Metalearning is the process of figuring out how to learn a particular subject based on how knowledge is structured and organised so that it can be easily acquired. If learning was a building, metalearning helps you figure out how to reach the top floor—whether to take the stairs, or the elevator, or scale the walls like Spider-Man.
Metalearning creates a map of the territory we are about to venture into, and is thus an essential step before actual learning happens. Unfortunately, most of us plunge right into the ocean without understanding the waves. Metalearning is the most crucial step that most of us either don’t know or completely ignore.
Let’s take an excerpt from Scott H Young’s phenomenal book Ultralearning where he explains what metalearning is:
If you’re learning Chinese characters, you will learn that 火 means “fire.” That’s regular learning. You may also learn that Chinese characters are often organized by something called radicals, which indicate what kind of thing the character describes. The character 灶, for example which means “stove,” has a 火 on the left-hand side to indicate that it has some relationship to fire. Learning this property of Chinese characters is metalearning—not learning about the object of your inquiry itself, in this case words and phrases, but learning about how knowledge is structured and acquired within this subject; in other words, learning how to learn it.
A good way to metalearn (yeah that’s the word) a subject is to make a list of the concepts, facts, and procedures related to it.
Concepts are ideas you need to understand that form the core of the subject you are learning. For example, force and gravity are concepts without which learning physics wouldn’t make much sense.
Facts are, as the name suggest, what you have to memorise by heart to be able to recall them in the right situation. For example, if you are learning a language, vocabulary and pronunciation are facts that you’ll have to memorise. In maths and physics, you’ll have to memorise formulae and constants.
Procedures are actions that need to be practised. For example, riding a bicycle is a procedure. Singing a song or playing a guitar is a procedure. Learning to speak fluently is a procedure. Procedures are actions that need to be performed over and over again, with or without much conscious thinking.
Once you have figured out the concepts, facts, and procedures, the next step is to figure out the strategies you are going to use to tackle the “tricky parts”. Let’s call them bottlenecks. For example, if the subject is concept-heavy (such as investing), grasping the fundamentals is a bottleneck, and you’ll have to spend considerable amount of time understanding and explaining them in plain simple words so that the fundamentals are absolutely clear. If the subject is fact-heavy (such as law), memorisation is a bottleneck, and you’ll have to use something like a spaced-repetition method system to make sure you remember all the important laws and their definitions. If the subject is procedure-heavy (such as painting), the bottleneck is quality. Lots and lots of practice is the only way to improve your quality. Identifying bottlenecks helps you identify where you would have to spend most of your time.
When I started my portrait-drawing challenge, for instance, I knew that success would depend highly on how accurately I could size and place facial features. Most people can’t draw realistic faces because if those attributes are off even slightly (such as making a face too wide or the eyes too high), they will instantly look wrong to our sophisticated ability to recognise faces. Therefore, I got the idea of doing lots and lots of sketches and comparing them by overlaying the reference photos. That way I could quickly diagnose what kinds of errors I was making without having to guess.”
But if you can’t make these kinds of predictions and come up with appropriate strategies just yet, don’t stress it. These would eventually come to you more naturally as you do more projects. Make sure not to let it stop you from pursuing projects.
If you don’t have a learning strategy just yet, the best way to get started is by finding the common ways in which people learn the skill or subject. Searching YouTube is bound to give you tonnes of resources. If you are trying to learn something that is taught in schools, say computer science, neurology, you can refer a school curriculum. This helps you design a good enough default strategy as a starting point without losing your sleep.
You are more than welcome to tweak it and make modifications as you see fit. For example, if you want to build an app, your focus would be on the inner workings of app development rather than theories of computer science. If you want to learn a bit of French before you visit Paris in a month, your goal would be the ability to speak common phrases in shops and restaurants, rather than being able to spell correctly. Unlike schools, that’s one of the major benefits of a personal learning project. You can tweak things according to your learning goals.
Now, metalearning isn’t a one-time activity. You should continue doing research as you learn. Obstacles and opportunities are never clear before you start something, so reassessing is a necessary step of the learning process.
A good indicator is when you start seeing marginal improvement in your progress. For example, despite knowing how to code, I didn’t know enough to build production-ready apps. Progress was slow and there were lots of hiccups doing simple things. This led me to do more research to figure out how to learn to handle large codebases. Friends (who are developers) and YouTube tutorials were of immense help.
However at some point in your learning, you would start to see that no matter how much research you do, your learning output has diminishing returns. This is a good indicator that you are very close to the ideal learning process. At this point you can safely focus only on learning since doing more research will be less and less valuable.
Each project you do will improve your general metalearning. Every project will teach you new learning methods, new ways to gather resources, better time management, and improved skills for managing your motivation.
The real benefits of metalearning aren’t short term but long term. They don’t reside in a particular project but influence your overall strengths as a learner.
Success in one project will give you confidence to execute your next one with boldness and without self-doubt. Ultimately, this effect will far outweigh the effect of doing a specific project. Metalearning is a lifelong process, and it compounds with time.