Self Starter’s Guide, Network Potential, and Intimate Scale

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Originally posted to Tumblr

Last week I wrote a bit about networks [again, this one’s only on Tumblr] vis a vis Jaron Lanier’s latest book, and I wanted to continue with some ideas about how networks might be relevant to Self Starter’s Guide. Network effects, leverage, self-sustaining feedback loops, empowering people, unlocking value, and creating new models for interacting with the world — all things that would be awesome to incorporate into the future of education!

We’re still in the early stages of this paradigm shift in how production, creativity, society, and human output are structured, and we’re still figuring out the proper mechanisms for directing and shaping it in a way that is human-centered and empathetic and results in positive change to our existing cultures and institutions. Some parts of this process may happen naturally, but much of it’s unpredictable, and it’s therefore vital that we work hard to shape the direction of this change intelligently, and mitigate some of the negative effects without at the same time stifling innovation with an overly heavy hand. But I want to talk more about the network effects themselves, and the potential that they might hold for what I’m working on. Read More

Why Self Starter’s Guide? Why Does Education Need Changing?

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Originally posted to Tumblr

In my last post [note: the one I’m referring to is only on Tumblr, as its focus is less specifically on Self Starter’s Guide] I discussed why I’m taking part in Orbital, and introduced the project I’ll be working on. But why this topic in the first place? Why my interest in the future of education? What do I want to help change or “fix” about it?

It’s not just about creating great content, or teaching specific skills. It’s not even entirely about building learning processes and communities. It’s about taking responsibility for the trajectory of the world and thinking about how we can best equip humanity to succeed. It’s about being generous and conscientious with our time and resources. It’s about leveling playing fields, removing barriers to knowledge and understanding and enabling people to unlock and leverage the resources they need to succeed. It’s about fostering creativity and a spirit of relentless curiosity, and questioning everything, including our current processes, models, and systems for teaching and learning. Read More

Homeschooling, Learning Accessibility, and Education Platforms

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I recently came across a blog post (via Mattermark) in which a venture capitalist, Boris Wertz, talks about the future of learning and mentions a project under way by another prominent VC, Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures, regarding homeschooling his children. So there are two things here that are fodder for thought: the homeschooling experiment itself, about which Albert has an entire blog series and which I’ll have to take a closer look at soon; and Boris’ post which has more to say about the potential for “the distributed school and customized learning” that the direction of Wenger’s experiment seems to predict.

The project that Albert and his wife are doing for their three kids (ages 11, 13, 13) involves hiring a learning guide for each child — not simply a tutor, but a kind of meta-tutor whose job it is to put together a learning plan, bring in tutors and mentors for various different subjects, arrange field trips and other learning experiences, and more. They state that the job of the guide is to explore areas of the child’s interest (including coordinating with experts), help them build and strengthen basic skills, and help them learn to overcome obstacles and challenges themselves. Albert describes the current interests of each kid, and says that the guides “should be creative and resourceful enough to put together programs, curriculae, and tap into experts in these particular areas of interest as well as core subjects.” This is awesome, because it seems like something I could excel at and enjoy doing — and in fact it’s kind of along the lines of what I aspire to do with SSG, but on a smaller scale, and more high-end and intimately personalized. As Boris describes it in his blog post (about which more below) the job is “part concierge, part program manager, and part learning specialist.” And yes, this clearly is costing a lot of money; Albert mentions in his blog comments that they’d be spending about as much on this as on Manhattan private school, which can run up to around $40,000 per year — extrapolate for three kids at once, and it becomes quite the interesting challenge to think about how this could actually scale. Read More

Seven Elements of Self-Directed Learning

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In researching various aspects of education (and technology, media, futurism, and more) over the past two years, I’ve started to identify the things I think are most important to a flexible, modern, individualized and holistic approach to the entire process of learning — which includes not only an individual’s initiative, but teaching and entire educational systems as well. To start, I’ve come up with seven qualities: I think learning must be modular, concise, engaging, essential, adaptable, intuitive, and effective.

I want to take a brief look at each of these and explain why I think they’re important. These are qualities I think are critical for a modern self-directed learning curriculum — which includes the aims of this site, other specific “Guides” I want to put together, and a whole bunch of other potential efforts at helping make resources for this stuff.

