Meta-learning: the secret to rapid learning and growth in the age of technology.
The Matrix is one of the greatest all-time classics of sci-fi films. The enticing story, following everyone’s favorite actor Keanu Reeves as the main protagonist Neo, takes place in a post-apocalyptic society where humans are plugged into a virtual world where they live, while robotic creatures feed off of their energy.
One of the most notable and interesting features of the movie is the fact that the protagonists, who have escaped the virtual world (don’t worry that’s not a spoiler it happens at the beginning), can make use of the virtual technology to download massive bodies of knowledge into their brains at lightning speeds.
No one will forget one of the most notable scenes of the first movie where Neo, having plugged into the Matrix and downloaded knowledge about martial arts, sits up and immediately declares “I know Kung-Fu.”
The scene is so crazy because Neo, who has no past martial arts background, is able to become a master at the art in mere seconds. This technology is immensely powerful as the ability to quickly learn and develop new skills is invaluable.
But of course, you might be wondering: why does that matter? This movie is completely science fiction. Nothing like that exists in the real world, right?
While it’s true that there’s nothing that will allow us to download knowledge directly into our brains instantaneously (unfortunately), there is actually a way for us to increase our rate of learning quicky to the point where we can start to learn new things effectively at speeds we have never experienced before.
The secret to this kind of rapid-learning is known as meta-learning.
Although we certainly won’t be able to learn as fast as Neo, meta-learning can help us to quickly teach ourselves countless new topics in a short period of time and achieve a level of competence in a diversity of areas of interest.
What is meta-learning?
Meta-learning describes the process of learning how to learn most efficiently. There are two main parts to understanding meta-learning that will enable anyone to learn a variety of subjects quickly:
- Becoming familiar with yourself and your own individualized learning styles (this one differs from person to person and thus, is difficult to talk about at a generalized level). This involves learning how to optimize your learning process to most effectively fit with your learning style. This also deals with knowing your own limits and capabilities, but also not underestimating yourself, procrastinating, or giving up.
- Understanding the more generalized meta-learning knowledge that can help anyone to become a rapid learner. There are a number of strategies for meta-learning based in neuroscience that are proven to help us learn more quickly and increase our rate of learning with each new learning experience.
I will focus more on the second topic, as it is far more widely applicable and actionable, and then in order to give a real-life example to give a sense of how to implement these tools, I will discuss my personal experience with trying to improve my meta-learning abilities.
Before we go into the specifics, lets quickly take a look at why exactly meta-learning is so powerful.
Why is meta-learning so powerful?
There are several factors contributing to the value of meta-learning, and each of them alone would be enough to make someone want to learn about the topic. The first reason that meta-learning is so powerful is that it enables us to make drastic improvements rapidly.
Jumpstart your learning and grow rapidly.
To understand this concept, let’s look at a simple analogy.
Suppose that one day, you found an oddly shaped bottle, you rubbed it, and out came a genie. The genie tells you that you can have only one wish. So what would it be?
Many of you will have noticed that the genie might have forgotten something that’s going to cost him. He forgot to establish the rules for granting wishes. Naturally, you are going to wish for more wishes, and he will have to grant them to you now.
Why did you wish for more wishes with your one wish, instead of just using that wish to get something you wanted immediately? Well, the answer to that question might seem obvious — you get much from gaining access to more wishes then you do from using up one wish.
This is similar to meta-learning. Meta-learning is the learning equivalent of wishing for more wishes. If you are able to effectively learn how to learn (which doesn’t take too much time), then it will pay dividends in the future as you can continue to learn about other subjects much more easily and quickly. This will enable you to develop a depth of knowledge in a breadth of different subjects.
Learning about meta-learning strategies as early as possible is optimal because it will speed up your learning process with any topics that you want to learn about in the future.
Learn to adapt quickly during the age of technology
Another reason why meta-learning is so powerful today is that with technologies like artificial intelligence, brain-computer interfaces, and quantum computing developing at a rapidly increasing pace, it’s hard to know what tasks will become automated in the future.
Over the next few years, millions of people across the world will have their occupations displaced by technologies and they will have to find somewhere else to go with their work. This group doesn’t just include people doing simple repeatable tasks, it includes countless other fields of study, some of which are unpredictable.
When events like this occur where technology overcomes human capabilities in a field, the people in the field will need to either adapt to these changes, learning new fields, or adopting new areas of expertise, or they will have to suffer.
As frightening as this future is, there is no doubt that investing time into meta-learning will be incredibly beneficial in the future for those who need to adapt, learn new skills, and overcome these challenges.
Now that we have discussed what meta-learning is and why it is so powerful, let’s dive into the main meta-learning strategies that will help you learn quickly.
