25 - Optional Interview with Scott Young, a Marco Polo of Learning

دوره: Coursera – Learning How to Learn / درس 25

Coursera – Learning How to Learn

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25 - Optional Interview with Scott Young, a Marco Polo of Learning

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Scott Young is the ultimate adventurer in learning.

He’s compressed the entire four-year MIT curriculum for computer science into one year

of independent learning and is now wrapping up

a year’s travel learning four different languages,

Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and

Korean through total immersion in each of the countries.

Scott doesn’t just study learning from an academic perspective.

He immerses himself in learning at perceptively observes the results,

so that we can all gain from it.

So, it’s a pleasure to welcome Scott Young.

Scott, I’m always excited to follow your adventures.

So tell me, where are you now and what is your latest learning challenge?


So, right now at the moment,

I’m actually in South Korea in Seoul,

not too far away from Gangnam actually,

and I’m learning Korean,

and this is part of a larger project where a friend and I are traveling for a year,

staying three months in four different countries, so three months each,

trying to learn the language of

that country through not speaking English as much as possible.

Wow, I’m just so impressed just sort of a Marco Polo of learning.

I was also impressed by your MIT challenge in learning.

What you did was you compressed a four-year curriculum

of computer science into one year of independent learning.

There are a lot of questions I have for you in relation to

that experience as well as your language learning experience.

So first, can you tell us,

how do you avoid illusions of competence in learning?


Well, I’m a big fan of trying to dive

into a position where you might be wrong as soon as possible.

So when you’re just listening to a lecture,

reading a textbook, you can’t ever really be wrong.

There’s no real check on whether you know what you know and I really like

getting into problems as quickly as possible, with a language,

trying to speak as quickly as possible,

or if not speaking as quickly as possible,

testing my listening comprehension in a strict way.

So with the MIT challenge,

I would work on problem sets,

and I will do my best to do the problem sets without having

the solutions at hand and try my best on any problem,

and if I got stuck, if I couldn’t finish, then of course,

go to the problem and check to see the solution and learn it.

But I think, only if you feel that grind of it first,

if you feel that tension,

that stress that you’re not quite sure how to finish it,

only then will you really remember how to do the problem for the future.

So if you don’t have that feeling of not being sure how to do it and that strain,

I think it’s hard to really improve your knowledge.

That goes right along with

our own learning philosophy in this course which

is test yourself as frequently as possible.

So, one of the approaches that you

have to learning that I absolutely love is that of self explanation.

Can you explain to our viewers a little bit what you mean by self explanation?

What is it and what kind of benefits can you get from it?


Well, I got this idea of reading a biography of Richard Feynman,

he was a Nobel Prize winning physicist,

and I forget the exact method that he used himself,

but I remember him talking about being a Nobel Prize winner in theoretical Physics,

he’s a smart guy, and he was talking about a particular academic paper,

particular concept he didn’t understand,

and his approach wasn’t to throw his hands up and say,

“Well, I don’t get it, it hurts,

too difficult”, but he went through meticulously not only trying to

understand everything that was in that paper but of the papers it sourced.

He read through them very carefully and combed through them and

tried to make sure he understood all the supporting ideas.

So for me, I’ve kind of adapted that into this idea of taking

a blank piece of paper out and writing as if I’m trying

to teach someone else what this idea is all about or what this process

for solving a particular type of problem is all about or what it means.

What I find happens is that you usually get to points where you have some friction,

where you have to be too vague or you can’t

really be as exact and precise as you want to be,

and those are usually the things that you don’t understand.

So, you can go back to your notes,

you can go back to the textbook,

look up that exact spot and figure out,

“Oh, this is the part I’m missing.

I’m missing step three of this process.

Or I don’t really understand why step three works,

maybe I can ask someone,

a teacher or a friend.

I think it’s so smart to go look and intuit how

other very creative people have

approached their problem-solving and I always love Feynman’s approach.

He always said that it’s very important that the first rule is not to fool yourself,

but you are the easiest person to fool.

So, I just love how you’re learning from other learners.

One of your approaches that I really like is that of creating vivid examples.

Can you give us an example of that?

So, the mind doesn’t learn abstract things very well.

It works a lot better when you have something very concrete you can point to and say,

“Oh, this is how it works.

Math and science is often full of things that are just pure abstraction.