These are qualities I think it’s important for students to be aware of, and to seek out in any course of study they’re putting together, in the materials they find and aggregate, whether that’s some of the content I publish and/or stuff from elsewhere…the idea is that they’re pretty general qualities, but provide a context for elaborating some of the specifics of what I hope to do with the site content, and why, and how! Note that these are not in any particular order. Read More

Self Starter’s Guide, Synthesis, and the Future-Optimist Toolkit

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There are many complex terms for the simple yet powerful act of putting multiple things together in creative, novel, and interesting ways. You may have heard discussion of the act of synthesis, of juxtaposition, of recombinatory processes; you may have read about the rise of multimedia, or even of the theoretical applications of what’s referred to as multimodality. Combining disparate source material, preexisting ideas — this has been a guiding principle of modern artistic practice for the last century or more; it has gained traction in the worlds of business and marketing as companies and individuals seek innovative ways of reaching an audience; and it’s now making inroads in myriad other areas of our lives and culture. This sort of synthesis and combination is changing educational philosophies and classroom practices, affecting national and global policy and social innovation, and spawning new technologies and sources of entertainment at an increasingly rapid rate.

It’s cliche and, while true, not of itself useful to say that the world we live in now is a very different place from how it was a decade ago, two decades ago, last century. The world is always evolving, and has been for as long as it’s existed. The important thrust of the popular sentiment seems to be that it’s speeding up, to a degree that’s simultaneously invigorating or empowering and a bit worrisome. The former because it opens up tremendous new opportunities and enables us to do lots of great things that not so long ago were impossible, and the latter because it’s easy to get the feeling that we’re gradually starting to get outpaced or left behind by the rapidity of all this relentless, scary, wonderful, insane progress.

So yes, the world is changing, human culture and society and technology are all changing, as they always have been. But there are a few things that truly are novel, that are bringing about not linear progress but stepwise jumps and exponential sea change in evolutionary trajectory. There’s no one tipping point; we haven’t yet encountered any singularity; but many things taken together are causing lots to happen and become possible all at once: scientific advances in molecular biology and computing enabling revolutions in health and medicine, communications, and many other fields; the mass-connectivity of broadcast technologies leading up to and including the Internet which have enabled the world to be woven together into somewhat of a whole (not yet completely — but it’s finally possible to see humanity as a singular collective entity, both alone on our planet and all in this together) and increased productivity and improved education have left more and more people with time and ability to pursue art, innovation, and big ideas.

We’re not there yet, far from it; there are many problems in the world and much suffering, and I’m not saying we’ve crossed some line in the sand to a new period of enlightenment. But many of us, at least, can now see it in the distance — we have the ability to understand complex systems and processes, make cognitive and creative leaps across vast chasms separating disciplines, and perfect fusion not only of physical particles but of thoughts and actions, to create new things. Once, it was possible to be the sort of thinker, public intellectual or scholar, who was well-versed in most all subjects of human knowledge, carrying expertise in (or at least high-level familiarity with) geometry, philosophy, poetry and drama, rhetoric, art, engineering, and the various other foundations of the canon of accumulated human knowledge. Lately though, in the past several decades or maybe even past century or two, we’ve entered the so-called age of specialization where so much data and knowledge and information exists that it’s nigh impossible for someone to be an expert in all of the fields of study (or even all major ones) that now blanket the earth and occupy our collective intellectual consciousness.

I think, though, that we are returning to a place where it’s not only possible, but essential to our progress, to study widely in addition to deeply, to broach broad channels and extend tendrils in many directions at once, to absorb insights and essential ideas from many areas simultaneously. Our collective ability to begin to navigate complexity and chaos, to at least start to comprehend near-infinities and harness computing power and algorithms to trawl massive repositories of data, sort and rank and triage an incredible wealth of resources, and climb the tree of knowledge by swinging from branch to branch, to approach problems from many directions and be able to instantly find information on potential connections — all this burgeoning capability gives us the power to diversify our interests and inquiries, not diluting them but harnessing the power of synthesis and consilience to actually combine them into important and engaging and useful and valuable ways.

That’s my premise, and it’s somewhat optimistic and long term, but I think reasonable given what we know about the state of the world and our current abilities. And I think it’s a position that’s shared by many others with a futurist bent. The problem (or at least the question) is, given that this sort of tremendous potential and power exists in some latent form, how do we put it into action? How do we figure out a plan for creating and exploring, how do we harness our available resources and figure out the best way of working to actually be able to use the powers of synthesis to make and do great things? It’s a simple premise, but of course a complicated process; there are multitudes of available frameworks for thought and action, tremendous numbers of great books and important thinkers and areas in which one might begin study, an infinite variety of ways one might practice creating or designing or writing on the path to great discoveries and breakthroughs.

What I feel like I need is a sort of toolkit or toolbox — not just a guide or roadmap, but a full collection of resources where I can find helpful advice and insights from the world’s top thinkers and practitioners (interviews), creative examples and starter projects for exploring new ideas and modes of creation and problem solving, breakdowns of how people have successfully applied this stuff before (case studies), ways to connect with other people who might share similar interests or want to collaborate on problems/explorations (community), mentorship from people who share affinities for curiosity and exploration, and more. But this does not currently exist. So I’m building it myself, and making it available to you, too.

