Repeat after me: you definitely CAN teach an old dog new tricks. Researchers have proven it over and over again: people are capable of learning at any age. In fact, recent studies have demonstrated that the adult brain is capable of a lot more than what we had credited it for. The culprit for our brain’s bad rep is, in fact, our own volition, our will.
In brief, it seems that we, old dogs, either are reluctant to learn because we think we can’t (and therefore we don’t) or we do learn but then lack the confidence to tap into our new learning. Eventually both of these situations lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy; we end up losing our capacity to learn BECAUSE we don’t engage in learning BECAUSE we think we can’t. The typical ‘use it or lose it’ case.
The question then becomes – how do we get past these preconceived notions, how do we get our brain to ‘collaborate’ and learn all the info and skills we need in order to make mid-career transition a success? How do we go about learning how to learn?
I thought you’d never ask! Here are some things that can help you be successful at learning:
Understand your brain
It seems that the most important thing we can do is understand our brain. Get a clear picture of how it works, and realise that it’s capable of SO much more than we give it credit for.
It’s called neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to continue to form connections, or pathways, throughout our lives. Think of learning new info or new skills as entering an unchartered wooded territory. At first, it’s really tough to advance – you have little visibility, and need to carve out your path, cutting through branches, avoiding obstacles and so on. It’s tiring and, at times, scary. But as you keep walking around, you start recognising areas you’ve already been to (you have a-ha moments). Next, you ‘plant’ signposts and as you walk the same paths again, you realise you’re following into your own footsteps. Finally, with each new iteration, the path becomes less and less difficult. And soon you’re able to do it eyes closed.
Learning a new skills works the same way. At first it all seems impossible; then, you start chipping away at the task. Little by little, as you’re confronted to new challenges, what you learnt a few days before starts to seem familiar, simple even. With each new iteration you advance and you map your new territory (you understand the big picture), you plant your signposts (the chunks that you’ve understood already) until you manage to connect it all. At some point, it starts to make perfect sense and even become second nature to you. At this point, you find yourself wondering how on earth you ever found that even remotely difficult.
Couple this new understanding of how your brain works with a healthy growth mindset – and you’re well on your way.
Organise the info your way
Chew the info – and take notes, ideally handwritten. But don’t do it as you come across the info; rather, try to put the info away and mobilize it from your memory, using your own logic. Ask yourself questions before you move on to the next chapter / section (based on browsing the chapter – title, subtitles, images etc) and then attempt to answer your own questions as you read. Aim to engage with the content your study: agree or disagree with it, talk to it, think of examples.
Chart your progress
Every time I start out on a new learning journey, I like to create a map of everything I need to learn. I go through the specific literature and make a list of all the related things I’ll need to learn, much like the pieces of a puzzle that I need to put together to master that skill. This is how the checklists in the learning plans that I publish came to exist (see the Intro to HTML or to CSS, for example).
You can do this by drawing a grid on a sheet of paper and penciling in each of the sub-skills or steps – one per square. Or writing them on individual post its and sticking them to the back of your door. The point being to ensure you have a way to check off each new sub-skill / step you take, to gauge a sense of progress. If you use the grid I suggested, then cross things off as you progress; if you go the post-it way, either remove them or create a pile of ‘Done’. It’ll give you a sense of progress and satisfaction either way, and that will fuel your next steps.
Practice, practice, practice
When you decide to learn something new, it’s tempting to arm yourself with countless books or articles, enrol in plenty of courses and so on (boy, do I do this!). This is counter productive in two ways: first, the sheer look of the volume of it is discouraging, and, secondly, is a procrastination strategy.
Plus, when you read, read and read, when you use your highlighter like your life depends on it – you reach what is called the ‘illusion of knowledge’. As you re-read, you think – oh yeah, I know this, easy peasy [scoff]. Sure, you need to get some reading, some learning done, but turns out the REAL learning begins when you start to use what you’re learning. When you start to practice, to mobilize the information you’ve learnt, to mould it, to self correct – that’s when the magic happens. No amount of reading will get you to become an expert, especially in practical fields like coding. In fact, it’ll do the contrary – it’ll give you a false sense of advancement, when in fact you’ll just be recognising things you’d seen before.
So what do you do, when you’re a beginner and know…. nothing? Take a stepped approach to practicing. Start by finding projects that you can replicate; if at first they seem too difficult for you to recreate on your own, because you simply don’t have the necessary skills yet, here’s what you can do:
- copy them, line by line if you must
- then start over – and read chunks (paragraphs, logical units) and attempt to recreate those without looking at the original; finish by debugging until it works
- next, redo the whole project by yourself – guiding yourself only by the front end (a website, the interface and functionality of an app etc.)