They only connect very loosely to things we can touch and feel.

So, what I try to do is find simple analogies or metaphors

and try to test them or see how to make them fit with the thing I’m trying to learn.

So, it’s kind of like looking through your mind for examples or

stories or things that you are familiar with and

like fitting a jigsaw piece into a puzzle,

trying to figure out what’s the right piece.

So, I’ll give you a quick example of that.

I was learning about electricity,

and one of the concepts you learn early on is voltage.

Now, I didn’t have a good intuition of what voltage was.

So, I’m trying to make a mental picture of

what voltage can be and I’m thinking about an electrical circuit.

Well, it’s a little bit like pipes with water.

So, if the electrical circuit’s like pipes with water,

then what are all the components?

Current’s pretty easy, that’s like the water flowing, I can get that.

But what was voltage?

I was like, was it like pressure?

But if you look at the equations for

pressure and if you look at the equations for voltage,

they don’t really look alike.

So, that felt wrong.

I realized that if you’ve studied electricity,

you’ve usually also studied the gravity

beforehand and what was the same was electric potential and gravitational potential.

So, oh, voltage is like height.

So I can imagine in my head that

the high voltage wires are like pipes that are physically higher than the other pipes.

So the water, when it rushes down,

when it goes down from the high level to low level,

it gives off a lot more energy because it’s falling and that metaphor really

helped me because not only was it something concrete that I’ll never forget,

but it also was fairly accurate and that I

tested out a couple of things like pressure and I found,

okay, this is the one that works.

Sometimes, this process can take a little bit of time.

I’m recapping this in two seconds but it really took me

about an hour to to comb through the notes to figure this one out.

But you can ask professors,

you can ask, “Hey,

is this kind of like this?

Someone who really understands it can help you out or you can just do what I

did and just try to fit different puzzle pieces and see what fits,

because even if you don’t find a good puzzle piece,

you can still learn a lot more that way.

Oh, I couldn’t agree more.

I do find that as the years have gone by,

the most creative professors who I’ve worked with,

researchers are always the ones who have used these kinds of analogies,

and the ones who are more pedantic a little bit more by the book.

Often artists creative about how they approach things,

so I think that’s a very intelligent way of going at everything.

Can you talk to our viewers just a little bit about motivation.

How can you develop a passion for learning perhaps

even in subjects you think you don’t have a passion for?

Any suggestions for mental tools people

can use to help motivate themselves in their learning?

Well, I love this question because right now I’m learning languages

and I’m currently learning my sixth Language, Korean right now.

We’re doing it in very tight time constraints so I’ve gotten

a few e-mails from people who have heard about the project and they said,

“Well, maybe you and your friend who are doing this have

this natural talent for languages, this genetic gift.

I think it’s so funny because I remember

the first time I was trying to learn a foreign language, French,

we spent about the same amount of time that I’m spending

here and I barely passed the exam,

I got a D.

I feel like I’m a fairly smart fellow on other things.

So I didn’t really let it get to me,

but I think it’s true for a lot of subjects that being

intelligent within that subject is

often a factor of just how much exposure you’ve had to it.

So, if you’re not used to Math,

don’t take that as a sign that maybe you’re bad at Math but just that you need to

put more time in and you’ll get more motivation.

It’ll be more easy to motivate yourself,

you have more interest once you’re better at it.

You can get better at it by encouraging

yourself to take on little steps, little mini projects.

Once you complete that project,

you build more confidence.

With more confidence, you can do more things,

you can understand more things and it becomes more interesting.

I loved your story that you gave of learning Math because I think that’s

just a perfect example and it’s too bad that

a lot of people just don’t conceptualize the world that way.

One thing that I really like about your own story is,

you failed but you just learnt from failure.

You didn’t allow that to get to you.

You just shifted your strategies and figured out what strategy was more successful.

I think that’s a sign of the best learners is not to be set back by failure,

they just learn from it.


So, I love how you’ve developed projects for self-education.

Can you tell us a little more about what you’ve done this way and how

our viewers might go about developing their own projects for self-education.


So, I actually got this idea from a good friend.

He’s also and I think your recommended resources Benny Lewis.

He was someone who told me,

I remember he told me in person one day it’s always have a mission.

Basically just this idea of he would pick these three month missions for learning

languages because that was usually how long he could secure

a tourist visa to this place to try to learn as much as possible in three months.

