Let’s talk about learning

There’s a lot going on around you … what will you do about it?

All around you, every single moment, “stuff” exists and “stuff” happens. I refer to it as “stuff” because it is undefined. And it is undefined because you haven’t looked at it, because you have not connected with it.

Most of that stuff you will likely instantly discard as not relevant (for you right now) but within that stuff is something that you care about. When you point at some of the stuff and single it out for further analysis, you have identified information.

Information is stuff identified by you as relevant to you right now. There are a lot of tools that allow for the identification and collection of information. Any search engine will allow you to search and identify, and read-it-later tools will allow you to collect that information. That collection is the first step in a process. And for most people, it is the only step. Like true hoarders, lots of people collect information but don’t do anything further with it. That is a waste.

To onderstand the information you need to process it

It is only once you begin processing information, when you start reformulating your understanding of that stuff in your own words, that you start developing knowledge. Knowledge is processed information, broken up into atomic units, essentially ideas coming out of information you made your own by reformulating it. Richard Feynman said that if you cannot explain something in your own words, you probably have not understood it. So you need to reformulate the information.

But this essential process if often forgotten. Information stays in collections, unprocessed and it therefore cannot make a difference to you as a user. The only advantage you may gain from having that collection is the ability to search it … if you know what you should be looking for. But that is hard if you never worked with the information.

If you want to develop knowledge, you need to do that work, and you need to do it not just in your head, but by writing it out and splitting up the ideas coming out of a piece of information in atomic units of one idea per note. Splitting up the information is important because it allows you to more easily recombine ideas later. You are creating your own set of intellectual lego’s.

But processing information to develop knowledge is not where personal knowledge management ends. It may actually be where it really begins.

Connecting and combining knowledge to develop insights

Up to this point, you have worked on focused on identification and understanding the information. But now comes the really interesting part … the knowledge you have developed through your understanding of that information is atomic by nature. You understand parts of the world around you. However, connecting and combining those pieces of knowledge will lead to new (to you) and potentially unique insights in the world around you.

Insights are really new ideas or connections between existing ideas that you have arrived at based on combining different pieces of knowledge. It’s important to understand that you can’t do that with information, because you have not worked the information.

Referring to Richard Feynman again, he stated that his notes were his process, not a reflection of his process. The act of writing to solidify understanding (knowledge) and the act of writing to connect ideas to gain insights is a very active process.

Insights come (also) out of learning

So, with all this in mind, let’s look at studying in high school and in college. Both offer you access to two types of information … first, a first glance at different types of information that you need to work with to develop world and societal knowledge and second, the tools to decode specific forms of information that you do not have access to right now.

The first glance are the courses like biology, chemistry, history and other courses that provide you with information which you can start working with. The second type of information you gain access to are the languages you get to study. I’m not just talking about French, and Spanish. I’m talking about mathematics as well, the most shared language in the world.

This is why school is so important, and why a clear understanding of what school is all about is essential. Students think they are obliged to study. That is not correct. Students get the opportunity to study, to take the time to process the information that is provided in order to develop knowledge. That knowledge will, in turn, allow a student the opportunity to gain insights into the world.

School provides a safe environment to develop the first of the filters a student and a person will need to deal with their world. School also should be a start for the development of a personal knowledge management system. But that is the subject for another post.