- finally, try to redo the project by tweaking the original – jazz things up a bit, bring some of yourself into the project – whether in terms of aesthetics, or function, or both.
The cool thing about this approach is that as you go through the process, you’ll likely come across concepts that you are not yet familiar with. Still, when you eventually encounter them in your learning, later on, you’ll say to yourself ‘wait, haven’t I seen this before someplace? ==> a-ha, this is what that was’. These moments will mark significant milestones in your learning, and knowledge acquired this way will be much more reliable, much easier to mobilize in real projects down the road.
Oh, and don’t think of it as dishonest; you are not doing this to pass someone else’s work as your own. You’re doing it to learn – even if you eventually include these projects in your portfolio you can do so with a title such as ‘Recreated during learning’.
Reflect on your learning, fill it with meaning, and celebrate it
This is pretty self-explanatory; let your new learning come with you when you go for a jog, or while doing the dishes, taking a shower or whatnot. It’s often in this ‘diffused’ or relaxed mode of learning that we have our a-ha moments, the pivotal moments that allow us to go on to the next level.
You can, and should, also reflect in a more structured way – by connecting and discussing with peers engaged on a similar path (ex. by joining the #100daysofcode or #codenewbie), by blogging about your learning adventure, or by journaling, if you’re more private. Read more on this in my piece on documenting your journey.
Try to find ways you can connect any new learning to something else you know; this might be a little difficult when you first start, as you won’t have much experience – but even then, look for examples in practice, in real life. Say you’re learning how forms work in HTML; find a site that has a form, use the Inspect command to look at the code and try to recognize all the elements you’ve just learnt about. Or find a metaphor or an analogy that can help consolidate your learning. In other words, try to ensure you assign some sort of meaning to all learning, as this will greatly facilitate retrieval down the road.
The other important thing is to always keep front and center your meaning: why you’re doing this, the purpose your efforts serve, the future you envision building with the info / skills you’re working to achieve.
Explain it to others
You would have heard about the various learning styles – visual, auditory etc. Recent studies have disproved most of that, and catalogued what we used to call ‘styles’ as simply preferences. In light of my own experience, I tend to agree with that – and am pretty convinced that the best way to learn is ‘multi-modal’, i. e. you learn best when you both see / read / engage with the content and most of all, when you teach it to others. Check out the pyramid of learning to understand this better, though this too has been criticised and disproved. Still, it gives you some sort of idea of what goes into learning.
Consequently, if you have the possibility, try to get a study buddy and present your new learning to one another. Or find a ‘victim’ among your loved ones or your friends. Or, if push comes to shove, explain it to your dog, or create a tutorial (in writing, video or audio, as you prefer). Combine this with the reflection stage just before for maximum impact. Keep in mind Albert Einstein’s quote:
Take care of yourself
Lastly but not least importantly, take good care of yourself. Don’t neglect sleep – as it plays a central role in consolidating learning. Make sure you get to relax – learn to breathe, meditate (not kidding; in fact, I’ll come back to this in a future article). Eat and hydrate properly. You’re an adult – you get the idea.
Ok, so here’s how all of this this plays out in terms of learning a programming language – or anything techy for that matter:
- Believe you can – and know your brain is there for you; as you start learning, try to visualise the new neural paths being formed and celebrate them. I don’t mean throw a party for them – but just acknowledge them and acknowledge your own progress
- Structure the info according to your own logic, using your own words; file these notes neatly as they’ll come in handy down the road
- Map your learning; skim through a few reading resources to compile a list of all the sub-skills / steps you need to learn in order to consider that skill mastered. Put these down someplace where you can interact with them as you advance, to gauge your progress
- Do some reading, enough to get you rolling; don’t lose yourself in countless hours of infertile reading – as soon as you’ve got some basic skills, move on to the next
- Then immediately attempt to mobilize the info / skills you’ve read about; quiz / test / challenge yourself to see how much you remember
- Find projects that you can replicate – line by line, section by section… until you’re ready and able to redo the whole project without any assistance
- Reflect and build on your new knowledge by interacting with peers and by documenting your learning
- Have examples of what whatever you’re learning looks like in real life, in a conscious effort to attach some meaning to it
- Attempt to explain it to someone else and keep using it
- Make sure you don’t overdo it and that you take good care of yourself, so you can keep at it.
Finally, never stop learning. Your brain is a muscle – the more you use it, the better shape it’s in. Not to mention that in today’s reality, the second you stop learning, you start falling behind, and it’s a matter of moments before you become obsolete. Up to you to not let it happen.
Wanna get better at learning? Here’s a great course from Coursera on Learning how to learn (free to audit, some 45 EUR for a certificate).
If you found this article helpful – please take a second to share it. And drop a line to let me know how these strategies work out for you and what else you’re doing to make your learning stick!