But it really struck me how different that was from the regular approach,

the regular approach of going and I’m going to just

learn this and I don’t really have

any concrete goals and I don’t really have any specific motivation,

and of course it tapers off and you don’t achieve that much.

What I found really helpful is making very concrete projects that are exciting to me.

Something that you know,

this is really interesting.

So, when I did the MIT challenge,

just this idea obsessed me.

This idea of you know would it be possible to learn the things that

an MIT student would learn in school without going to MIT?

Where there’s language learning project you know,

would it be possible to get to a conversational level or a decent amount

of level through complete immersion in four different countries in a year?

So, I tend to pick these grand projects but I think you could pick something very simply.

You could just say,

“I want to try learning this over a month and

I’m going to obsess about it and make it interesting.

That’s often how you can turn something that might otherwise be dull into

something that fascinates you because it’s this specific concrete challenge.

I like this approach.

It seems very similar to what I did with helping to create this MOOC.

So, any tips on effective use of online resources?


So, this is I think particularly relevant to

your audience because a MOOC audience you’re

signed up through this through Coursera and you probably know about

Coursera and edX and all of the great MOOC platforms.

I really think these platforms are

the future because they have such high quality courses,

but it’s still early days and I think that there’s still

a lot of subjects that people would like to learn but maybe there isn’t a MOOC for it.

I think there’s also some disadvantages to MOOCs in particular,

if you want to learn something a little bit more advanced,

MOOCs can sometimes be a bit harder because they tend to be

written for audience with no prerequisites, no requirements.

So, you might feel if you wanted to do some Physics,

it isn’t just an intro Physics class,

this is a little bit harder because you know they are expecting that

I haven’t learned Calculus or I haven’t learned something different.

So, what I recommend is using MIT’s OpenCourseWare.

It’s incredible.

It has literally hundreds,

I don’t know whether it has thousands of courses,

but it has just such a huge volume of courses.

Sometimes the courses aren’t really

well-supported like they don’t have videos, they don’t have,

it’s not as hands-on as these MOOCs but I found sometimes what they’ll have is you’ll

have the exams in the problem sets and a list of the readings and a link to a textbook.

I can buy the textbook used on Amazon for

15 bucks sometimes and I get it delivered and I would

do it and honestly I felt like I sometimes

learn more from those courses than the video lecture courses.

So, I think if you are willing to be a bit more adventurous,

there’s literally almost no topic you can’t learn through

this structured university-like format through the resources available online.

It’s an explosion in learning how to learn.

I mean, what’s available now to the public is just absolutely

phenomenal and so anyone who has an interest in

pretty much anything can do some great exploration.

So, as our wrap-up question here,

you’ve written that you can learn more by studying less.

What do you mean by that?

All right, so I think you’ve touched on it a lot in this course that you’re offering,

that people get caught up in low efficiency,

low intensity studying habits and because they learned a lot slower with those methods,

they end up spending a lot more time studying.

Because they’re spending a lot more time studying which is naturally more tiring,

you go into less efficient studying methods.

It’s a little bit like exercising.

It’s as if you’re not getting

the exercise results you want so you extend your workout from

one hour to two hour but now you’re not working out as

more intensely so you make it four hours.

Now, you really can’t do more than just a light jog

for four hours or maybe just walking and eventually

it eats up all of your time but you’re not having

the intensity your muscles in your body really need to get physical improvement.

Similarly, I think the same is true with mental improvement.

So, what I tried to do is I tried to pick

specific chunks of time that I’m going to study and they don’t have to be too big.

So, right now I’m learning Korean over

these three months and I’m actually only doing three to four hours a

day of studying time which is

considerably less than I would say a typical full-time students studying Korean.

But I think that I’ve been making quite good progress just because

the actual time I’m spending is highly focuses this kind of test

yourself feedback so that I am using things like Anki for

flashcards and I’m doing actual conversations one-on-one

with the tutor and these things are very efficient but they are also very intense but

the benefit of that is that you have more time and you can relax outside of it.

Great advice, and as always great advice from you.

I know I’ve learned a lot and really enjoyed following

your adventures and getting new tips on learning from you.

So, I thank you so much Scott and we’ll see you on the flip side.

Well, thank you very much for letting me be a part of this.

I really hope that the students taking this course

found some value in the video I put together.

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