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In self-teaching a variety of subjects (including the one I am currently employed with), I’ve come across several common obstacles. Even the best self-learning materials fail to address all of these consistently, and it is one of the most difficult things about learning a subject on one’s own.

For just about any subject out there, a wealth of information can be found on the internet and the bookstore. Finding sufficient material is not usually a problem, even for relatively obscure subjects. For instance, I learned how to disassemble and clean a pre-WWII Czechoslovakian rifle via a YouTube video.

It is not in the actual material about the subject where the difficulty comes in. The difficulty is in the mata-information that is needed in order to systematically learn a complex subject. Learning the subject is easy, learning how to learn the subject can be daunting, and in some cases has been difficult enough to discourage or delay my taking on that subject.

This is a difficulty faced by homeschoolers as well as self-learners. It is, in my opinion, one of the most valuable services a good school provides. Perhaps the most valuable service. It is something that has to be given up when teaching is taken out of the hands of professionals and those with direct experience in a subject. Because the public school system is failing us in so many regards, it is also a business opportunity for those who can provide it.

I would like to systematize the approach to meta-learning. Though I won’t be able to do so fully here, I hope to at least start the effort, and/or to draw out information that I might not be aware of from those reading this. My hope is that materials can be developed, aimed at both self-learners and homeschoolers, that can aid in getting past these obstacles so that the learners and teachers can move on to the main business of learning and teaching the subject at hand.

This would allow the self-learner to more fully self-direct his learning. Rather than being bound to the path set by a book or an online course, he could choose from among all the available materials those that suit his needs and preferences best. Additionally, he could better coordinate his learning of multiple subjects that might depend on one another, or have overlapping fields of knowledge.

The obstacles I have come across fall into four categories. Not all of them are a problem for all self-learning efforts. Some available materials do address some of them fairly well, and few fail to address any of them. But I can’t think of any that I have encountered that cover all of them well, nor in a systematic way. Anyone entering into the study of a given subject would do well to recognize that he will have to address each of these categories, and to take the time before beginning study to understand them as they apply to his subject.

1. Prerequisites and Ordering

Pre-requisites are those things that must be mastered or at least known casually in order to productively study a given subject. Ordering is how the ideas within a given subject build upon one another. Nothing is more frustrating than getting to section 6 of a subject, and realizing that it requires knowledge of an entirely different, but more fundamental subject, or that what one thought was section 8 actually should have been done first.

In the case of ordering, this is often closely tied to learning the subject itself. A good book or well put together course will naturally address this issue. Someone picking and choosing from a variety of materials will find this to be one of the major challenges in tackling a subject. In that case, a thorough skimming of various materials might be in order prior to detailed study.

Prerequisites are more frequently left out of study materials. Since pre requisites are not part of the subject itself, it is understandable to leave them out. Since this relationship of one subject to another is not part of any subject, it is not unusual to find that the information is seemingly nowhere to be found. However, this is something that anyone with solid experience in a subject could probably answer off the top of his head with no effort at all.

2. Scope

Scope is simply the question of what is an is not within a given subject. This can be a tricky issue, and will often blindside a prospective self-learner. There is no one answer to this question, it depends on large part what purpose one has for taking on the subject. In academia, there are clear, if ultimately arbitrary, divisions between various subjects. A book on a subject will necessarily have its own scope determined by how the author and publisher view the needs of their target audience. Courses of any kind will have a limited scope as well. Someone who is completely self-directing will often find it quite difficult to decide what to include in his study, and what to leave for later study.

Part of the decision of scope will be based on things that the given subject is prerequisite for. Others will be guided by the assumed demands of a profession. Sometimes it is driven by fashion, or by a given instructor or writer’s persona preferences. Too narrow a scope may leave the learner unprepared for future study, or professional work. Too much scope might hamper the overall effort by making the subject appear larger than it needs to be, or by making the process of studying go on and on seemingly without end.

