS to find out that: you don’t understand it clearly enough, you don’t know how to discuss it well enough, you don’t know how to take notes as you go along well enough, you don’t know how to stop and think about a passage and figure out what it means very well, you don’t know how to follow logical arguments, and it’s going to take a lot of time and mental focus/energy to read. You would then recognize you need to get more resources to allocate to the project (more time and mental focus/energy) and you need to create and succeed at plans to improve at each of the skills you’re not great at which came up when you tried reading a bit of the book (reading skill, discussion skill, etc). Just one of those prerequisites is to be better at understanding logical arguments, and that itself needs its own plan which will need its own resources and prerequisites, which will need their own plans, and so on. If you are a young child you’ll end up with perhaps 50 things, arranged in a tree, for your plan to learn logic, its prerequisite plans, their prerequisite plans, and so on, in 8 layers. And it’s the same if you’re an adult who doesn’t know a lot about this stuff, which is typically because our parenting and schooling is in major ways sabotage rather than helpful.

So if someone suggests you should read AS or learn logic, that does not mean you should just immediately do it. You need to make a plan and check if the plan will work for you today. If you cannot do your plan you need a new plan or to work on some prior stuff to prepare for doing the plan.

Being like, “Well he said to read this book or learn that topic, so I was trying to do it” is pretty thoughtless if you’re not even close to being able to do it. It means you didn’t actually make a plan for how to succeed that you evaluated and thought would work with your current skills/resources/knowledge. And if you don’t know how to make plans or evaluate if they will work, that is itself a prerequisite for any complex learning project. You need to learn that before you learn anything that isn’t really basic. You can learn really basic stuff (which can be succeeded at like it’s a one-part plan, basically) and then you can use what you learned to help build up towards learning how to make two part plans, then three part plans, and so on. You can get better at gradually more complex planning and plan evaluation as you learn more stuff. You can build up planning related skills in parallel with building up knowledge of other stuff.

If you look at AS and go “I don’t even know how to plan that” then your plan should be “get better at planning, revisit AS later” and then you can make a plan for how to get better at planning. You can still look at that as a plan for how to read AS, since it involves AS at the end. In this way, you can start anywhere, including with AS, no matter how much of a beginner you are. However, if you’re bad at tracking plan hierarchies then you can simplify by just forgetting about AS and starting with something more basic.


Elliot Temple on May 28, 2018

Comments (4)

easy steps

> You can learn really basic stuff (which can be succeeded at like it’s a one-part plan, basically) and then you can use what you learned to help build up towards learning how to make two part plans, then three part plans, and so on.

Can you give examples of basic things that can be learned in one step that can be built on to learn more complicated things? I can't picture what kind of things I would start with.

anon at 4:05 AM on June 6, 2018 | #9786
I can't give you concrete examples for infant-level learning of mental stuff. No one knows the specific details of how that works. But you're way past that anyway. You already know how to read and use a web browser.

More visibly, babies learn things like how to open and close their hand (moving one finger is an earlier, smaller step), or move their hand 3-5 inches to the right (moving a non-specific or less specific distance is an earlier, smaller step).

A small learning project for you might be learning the difference between "its" and "it's" or "there" and "their". Or learning what "i.e." or "ad hoc" means. You can learn new words, or improve your understanding of words you already know something about, one step at a time. You can learn a single correct way a comma is used or learn that "ed" is a signal of past tense verbs (or learn what a verb is) as small projects. If these seem too big and hard for you, you can do some smaller, easier projects first to build up towards them.

That's reading. Another good field is logic. What is "true & true & true"? What about "true or false or true"? You can learn, step by step, how to evaluate stuff with "and", "or", "not", "implies", etc. Once you know that you can start learning how it connects with English sentences with arguments, starting with simple ones.

curi at 11:52 AM on June 6, 2018 | #9788
Elliot,

I am linking this to the conversation we had yesterday. One of the things I want to learn is how to program.

I was learning C++ using CProgramming.com. Which is an easily accessible resource, but it has problems in its explanations sometimes and the exercises it gives you to do are somewhat boring. Linking this article in here, can you give some hints on how a plan would go with regards to learning computer programming for a beginner? I think I failed just because I did not have a clear plan. Planning is pretty difficult.

Andrew at 11:00 AM on June 15, 2018 | #9839
Learning programming has already been broken down into steps by hundreds of different people/books/courses/videos/etc. You don't have to do that yourself.

For planning here, I'd look at the bigger picture more. Why do you want to learn programing? What are you going to do with it? What do you like or dislike about it? Write down your goals and problem situation.

Then survey many different programming education options. Check for ways they meet or don't meet your goals. And check for their quality, enjoyability, format fitting your life ok, etc. And besides surveying stuff directly, read review articles, reddit discussions, etc., because other people have already done tons of surveying.

Either find something that works great for you, or get a clear understanding of why 20+ options are unsatisfactory to you and what you're looking for.

curi at 12:38 PM on June 15, 2018 | #9840

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)