The best meta-learning strategies and practices
There are a number of meta-learning “best practices” that are established and supported by scientific research. First, we will discuss the most optimal strategy for approaching a new topic and planning out your learning. After that, we will discuss specific meta-learning strategies and the science behind them.
How to approach learning about new topics
This section is based on the personal findings of Josh Kaufman, a business coach who gave a famous TED talk on this topic (it has racked up over 19 million views on youtube):
In essence, the process of learning about a new topic can be broken down into four essential steps:
- Deconstruct the skill or topic that you are trying to learn about. This involves breaking down exactly what you are trying to learn how to do, and what you should be able to accomplish with this newly learned skill. This will enable you to take a very targeted approach to learning which can help you to reach this specific goal more quickly.
- Learn enough to self-correct. This point is especially important. When you are learning about something new (let's say learning to play an instrument for example), it’s important to get actual experience. It’s easy to fall into the trap of constantly reading and consuming learning content without putting new knowledge into practice, but this strategy is incredibly time-consuming and inefficient. It’s better to get enough knowledge about a topic so that you are able to put it into practice and learn from experience.
- Remove practice barriers. This involves taking away anything which is going to slow down your learning. That includes any technology you aren’t using for learning purposes (most importantly your phone) or anything else that you know is going to distract you. Learning efficiently requires you to get into a state of high focus which means that these kinds of external distractions will effectively disable your ability to learn quickly.
- Practice for at least 20 hours. This is the amount of time that it will take to get good at something at first. It's important not to give up before this point if you really want to learn about the topic you chose. In fact, the biggest barrier to overcome when learning about a new topic is emotional (its easy to get bored, think something is too hard, or give up). It’s important that when we get to these points, we get through them and continue practicing before we decide whether we like a topic. One thing to note is that as you get better and better at learning, this time frame will start to decrease.
Following these four steps will enable much more efficient learning. These are the prerequisites to meta-learning, but they are definitely not the main points. Now that we have covered these steps, let’s discuss some specific meta-learning strategies to help us learn faster.
1. The Pomodoro Technique
This strategy is based on research in the field of neuroscience that suggests that our brain learns most effectively through a combination of two different brain states.
In order to pick up new information, the brain needs to be in a focused state where it can concentrate on the new knowledge it is learning. However, in order to retain this knowledge, our brain needs to enter into a diffuse state where it isn’t particularly focused on any specific topic. This allows our neurons to properly form the connections that account for learning.
We can actually make use of this knowledge through the use of the Pomodoro Technique. This strategy establishes that when learning, its best to spend a set period of time in a focused state (the common suggestion is 25 minutes) and then transition to a diffuse state briefly (around 5 minutes) where we are just relaxing to solidify our learning.
This strategy is commonly regarded as a learning “hack” which makes the process of learning far more effective.
2. Exercise & Social Interaction
Exercise and social interaction both serve as a means to solidify information in our brains after long periods of learning. These can also be used as the diffuse state that you need while implementing the Pomodoro Technique.
In general, working out or conversing immediately after doing things like studying, reading, or practicing new skills, is a great way to ensure that the newly attained knowledge remains with us.
3. Test Yourself & Constantly Practice
This corresponds with the self-correction point made earlier and is incredibly important. Practice is arguably the most important feature of developing a wide variety of skills including learning instruments, languages, learning to program, learning sports, and a number of other areas.
Thus, its important to put newly attained skills into practice after learning them to ensure that you are able to use them in ways that are useful. For example, if you are learning a language, try to speak with someone after learning new phrases, if you are learning to code, try to make projects after you learn new syntax, or if you are learning to play an instrument, try playing a song after reading about theory.
Practice is the most effective way to solidify your skills and turn them into actual experience.
4. A Meta Approach to Meta-Learning
If you are to look at meta-learning from a meta-learning standpoint (ie. how can you learn how to learn faster), you can use the previous strategy to deduce that in order to get good at meta-learning, you need to practice by learning about a variety of different topics.
With each new topic that you learn about and start to master, you will also start to become better at meta-learning, assuming you are making use of the meta-learning tips. Thus, it's important to continually be learning something new or developing on your current knowledge in order to advance your meta-learning skills.
That being said, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to learn too many things at once and then ending up not learning enough about each specific topic. Thus, the optimal strategy is to only learn about a few or even just one topic at a time, taking your time to actually master it before moving onto the next. That way, you don’t have to worry about glossing over topics without getting actual value out of them.
5. Learn to Access & Use Meta-Learning Strategies for Each Field
Getting good at this strategy can help to drastically increase your learning efficiency by reducing the time you spend learning new topics while maintaining a high level of understanding.
