New Student Orientation

My Evolving Speech to New Students-

Welcome to our greatest challenge: learning and doing what we need to achieve our goals and potential. 

The following ideas are meant to help you create a vision of what you want, a working understanding of what education is, and a pathway to creating the most useful education you can obtain and generate.  Note that we cannot depend on anyone to educate us.  Education is a personal choice, an internally-directed process and it requires a great deal of personal interest/effort, questioning everything, observation & experimentation, open-mindedness, critical thinking, and self-reflection.  By comparison, training and schooling are the externally directed forms of learning meant to help you become of use to others.  Both forms of education help you provide something of value to yourself and the world, but they lead to different lives.  Lifestyle choices are yours to make, but my goal is to help anyone achieve any of their learning and development goals.

There are many ways to start an education and the main method is just to start following your interests and questions.  As most of the people reading this are current or former students and are currently handling a variety of classes, the following ideas are meant to help you maximize your current learning experiences while also helping you design and carry out your own projects (learning projects, hobbies, or professional projects).

  • Orientation to Life and Self:  The first stage is seeing where you are (assessing yourself, goals, and environment).  Who are you, what are you doing and why, what do you get by doing more of what you are currently doing, and what are you trying to achieve?  What are your personal philosophies, ethics, motives, and delights?
  • Objectives/Goals:  I encourage everybody to write out your personal, professional, and educational goals and motivations each week.  Your steps towards self-education must align either with these goals or must be an interesting response/adaptation to daily life and random events.
  • Understanding Education:  To understand your personal education, consider all of the questions about learning: why, what, when, where, how/how often/how much, whom for, with whom, etc.  Education takes two general forms: that created by you for your own purposes, and that created by others for their purposes.  Both have their benefits and drawbacks so it is important to learn how to leverage both.
  • Primary Outcomes of Education:  To know if you are getting an education, look at your ability to compose and deliver compelling arguments and analyses.  Can you make a convincing argument that comprehensively covers all of the relevant causes, effects, and evidence?  Can you speak this and write it in a compelling and clear manner?  Compare your arguments to the best ones you can find in any writing or speeches.  Make your presentations like those.  A second outcome is material achievement.  Can you now solve problems, get what you want, and create what you want?  If so, your knowledge is working.
  • Interacting with Self and Peers:  Be good to yourself and all others.  From my personal observations, the best learning and achievement happens when people are good to themselves and to each other.  Being good means maintaining good manners including applying the golden rule, “treating others as you want to be treated” and the platinum rule “treating others as they want to be treated”.  Be the type of person that other people want to be around.  Drop most negativity, eliminate complaining as you would take out the trash every day in order to keep a clean house, and engage fully with your interests and curiosity.  It is interesting to be interested and even when other people may not care about your specific interests, they are likely to appreciate and/or be attracted to your passion and vigor.
  • Perspectives on Truth:  What is true?  What should we believe?  While listening to one new speaker, I heard the comment that people who have been inclined to believe one type/system of beliefs/propaganda but who start to seek alternative explanations are at risk of simply switching to another belief/propaganda system without being aware that they are still caught up with propaganda.  This made me re-evaluate methods and pitfalls in education – what is true and how do we know?  People can and do say/believe anything so words alone can’t be accepted as truth. 
    • It was at this point that I became very thankful for my science training and other life experiences that show us how to collect, analyze, and interpret observations and evidence.  It is therefore very important to research all claims, demand references from our authors, examine our own experiences, and to compare evidence across domains (policy, science, economics, arts, etc) to decide what exists, what is true/valid, and how we would know.
    • One of my current favorite learning methods books is the very short, “How to Analyze Information: A Step by Step Guide to Life’s Most Vital Skill” by Herbert Meyer even while I don’t buy Herbert’s views in all areas.  His purposely short book is a simple and useful set of steps and is a reasonable perspective on the scientific method minus any focus on historical knowledge, ethics, brain science, experimental design, testing & hypotheses, and technical/statistical analysis.  Read this book and other books about ontology, epistemology (the nature, limits and methods of human knowledge) while also creating your list of go-to information sources such as www.pubmed.com.
    • Make sure to write out your thoughts regularly and write down any ideas related to your learnings AS THEY HAPPEN!!  Capture your ideas, write essays, and do this any time you can (Methods: Notebooks, Voice Notes on your phone, Freemind, mindmeister.com, evernote,com, etc.).  Consumption is not enough – we must produce our own ideas and capture them before they evaporate.  I also recommend taking action on the ideas you come up with – test everything out and don’t fear any failure.
  • Knowing where your time goes – Track your time for 1 week:  I would like it if all new students took their first week of our time together to track what you do for every hour of 1 week.  Write this down in a journal and be accurate – every hour for 1 week.  This will help you identify which part of your days and how many hours can be devoted to study and writing/communicating.  To get good at anything, it will take multiple hours per day 4-7 days per week.  I’ve never seen or heard of people making strong advances with just a handful of hours per week.  The human brain is the main reason for this.  Like the muscular system, the brain needs regular challenges of long enough duration and intense enough stimulation to create the necessary physical (synaptic) change that IS learning.  The brain has active and passive forgetting mechanisms so our learning methods must be long enough, focused enough, and repeated enough to first lay down the required neural imprints (the beginning of memories, the beginnings of thought methods and habits), and then build/maintain them enough that they survive the active and passive cellular forgetting processes.  All learning has a neural substrate, so it is important to see all learning and skill/arts trainings as biophysical processes that have specific sets of demands that must be met if we hope to achieve outcomes we desire and avoid those we do not desire.  This starts with clearing your schedule for multiple hours per day, at least 4 days per week (my minimum recommendation, based on observations of students and myself).
  • Health:  All forms of health affect learning and achievement.  Make sure to increasingly put healthy/happy influences/people into your life and remove unhealthy ones.  Physical, mental, social, financial, etc. health creates the environment in which people learn, grow, and achieve…or fail to do those well.  For example, if you are in a bad relationship or living situation, get out and find something much better.  Self-worth and self-efficacy are very important considerations so take some time to assess your beliefs, values, situations, and desires.  The most successful and happy people I’ve seen are the ones who put in a ton of effort, constantly seek to improve their opportunities and capacity to bring value/happiness to others and those who start finding activities they are good at.  People go quite far when they build on their own strengths and interests.  I also encourage plenty of exercise because physical exercise does affect brain health and more fundamentally, all animal brains evolved primarily to support movement.  Movement is primal to the human brain and stimulates it in a wide range of useful ways.

Specific goals, skills, and methods.

After creating your larger-picture orientation to yourself, your goals, and methods of observing, thinking, and interacting with others, we can focus on more of the what and how of basic university/college education and training.

What general goals and skills do all students need?

  • Building awareness of: self, others, time and space, the world, etc.  How is this done?  Do it through observations, questions, and the seeking of answers.  This is both a spiritual method and the scientific method.
  • Improving observation by expanding and improving your vocabulary.  Words and categories help us make sense of the large-scale and small-scale details around us.  Every day we walk past green things, but until we know what those plants are, what they are named, etc, our awareness is fuzzy at best.
  • Continually look for skills and ideas you need.   Compare your goals to what you observe, hear, read, and experiment with.  Also look at methods of thinking including reason, logic, fallacies, argumentation, persuasion, dialectic, problem solving, and cognitive biases.
  • Regularly test your ideas and seek meaningful opportunities.  Build skills by using them. 

Typical Student Gains

This area is under construction, but here are some of the typical gains that result from students’ learning experiences.

  • Greatly increased awareness and many new words/facts/skills
  • Insight
  • New good questions
  • Better writing
  • How to ask and answer questions scientifically
  • How to research topics and learn on your own
  • New methods and technology for learning
  • Tools, skills and ideas you’ll be able to use forever
  • and more…