The Chaotic Approach to Learning

I’ve been thinking about a new approach to learning which I haven’t seen anywhere else, here’s a bare bones sketch. I’ll tell you why it’s exciting at the end because I want to tell you what it is first.

Step 1: What do you want to learn?

Try to figure out what you truly want to be able to do, what abilities do you want. Here are some prompts that might help:

  • What would an expert be able to do?
  • Imagine you’ve already mastered your subject, which skills would you neglect? Which would you be using all the time? Which would be fun?
  • Are there any things that you just need to know?
  • Are there any things that most people learn but you don’t care about in your heart of hearts?
I think I might experiment on improving my guitar, and this will be my example throughout.
So, in my example of music, I would love to be able to understand music theory so that I could jam over the top of anything, and understand and hear what’s going on. I realised when thinking about this that I don’t care very much about reading sheet music at the moment, but I do care about hearing the notes and understanding why they fit together. I do care about hearing the notes, and I’ll be experimenting with perfect pitch training.

Step 2: Find something interesting and get ready to jump

What got you excited to learn this in the first place? Try to pick something relatively small and concrete. This will become your jumping off point for the next step.

In my example, I just chose a song I like and would like to be able to play.

Step 3: Deep dive

Now, do a deep dive on your chosen topic. Imagine your expert is doing this thing, try to learn everything they would know about it but no more. Whenever you learn something new, that is directly related to the song, write it down.

In my case, I got a tab of the song, and will talk to someone I know who has a lot of understanding of music theory about what’s going on. I want to know why the chords fit together the way they do, how the chords are constructed, why they work, which scales would go well with which bits and why, how to play all of those things, the ability to identify the notes and chords of that song.

Step 4: Remember everything

This is where the magic happens. Make a flashcard for every new thing you learnt, and practice it with any spaced repetition system (Anki is the most popular).

(Hassle me to put up some example cards here and I might.)

Step 5: Become an expert, one piece at a time

After a couple of weeks, you will know everything you learnt during that deep dive. You’re an expert on that little piece, and it’s a great foundation for anything else you learn in the future. Now you can repeat steps 2-4 until you reach the level you want to be at.

A visual version of this idea

Why I’m excited about the chaotic approach to learning

The learning itself is intimately related to your reason for learning it. Instead “learn about an abstract concept like the circle of fifths” you have “why does this song I like work?”. This is immediately more interesting to me.

Every abstract concept is connected directly to a concrete example. In my case, everything is connected to my example song. This should make it easier to understand and also make my theory easier to apply. In fact, I think this general style should promote a deep understanding rather than a superficial set of facts.

You’re always learning what’s important to you. If you were instead following a book or course, you might face one two related problems: 1) the content they’re teaching isn’t the most important stuff first. In language learning this would be like learning the words for all the colours before learning much more frequent words that make up most communication. 2) the content they’re teaching is the most important stuff in general, but not the most important stuff to you. In language learning, this is why I need to learn the word for climbing (something I do all the time) even though it’s not even in the most frequent 5000 words according to my frequency dictionary. This method solves both of those problems by teaching you what’s directly relevant to your interests and your goals.

You’re creating a personal understanding that is easy to remember. We remember things that we understand, and which are related to our lives. This method makes everything super relevant and much easier to learn than if it was just abstractly taught.

Additionally, you can remember everything forever if you use your flashcards regularly.

It’s fun! (at least, to weirdos like me).

Now, what could you learn chaotically?

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