Epistemic status: personal opinion and theorizing, based on recent conversations and explorations of Anki and the use cases of flashcards for autodidacticism in STEM. Mainly of use to continue directing my own Curious Inquiry, and hoping others find it a valuable framework as well.

Textbooks are jam-packed with facts. Students get tested on these facts shortly after reading about them for the first time. Often, they don't use good learning strategies to meet this challenge. This makes classroom education stressful and time-consuming. They're judged not on their enthusiasm, but on their homework and test scores. Many students either tune out or identify learning with achieving a grade.

This aspect of classroom education is practice for the sort of high-pressure, short-term ability knowledge workers need to cultivate for new projects and workflows. I call it Rigorous Training. To be able to put new, detailed information into your head, and use it to satisfy someone else's requirements, is a valuable skill. It's best to be efficient at it. What's the minimum time, effort, and strain you can use to excel on a test or project?

Curious Inquiry is different from Rigorous Training. There is no test. That's very important. But it is a concrete skill, with a procedure by which you carry it out. Curious Inquiry works a little like this:

  1. Find a new concept and take in some basic facts about it. For example, you might hear about the poly(A) tail in mRNA, and read the facts stated in the introduction to the Wikipedia article on polyadenlyation.
  2. Build an understanding of those basic facts by generating something new.
    1. Ask questions about things you don't understand or are curious about. Proteins cleave the 3' end and synthesize the poly(A) tail, but which proteins, and how do they work together?
    2. Make up gears-level models and propose hypotheses. Since the poly(A) tail determines how long the mRNA lasts, proteins might modify it in response to dynamic cellular needs for the proteins it generates.
    3. Find a metaphor and explain it in your own words. The poly(A) tail is like a molecular "clock" or "fuse."
  3. Based on what you generate, find a new set of basic facts and repeat. Notice when your level of curiosity is decreasing, and switch to something else.

With Curious Inquiry, you're not trying to retain the facts you learn or the understandings you generate for the long term. You're just walking through the fields and forests of knowledge, conducting a self-guided tour, as long as your interest lasts. The main thing you do to be "good at this" is to find ways to preserve and refresh your genuine, vital interest in what you're reading.

Structuring a Rigorous Training and carrying it out well is hard to do well. To learn the skills, you need a combination of flashcards and opportunities for deliberate practice. You need tests or applied projects. You need to decide what subject area and sense of purpose is motivating your Training.

It is very common for students to go through a Rigorous Training prior to any period of Curious Inquiry in the subject. It's also common for students never to get to the Curious Inquiry, because they have so little skill in the tools and techniques that make Training manageable, and the stress of it spoils any curiosity they might otherwise have developed for the subject.

Yet many students have an innate desire to achieve, as well as to exercise curiosity. For an autodidact, the idea of idly following your curiosity, with no test or attempt to retain information, might seem as intuitively unappealing as an arbitrary and stressful training.

One is not better than the other. Curious Inquiry and Rigorous Training are complements. However, it's valuable to let yourself do one and neglect the other for a time, to know which you are doing, and to execute it well. If you are doing curious inquiry, don't just skim stuff; really make sure you're generating questions and refreshing your curiosity as you go. If you're doing training, make sure you're choosing your subject, tests, and projects well, and that you're using well the tools that will help you succeed.

One of the tension points is that Rigorous Training still requires you to build understanding; and understanding requires curiosity. If you are taking a class to Train in molecular biology, it will teach you about transcription. You should not memorize facts about mRNA unless you understand them. And understanding them demands that you activate your generative curiosity, to ask questions, to look beyond the paragraph, beyond the textbook, even beyond the subject. Only then are you ready to make flashcards and commit facts to memory.

That generative curiosity, however, points beyond the material that will be on the exam. It is time-consuming. Rigorous Training is about learning how to activate that generative curiosity just enough to create a synthetic understanding, but not so much that it distracts you from the training. Then you make flashcards, do practice problems, take the exam or execute the project. When the class or the project is done, you allow yourself to stop the rigors, cease the flashcard practice, and either move on to a new Training or restart Curious Inquiry.

Expertise doesn't just come from Rigorous Training. It comes from Curious Inquiry at least as much. To be an innovative professional, you need to truly care and be imaginative about your subject. Of course, you can't just be idly curious, but curiosity builds a broad model and awareness of unknown unknowns, to look up or train on when you're motivated by the demands of a specific project or problem.

