Learning how to learn

Several years ago I asked my brother, a professional technology consultant, “How do you troubleshoot tech issues?”

He replied, “Oh that’s easy, I just Google it.”

The simplicity of his answer shocked me. However, I realized there was more to his simple approach than he was letting on. “Information is not knowledge” as Albert Einstein famously stated. The internet is a powerful resource that contains a virtual sea of information, however, a poorly phrased search query can easily lead to billions of results and information overload. My brother’s admission was that he asked Google if someone else had already solved the problem and altruistically provided the answer instead of figuring out each problem without help. In other words, his skill was diagnosing the problem and searching the internet for knowledge, not information.

Knowledge, in this context, is the practical application of information from real human experience. To accomplish this he had to:

  • Acknowledge his ignorance (which is more difficult than it sounds)
  • Use what little he did know about the problem to precisely compose a question
  • And evaluate the merits of the answers (search results) to find a likely solution.

Since then I’ve learned a great deal about how to research subjects. I’ve also learned a great deal from the DIY ethos of my tiny house community. The tiny house community is an enthusiastic group that is not afraid to fail, take on complex tasks, and ask for help. To continue my Tiny House Magazine series on DIY ethos I’ve decided to zoom out, go meta, and take on a subject I call “learning how to learn.” As many tiny home-owners and builders will tell you, there is a great benefit in self-regulated learning. This new magazine series is not intended to teach you specific subjects such as tiny house construction. Instead this series will attempt to teach you how to convert information into knowledge, whatever the subject, and without pestering every tiny-house blogger you know with questions. I know you are eager to get started so below I have included a few of my favorite tips and tricks I often use to boost my know-how:

  • Learn how to search better using search operators,
  • Access knowledge from the past
    • Internet Wayback machine – Archive of webpages at different time points
    • Google books – Search the contents of many published books and periodicals
    • Open library – Read free digital versions of older and open source books
    • WorldCat – Find the nearest location of any library media
  • Learn from the future as it happens – Google alerts
  • Learn by association – Google Knowledge Graph
  • Learn by demonstration – YouTube
  • Crowd source information from your social network
    • Jelly – Picture based questions to friends and extended network
    • Quora – Written questions from friend network interests
    • Facebook Graph search – Shared-experience aggregator of friend network

I have also recorded a screen-cast video in this article to explain the resource tools above. The following is my do-it-yourself (DIY) caveat: As with all DIY projects, it’s important to imagine the risks of a mistake when performing a new task. If I damage my iPhone during repair, I can correct it with minimal consequence and cost. However, if I repair the brakes on my car and the repair fails, it may harm you and others. You can certainly learn how to perform complex tasks with greater risk, but I would advise getting an experienced teacher to help check your work and lower your risk of unintended harm.