My first idea was to do a series of books, each of which would explore what I perceive to be a particularly important general topic for creating, navigating, learning, and doing in this ecosystem of evolving potential in which we find ourselves immersed. But as I see it now, I’m not sure that makes sense. A book series is fine for topics that are more or less separate or siloed into different verticals, but the more I read, learn, think, and explore, the more I realize that what we need to be mastering are a complex web of interconnected frameworks, competencies, and literacies. So, for example, it’s important not only that we learn about storytelling, and media, and design, and complexity theory, and physical making, and new forms of writing, and community-building, and a whole host of other things — but also that we learn about all these things as they relate to one another.

So my current goal is to build a platform where people can have access to all sorts of resources that span many of these different topics, which are all important and are all interrelated anyway. What they share is an increasing relevance to our future, not only economically and practically, but in how we create and build sense and meaning into our lives, experience feelings of connection and fulfillment, and thrive. Self Starter’s Guide will be more than just a single book or even a series of books, but a platform and a library and a research lab for exploring new modes of thinking, interacting, innovating and creating for generations to come.

The Compound Returns of Learning, Sharing, and Planning

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We can think about learning in terms of making an investment — the mechanics of that investment paralleling in many ways those of financial capital. Now, I know It’s often phrased in these terms, that learning is an investment in your future, and college graduates earn more, and so on. But I don’t think people tend to focus on the right things where learning-as-investment is concerned.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how it’s important to invest as much as possible early on, since the returns of that investment will compound greatly over time. It takes a lot of time and dedicated effort to read books every day, or to make writing a regular habit, or to prioritize participating in discussions and communities that are relevant to your interests — but I don’t think of any of these things as a time-sink (or at least I try not to!) These activities are better thought of as ones that will add value down the road; they increase the expected value of your future time remaining on earth, so as I like to see it, the time you spend learning and improving yourself actually isn’t “spending” time at all — it’s investing it, consciously using it now so that down the road you’ll have, if not more of it, a better experience of it, which is in a certain sense the same thing. Keep in mind that the important thing to measure is not time per se, but something like the product of “time” and “quality”.

Accepting this postulate, it’s an interesting exercise to try to prioritize the component activities of everything falling under the umbrella of learning, self-improvement, or any other sort of investment in yourself that will add greater value to your life later on. In basic terms, anything that offers fleeting and forgettable pleasures is out, while anything that changes you for the better with some degree of permanence is in. My intuition would be that reading is near the top; assuming you read about important, challenging, and interesting topics, you’ll gain permanent knowledge and tools for thinking, problem-solving, creativity, and understanding the world. Anything that helps you clarify thought processes is high on the list, so I’d argue that writing is incredibly important, right up there with reading, because the very act of writing is valuable insofar as it helps you distill and clarify your thinking — and as a side benefit, it turns those internal gyrations of your mind into shareable form, making it easy to spread value (assuming you write things of value), which itself is an act of investment which can reap you great benefits later.

Which brings me to another thing well worth substantial time investment: generosity, sharing, conversing, communing, involving — participating in mutually-beneficial activities with other people. This is so important that perhaps is should even be first on the list. It’s a bit harder to enumerate and define what specific kinds of interactions have most value, so I’ll leave it general for now. But the idea is that interacting with others to think and solve problems and create things can have beyond-multiplicative effects, outsize results. Bringing together perspectives results in unexpected combinations, which can generate new ideas more easily that one person can alone. What’s more, providing value to others (not necessarily in collaborative terms; even as pure act of generosity) helps to weave tighter the social fabric, and can add meaning and joy to others’ lives. This can be enormously beneficial for you as well, as that added value is likely to return to you. The “you reap what you sow” karmic attitude may be a vague way of phrasing it, but the idea behind it is absolutely true, and in a very tangible way.

One further important thing you can do that counts as an investment: I suspect that meta-level processes, such as planning or coordination, are a lot more valuable than they might superficially seem to be. It’s important to regularly remove yourself from the inertia of your day-to-day and question the high-level motivations and unexamined forces that guide your actions, so that you’ll have better insights into your own goals, interests, passions, and skills. By occasionally giving yourself space to think about these things on a higher level you’ll be able to more accurately assess your current trajectory and regular patterns of action, and thereby become more easily able to exert control over your own life. We fall into routines, but it’s amazing how flexible life can be when we think about it — for anyone blessed with good health and a moderate level of financial security, it’s fairly easy to change huge aspects of our life, or its very trajectory, in very little time. And of course, similar to how value compounds, small changes in trajectory can accumulate over years to result in huge changes.