It is important to note that scope also applies to collections of subjects as well as individual subjects. Someone setting out to “learn math” could have more than a lifetime of study ahead of him if he is not selective. Somebody studying computer programming could easily find that learning merely the syntax rules of a given language leaves him woefully unprepared for any job in the real world. Matching the scope to the purpose is a very difficult thing for someone who does not yet know the subject.

3. Terminology and Unknown Unknowns

Terminology is the actual words used for ideas within a subject. Unknown unknowns are those areas of a subject that a learner is often completely unaware of prior to actual study. Both of these are, of course, part of the study of a subject itself. The problem arises when a self-learner is using a variety of materials and looking for information on his own via a web search or browsing book titles. If he does not know the terminology, such a search can be quite difficult. If he is not even aware of the idea he needs to learn, he will not be able to look for resources for learning it. This is a chicken and egg problem. If he is completely unaware of a subject, or knows no term for it, it is not likely that he will be studying it in the first place. If he knew all the ideas and terminology, he would not likely need to study it.

It is the person who knows some of the terms, and some of the ideas, but wants to learn more fully or systematically that will find difficulty in the process of looking for resources. I have often started a course of study by simply reading, cover to cover, a book such as “C++ for Dummies”, not because I think it will teach me C++, but because it will teach me enough to begin learning the subject. Organized courses are often very helpful in this as well, and even just browsing the names in the course catalog will provide insight to this (and the course descriptions can help with the scope question as well.)

5. Tools

Every field of study has tools it uses, except perhaps subjects like philosophy, or... well, I can’t think of another offhand. The way the question of tools is addressed in learning materials varies very widely. In some cases, the use of a particular tool is so closely related to the subject that a large bulk of the course or book is taken up describing it. In others, it is mentioned in an offhand way, or not at all. Often, the tools mentioned are so specific - such as a specific brand or model - and the instruction is geared toward the use of that specific tool. In this case, it can be very difficult to extrapolate the information to a more general case of the category of tool, or to uses and techniques that are integral to the subject, but not part of the use of the particular tool addressed.

This is especially prevalent in computer programming subjects. Often, the tool chosen will be very specific (usually Microsoft), and the information so detailed that it is almost impossible to engage the subject with any other tool. Often, the tool is obsolete, hard to find, or not compatible with new hardware once the study materials are even a couple of years out of date - even if the subject itself is still viable.

It is vitally important to any course of study that the learner know the tools he will need to use, and to understand how they work. Merely knowing the use of a specific tool is not enough, he must know how the function of that category of tool fits in with the subject matter in a general way. He must be able to adapt the subject matter to a variety of tools because once away from a given course, or as time goes by, he may no longer have access to the specific tool, or may find that others fill his needs better.

Meta learning

A learner beginning a course of study has a unique problem in that he is aware of what he wants to know, but does not know enough about it to direct his study to the best and most efficient use of resources. Among all the resources on various subjects that are available, fairly little is devoted to the meta-learning of the subject. This is a great opportunity to provide such resources to the exploding home- and un-schooling movements, and to create more opportunities for autodidacts to increase the scope of learning open to them in the limited time they have.

Often, the kinds of problems listed above can be bypassed with a small amount of expert knowledge. Anyone who is very familiar and experienced in a subject can often answer the questions about prerequisites and ordering, scope, and terminology and unknown unknowns in a matter of minutes, off the top of his head. Instruction on tools would usually take more effort, but if the resources were available, a self-learner could acquire that knowledge in the same way he does the actual subject. Those resources are often available, but are not always connected to the information about a specific subject. What would be valuable in that case would be expert knowledge about the tools themselves as questions of prerequisites, scope, and unknown unknowns, so that a learner could see that for a particular course of study, he will need to also study certain tools, either prior or in parallel.

This information is out there, but not collected in any systematic way. If it were, it could be the backbone of a system for self learning and alternative schooling that could truly empower those looking for alternatives to public or private formal education, and those who want to take control of their education, or that of their children, back from institutions that are failing in their mission, are too expensive, or that are not flexible enough to meet the rapidly changing needs of today’s world.

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