The idea behind this strategy is that countless people have learned about most topics before you have, and thus, there are so many resources available to you for how you can most effectively learn about topics in any field. These resources can be easily accessed through books, and more efficiently, through the internet, where you have access to all of this content in an instant.
All you have to do to implement this strategy and improve is focus on getting good at Googling topics and finding resources on how to learn about them because such resources exist for almost any topic. These enable you to effectively get advice (indirectly) from experts in a field that will be invaluable when entering the field as a beginner.
Furthermore, once you start to adopt these field-specific tips (you will likely also notice some on your own when learning), you can store these and remember them for later. Then, when you come back to learn about a similar topic, you will be able to learn about that topic that much quicker. Thus, this strategy has a compounding effect.
Now that we have established all of the most essential strategies and practices of meta-learning, I’ll dive into a brief description of my experience with meta-learning to give a more concrete example of these strategies, how they work in reality, and how they have helped me (and can help you too)!
My experience with meta-learning
I have been interested in meta-learning for a couple of years now and I have attempted to make use of a number of the strategies myself. Hopefully, learning about my experience with meta-learning (I’ll start from day 1), will help you to avoid some of the mistakes I made and recognize some of my learnings to develop more efficiently yourself:
My first experience with meta-learning:
- I first started making use of meta-learning strategies (although I didn’t realize at the time) a few years ago when I started learning to program with Python. It took several days to learn the basics of the programming language, and it took weeks to get enough practice to become even slightly competent.
- This was one of the first times where I stepped back to look at what I had learned and analyze what I could have done better. I realized that I was spending a lot of time learning the theory and syntax behind programming, but that I had waited far too long to start putting this into practice. Thus, I took away from this experience that is better to start practice as soon as you are able to.
Continuing to learn and trying to implement new strategies:
- I continued to learn Python and decided to practice constantly by making projects. From this, I learned a field-specific meta-learning strategy to optimize learning to code which was to use the website Stack Overflow to help me solve any problems with code. This is an example of a meta-learning strategy specific to a field that would prove to be immensely valuable in the future.
- I tried to teach myself to use a music production software called FL Studio. This is where I made use of my previous advice to get to practicing as early as possible. I watched a couple of YouTube videos on the software (I also learned here that YouTube is an excellent way to learn about new topics), and I immediately got to practicing. This made a noticeable difference as I was able to operate the software considerably faster than anything I had learned about in the past
Starting to become faster at learning in specific fields
- After a couple of years of experience with coding, I decided to dive deep into more advanced areas like machine-learning. From here, I learned valuable strategies for learning like studying code from other sources that helped me to develop my coding abilities further by learning new libraries (basically just adding new capabilities to a programming language) for Python).
- At this point, I also decided to restart learning to play the piano (I hadn’t played in fifth grade). This was where learnings started to compound as observations from learning the music production software FL Studio helped me to get back into piano.
- I learned how to use a video editing software called Hitfilm which I was able to learn about more efficiently from learning about the FL Studio music software previously (I was able to learn through online sources like YouTube videos).
My most important learning
As I have continued to develop on this interest of mine and explore new areas of interest like language, writing, art, and other areas, I have learned new and unique information from each interest.
My most important takeaway from all of this learning is that the most essential aspect of meta-learning is the iterative process of learning new skills and developing on current ones intentionally. Learning the different nuances of learning to code was an example specific to me and many others, but this iterative process applies to every other field of learning. There are specific strategies to recognize and implement to become a faster and more efficient learner in whatever fields you are interested in.
Additionally, learning skills in a breadth of different topics can turn out to be more valuable than anticipated later on when learning about seemingly unrelated topics. This is why its beneficial to start learning about a wide variety of fields.
Finally, meta-learning is a skill that is well worth working on as it saves valuable time and provides you with so many options in the future. I still think about it often (when learning, I like to think about how I could be improving my learning process), and think that it has been and will continue to be an incredibly valuable body of knowledge.
Summary: The most important strategies and tips for meta-learning
- Deconstruct the topic that you are about to learn.
- Learn enough to self-correct and practice.
- Remove practice barriers to enable focused learning.
- Practice for at least 20 hours and overcome frustration.
- Make use of the Pomodoro technique.
- Use exercise and social interaction to solidify information.
- Test yourself and constantly practice.
- Practice learning new topics.
- Access and use learning strategies form specific fields.
Wait… don’t click away yet!
I’m Adam, a 17 year old passionate about technologies like artificial intelligence/machine learning, blockchain, quantum computing, and much more.
I also enjoy writing about topics like philosophy, motivation, and self-improvement.
If you want to connect with me (I’m always open to meeting new people)/check out my portfolio, you can do so at any of the following links: