Teaching yourself new ideas

Posted on November 6th, 2008 in Driving Emotion,Opinion by Julian Edgar

I make a living doing what I have taught myself to do.


When I first started writing and selling magazine articles – they were about photography – I was writing about a topic on which I was entirely self-taught.


When I started writing articles about modifying cars (and again selling those articles, but this time the ‘selling’ took lots of attempts before it was successful!), I was again writing about a subject on which I was largely self-taught.


My formal qualifications at that time were in teaching; my Bachelor of Education degree has double majors of Geography and Sociology – nothing remotely to do with automotives, mechanical engineering, physics, maths or technology.


Or for that matter, English, journalism or writing.


(I have since finished a Grad Diploma in Journalism – but that was done long after I was making a full-time living as a journalist.)


The reason I give this background is that I think I know quite a lot about self-directed learning, about approaching a subject (or an aspect of a subject) and successfully teaching oneself about it from scratch.


It’s an idea that many people skate past: they perceive picking up a subject or idea to be as simple as briefly listening to someone espouse on the topic, or skimming an article or on-line discussion group.


But that’s simply not the case.


These thoughts have been prompted by something I have written in Part 1 of an upcoming AutoSpeed series on the DIY electronic modification of cars. In that article I have said about the concept of learning:


Don’t fool yourself – if you don’t understand it, don’t pretend to yourself that you do! Learning requires honesty as well as an open mind: there are heaps and heaps of tossers who skim something, get a vague gist of what it was all about, and then think they know it.


They don’t.


One really good way of self-assessing whether or not you have learnt something is to say to yourself: can I now explain this idea to someone else? As a teacher and journalist, I know this approach very well – if I can’t explain a newly-learned concept to someone, then I don’t understand the concept.


For me, ‘explaining the idea to someone else’ normally occurs through writing about that idea. As longstanding readers will know, I tend to write about the things I am doing, and so the things I am learning.


Freshly learning about an idea (hopefully!) allows me to communicate it with clarity, as the questions I have been answering for myself are the ones other people new to the topic also want answered.


An example is Making Your Own Biodiesel.


The idea of producing biodiesel at home appealed to me: therefore, when I researched the story, I did so very much from the position of someone who was seriously thinking about producing their own biodiesel in a domestic setting. (That’s a very different approach to a disinterested journalist reporting on how some people make their own biodiesel!)


Since at the time I began the research for that story I knew absolutely nothing about the process, I had to teach myself about it from scratch. And, knowing that I had to clearly explain the processes and the positives and negatives, I also knew the ideas had to be clear in my mind.


(You could argue that having the ideas ‘clear in my mind’ is no guarantee of their accuracy and validity, and that of course is a reasonable point!)

However, for many people, explaining an idea in their own words will normally be something done orally rather than in writing.


I can well remember facing my first Year 11 Geography class to teach them about soil moisture budgets. The concept wasn’t something I’d come across before; the night before the class I’d just glanced through the curriculum resources and then figured I had sufficient understanding. It was only when I was standing in front of 25 people that I realised my understanding was lousy – in fact, so poor that I taught the concept incorrectly. The next day, I had to back-peddle mightily.


(I took this failure so much to heart that I immersed myself in soil moisture budgets, becoming more and more enthusiastic about them over the next nine or so years of teaching the idea!)


I think that that to be confident you have grasped an idea, you need to be able to comprehensively explain it ‘out loud’ inside your head, without question marks suddenly appearing. If you can’t do that, that’s still fine – but you must admit to yourself that you haven’t got your head fully around it.


Another example. I am fairly happy with my understanding of the broad concept of aerodynamic boundary layers. But what I don’t understand is why a ‘negative pressure gradient’ occurs, and furthermore, why it causes boundary layer thickening. It may be an obscure area, but it shows that I am aware of my deficiencies in understanding and so am careful not to pretend to myself that I have that area wrapped-up to my satisfaction.


(Look, I’m no expert on boundary layers – I am talking about having only enough knowledge to gainfully apply the concept in my writing and understanding of car aerodynamics. But in even my simple level of understanding I acknowledge to myself this ‘negative pressure gradient’ shortcoming.)


In addition to deliberately, honestly and carefully evaluating one’s level of understanding, the other key to self-learning success is to not be afraid of failure.


Research has shown that one reason children (and especially young children) learn so well  is that they have no concept of negative ramifications if they fail to grasp the idea. That is, the idea is proffered and they grasp it or not grasp it without any fear of consequences.


This approach can be termed simply ‘don’t be afraid to give it a go’ and of course is a philosophy far wider in implication than just self-directed learning.


I am probably talking to the converted: anyone who has read this far is very likely to be a self-directed learner, one who uses the strategies outlined above (or has developed their own, more idiosyncratic approach).


But if you’re new to the ideas, think about them.


The greatest limitation on people improving their knowledge and understanding is not intelligence, or resources, or educational background. It’s simply being completely honest with yourself in evaluating what you really understand.


Only that way can you know where the gaps are to fill.

6 Responses to 'Teaching yourself new ideas'

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  1. Ford Man said,

    on November 6th, 2008 at 9:21 am

    Also need the will to want to fill the gaps!

  2. Darren Roles said,

    on November 6th, 2008 at 10:33 am

    The trouble with teaching yourself new ideas is that once you get into the subject you become aware of how much you don’t know.
    I’ve been working in the Defence aviation industry for 23yrs and thought I had a pretty good grasp of things.
    Then I recently got into a different area of the same field. Now I feel as though I’m starting from scratch again due to my own expectations of of what I think I should know…There are some very large gaps to fill.
    I’m able to get by until I become more knowledgable by finding out who the subject matter expert is and asking what are probably stupid questions. However no-one has ever said that the a questions are stupid and are always more than happy to explain.

  3. Hondaguy said,

    on November 6th, 2008 at 11:00 am

    Great article. I think this explains why, when people say “you’re so smart” I think…’not really’.
    I understand there are so many gaps that I feel the more I learn the less I know!

  4. Ian said,

    on November 6th, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    A slight twist on this is the situation where you think you have a basic understanding of a concept and find yourself in an argument espousing a view it turns out you unable to support.

    If you really have a handle on the topic you should be able to patiently explain the topic to your adversary and your devastating logic will crush his argument. Of course that never happens, but in my impetuous youth I got caught out more than once by assuming I knew more than someone else before wading in. I’ve learnt not to do that.

    There have been many times where a chastening experience like this has led me to explore an area in depth. The same “explain it ‘out loud’ inside your head” process goes on but in this case it is envisaging the chance to have the same argument again and win it this time.

    In the end the “winning the argument” thing is irrelevant (you never get into the same discussion again) but this process has led to a much deeper understanding of topics I otherwise would have skimmed over (or assumed I knew everything about).

    The trouble with teaching yourself new ideas is that once you get into the subject you become aware of how much you don’t know.

    Actually I think that “becoming aware of how much you don’t know” is a natural consequence of learning.

    The stupidest people are the ones who know everything.

  5. Julian Edgar said,

    on November 6th, 2008 at 7:33 pm


    I very much agree – in fact it is probably a better example than the one I used.

    I have had the same impetuous, youthful (and not-so-youthful) arguments!

  6. Philip Armbruster said,

    on November 6th, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    I came across these concepts some time ago when I was a consultant, and they seem quite appropriate to this discussion.
    I hope they are not copyright to some US firm.
    The concept is that there are 4 stages of learning and that knowledge of where you are at in the scale is very helpful.
    Stage1 -Unconcious incompetence. You do not know the subject but do not know that you don’t know.This is maybe Julian when he first looked at water budgets.

    Stage 2 -Concious incompetence. You realise that you do not know the subject. After he tried to teach it!
    Stage 3- Concious competence. You now know the subject but you have to think about your actions. Once he went back and familiarised himself.
    Stage4- Unconcious competence- The subject is now second nature and you have completely mastered the subject and can do it naturally without thinking. After he had taught it for a couplerof months.
    The scale can be applied to any learning experience and can give you great insight. Eg my wife started a new job in a field (importing) completely foreign to her. She lamented that she could never learn all the new terms such as INCOTERMS and became very depressed. I reminded her that this is natural and that in time she will experience the four stages. After about six months the job was second nature( stage 4 ) to her.

    Regards Philip A