Often, Curious Inquiry will produce incorrect ideas and misguided notions, arguments and fallacies. People who've been interested in any specific subject than you for longer will show up to correct you. But not only is Curious Inquiry half of what gets you to the point of expertise in the first place, it's vital for forging connections between domains of expertise. It's where genius comes from, and you only need a little of that to have a gigantic impact. We'll trade a lot of correctness about known knowns in exchange for a little original insight.

In Curious Inquiry, you'll often have the experience of encountering the same point of confusion repeatedly. You'll learn one concept to understand another. You'll study the central limit theorem to understand binomial distributions. Then your curiosity will lead you elsewhere, and next week you'll circle back to statistics having forgotten the details of the central limit theorem. Curious inquiry is about allowing that to happen, because we trust our inquiry to lead us to refresh our understanding of key concepts at the moment they're needed. It's not as efficient a way to memorize a particular fact as a flashcard is, but it allows you to avoid wasting time on memorizing unnecessary facts.

Rigorous Training is especially useful to help you to gain enough skill to participate in an opportunity to learn even more. Study enough French before you visit, and you can have conversations with the locals. Study enough programming in college, and you can get a job where you'll get paid to get even more practice. Take enough classes on math and biology, and you can pursue graduate research in bioinformatics where you'll gain access to a whole new class of project in which to build your skills. Therefore, targeting your training to allow you access to a new type of learning environment seems like a useful way of deciding what training to participate in.

These thoughts stem from considering the advantages and disadvantages of flashcard-based learning. Conventional classroom education often seems to try and balance Curious Inquiry with Rigorous Training; yet because students are graded only on the latter, and not given the tools and skills they'd need to excel, they get stressed and use up much of the time that might have gone into Curious Inquiry. We get little of the Training we want, and none of the Inquiry. Yet when a student realizes the power of flashcards to help with Training, they can misconceive education as being all about Training.

My hope is that this distinction between learning modes can give context to an appropriate use case for flashcards, deliberate practice, and tests. This can also clarify when those tools are less appropriate. Hopefully, by giving a basis for autodidacts to direct their education, it can reconcile some confusions and apparent contradictions and lead to better learning outcomes.

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2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:32 PM

This resonates with something I've been thinking about lately. Despite getting high grades, graduating highschool with an IB diploma, and going most of the way through a PhD, I was actually kind of bad at school in several ways, and one of those was that I was trying to actually learn the stuff I studied. Like a fool, you might say, I failed to realize school was a system to be gamed and tried to actually learn everything I was asked to learn for real. This was exhausting, and I dropped out of the PhD because of burnout over this as much as any other reason, having finally crossed the threshold where my intelligence couldn't beat the system without gaming it.

I find learning outside school quite different. Mostly memorizing things doesn't matter and curiosity and ability to do things matter way more. Remembering stuff helps you be fast, but natural spaced repetition of stuff you actually use often works well enough. It's a lot more fun and I'm better at it.

Post forthcoming, but here's the teaser. School combines game-able systems and authentic career building. Distinguishing the two is the killer skill. To build a career, you're making yourself into an interface with your profession. A law student is making themselves into a useful and convenient interface with the legal system for their clients. An engineer is making themselves into a useful and convenient interface with computers, chemicals, and robotics for theirs.

To efficiently build your career, you'd ask, when encountering a set of facts/skills in school, "would memorizing/practicing these facts/skills be the best way to make me a better interface with my intended profession?"

My biochem class is on photosynthesis this week. My intended path is biomedical engineering. Will the facts in my photosynthesis chapter likely be of use in helping me understand research on tissue engineering or gene therapy? Unlikely, so I can do the minimum in this unit. By contrast, we did a unit on transcription and translation in molecular biology six months ago that I think I could benefit greatly from by memorizing it in detail.

Similarly, it's probably generally more valuable to read just the abstracts and commit the 3 most important factoids to memory via flashcards, just so that you know the paper exists and what it's about. If the ideas turn out to be relevant later, you have a handy memory reference to it. If not, you only wasted time on the abstract and maybe a total of 5-10 minutes on flashcards.