The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.
As software developers, there is one thing we do all the time: learning. New algorithms, new languages, new frameworks, new ways to solve bugs, new ways to communicate effectively... We are indeed in an industry with no shortage of areas to explore, domains to master, and concepts to assimilate.
We are all trained in some way or another to code. Yet, as far as I can remember, I can't remember being taught how to learn. For most of my life, up until my early 20's, I've been told what to learn. That kind of works for teenagers. For adults? Not so much.
So, how can we create an environment, as adults, where we maximise the retention of information, and speed up our learning? Studies from Dr. Malcom Knowles might give us some answers. Knowles didn't use any cutting-edge technology or revolutionary educational system to create his conclusions. He focused on the needs of an adult learner, and how the we can meet these requirements. Here are the six principles that Dr Knowles came up for adult learning, or andragogy.
Knowledge is to be acquired only by corresponding experience. How can we know what we are told merely?
Henry David Thoreau
No matter how old you are, as an adult, you have a few decades of living behind you. You had a lot of experiences, some bad, some good. You had your share of failures, and your share of successes. This background is both a strength and an issue. Our beliefs and experiences can affect how open-minded we are when learning something new.
But, we must make connections between what we are trying to learn, and what we already learned during our life. How is what you are learning different from what you already know? How is it the same? What informations and experiences can you use in order to make the learning of this new topic more exciting and engaging?
Try not to approach a new subject as if it is completely foreign and unrelated to everything else. The whole of human knowledge is interconnected. You already have some knowledge. Find the connections, and you'll become more effective.
Before being an adult, you are constantly being told what to learn. It seems like there is no real reason behind your act of learning. As an adult, to make sure you are motivated to learn, find a purpose behind what you are trying to learn.
Because teacher says so doesn't cut it anymore when we mature. We can operate a simple mindset shift. We want to know why the information is valuable, when it will be useful and if it will help us reach our goals. By considering the different ways you will be able to use the knowledge, you increase your ability to focus and to remember it.
In addition to knowing if we are ever going to use the information we are learning, we also want to know if this is going to happen soon. In my high school days, telling me that some piece of information would be useful when I have children of my own didn't do any good...
Change your learning approach to make sure what you are learning will be used quickly. That's why it's usually better to get your hands dirty rather than focus only on theories. Try to learn through practical advice and participation. To convince your brain that you'll be using that knowledge soon, just use it right away!
One of the best ways to make sure what you are learning will be useful quickly, is to have a problem to solve. What better way to make sure you'll use the knowledge than to have a real problem to solve?
Considering realistic applications of what you are trying to learn is a crucial step to effective learning. Research show that you will retain the knowledge longer and have deeper understanding of the things you are learning.
So, start with a problem and work towards a solution.
Because we are adults, we have quite a lot of experiences behind us. We've come to trust ourselves, and trust our own judgment. We have more established identities. People want to feel involved in the learning process, feel like they have their words in how they are learning, how the material is presented, in what order... They want to make the experience their very own.
To make sure you'll learn more effectively, find ways to customize your learning experience by claiming ownership over it. You are learning, make sure it's right for you.
It is difficult to gather enough energy to learn something because someone else tells you to. Not until you want something really badly like a promotion, or even to keep your job. Why? Well, it has to do with the fact that adults are more receptive to internal motivation. I've mentioned internal, or intrinsic, motivation in my article about flow.
External motivation comes from someone else, and is often something you can't really control. The promotion you want. The peer recognition. The fame...
Internal motivation is about your why. Why do you want to learn this thing? Turns out you will be a lot more motivated if you find out that your goal is internal. Learning because it challenges you. Because it will allow you to make someone else's life better. Those are intrinsic motivators, the ones you can carry with you more easily when things get tough.
How many of these principles are you exploiting in your learning experiences? When you were younger, chances are you had one, maybe two if you were lucky. Now, you have the freedom to choose what you learn, or choose how you learn. With the 6 principles above, maximize your learning to retain more informations and become a master!