and Foster Learn by Doing

There are many different modes of learning. People learn by reading, by listening, by talking and interacting with others, and by watching displays of phenomena such as scientific experiments. But one of the most effective ways to learn is by actually doing something you have a passion for. The goal of this “doing” may be directly related to what you are learning, or you may learn lessons that are only indirectly related.

If I think about what I have managed to learn in my life and career it is from my projects and not formal lessons. The educational paradigm of filling young (and not so young) minds with facts is obsolete—we carry that information in our pockets and on our belts. The goal of education should be to teach how to turn this wealth of knowledge into positive changes in the world, whether that means solutions to pressing problems, or artistic expressions that lift our spirits.

Learning by doing has several important advantages. First, it engages all your senses, which helps your brain retain what you learn. Second, it lets you make mistakes and discover for yourself the strategies to overcome them. This helps you recognize the underlying patterns of what you’re learning about, which according to my “Pattern Recognition Theory of Mind” (which I articulate in my book How to Create a Mind) is key to how we develop our thinking. Third, practical experience is more likely to stimulate your emotions. Whether it’s the rush of satisfaction from succeeding or the frustration of failure, these emotions deepen your learning because you care about the lessons and their consequences.

In the novel, Danielle goes to the Stern School, which has the motto “learn by doing.” The Stern School is inspired by the real-life Stern Schule, a progressive school founded by my great grandmother Regina Stern in Vienna in 1868. This was the first school in Europe to provide higher education for girls. If you were lucky enough to get an education as a girl in mid-nineteenth century Europe at all, it went through at most ninth grade. The Stern Schule went from Kindergarten to 14th grade—that is, through high school and the first two years of college. The idea was controversial and generated opposition and anger as it went against what many, actually most, people believed was the natural order of gender roles. The arguments then were similar to the arguments we hear today although support for women’s rights was very undeveloped in 1868. My great grandmother’s daughter, my grandmother, became an exemplar of her mother’s philosophy and became the first woman in Europe to get a PhD in chemistry. She took over the school and between the two women they ran it for 70 years until fleeing Vienna and Hitler in the summer of 1938.

My grandmother wrote a book about the school and her experiences, called One Life Is Not Enough, a title that presaged my own interest in life extension. The book has been published in Austria. She wrote the book on a mechanical typewriter. She showed me the book and the typewriter when I was five. I was, at that time, more interested in the typewriter than the book. That typewriter played an important role in my deciding at a young age to become an inventor. That typewriter inspired me to collect mechanical linkages from the neighborhood with the idea that I could solve any problem by just figuring out how to put these devices together. It would take a number of years before these early inventions of mine got traction, but I learned a lot about science and engineering in the process.

Moreover, the school my great-grandmother and grandmother ran encouraged the philosophy of learning by doing to provide real-world experience for these young women.

In the novel, Danielle’s assignments at the Stern School are directed at real-world problems, and many of her adventures result from her Stern School curriculum. For example, her Middle East peace mission is part of an assignment for her social studies class. As a result, she succeeds in negotiating a Middle East peace agreement, but due to ongoing violence in some parts of the region, she only gets a B+! You can follow in Danielle’s footsteps by practicing learning by doing in your own life, and also by helping other people do the same.

First, take a look at these explanations of a few different examples of learning by doing:

Here are some inspiring people who have been successful with learning by doing, from great pioneers from history to innovative teenagers in the present:

  • British physicist and chemist Michael Faraday6(1791–1867) was one of the most famous scientists of all time. He had very little formal schooling, but learned science by working as a laboratory assistant and then by designing and conducting his own experiments.
  • American inventor Thomas Edison7(1847–1931) did not have much education either, but had a great sense of curiosity. He solved problems by experimenting with potential solutions, trying many different ideas and recording the results. Edison received more than 1,000 patents during his career, and is credited with inventing the most pioneering inventions of the early twentieth century, including the phonograph, the motion-picture camera, and the modern light bulb.
  • The Wright Brothers,8 Orville (1871–1948) and Wilbur (1867–1912), were two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio. They dreamed of creating the world’s first airplane, and learned aircraft design by trial and error. At the time, many experts said it was impossible. But in 1903, the Wright Brothers built a working model, and achieved the first-ever controlled powered flight in a heavier-than-air vehicle. That illustrates another advantage of “learn by doing.” The Wright Brothers never learned from “experts” that what they were trying to do was “impossible.”
  • Kelvin Doe,9 a 15-year-old from Sierra Leone who built his own radio broadcasting system from discarded parts and then ran a radio station for young people in his country.
  • Santiago Gonzalez,10 a 14-year-old computer programming whiz. Santiago built up his coding skills by actually creating his own apps, making them available to the public, and seeing what feedback they got.

Creating your own projects is one of the best ways to learn by doing. Whether you’re writing a computer program, building a robot, or shooting a music video, keep in mind these suggestions for getting the most out of the experience:

  • Let yourself be ambitious. When young people talk about their ideas and projects, some adults unfortunately like to tell them that these plans aren’t realistic. If someone tells you this, it may be because they want to spare you disappointment if you don’t succeed. This is a well-intentioned motive, but the learn-by-doing mindset says that even if the project doesn’t turn out how you hoped, you can still learn a great deal that you could never have learned from classroom study. So don’t be afraid to set big goals and undertake difficult projects.
  • Focus on serving others. For most projects, you’ll need the support of other people. This could be collaborators, financial sponsors, or journalists who spread the word about what you’re doing. If the project is just for your own benefit, there isn’t much reason for those people to help you. But if the project is intended to help people in need or solve a real-world problem, it’s much easier to get a team of people on board and obtain other forms of support who are excited about your vision.
  • Reach out to successful people. People who’ve already achieved big things in your field can be great mentors to you. But these people might get hundreds or even thousands of requests for help every year. So how can you stand out from the crowd? Ben Casnocha, who served as chief of staff to LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, suggests11that you look for ways you can offer successful people a perspective they couldn’t buy “off a shelf.” As a young person, you have insights that older executives and scientists don’t have. This can be the starting point for relationships that genuinely benefit both sides, so you’re not simply asking for favors.
  • Don’t wait until you feel ready. When you have a big project in mind, it’s natural to feel uncertain. There is a lot that can go wrong, and the more you improve your skills, the more you realize how much you still have to learn. But the world’s greatest innovators almost always dive into projects before they feel ready. A common saying is: “Entrepreneurship is jumping off a cliff and building a parachute on the way down.” You will learn the most from experiences that stretch your abilities to the limit (of course, don’t jump off a real cliff!).
  • Have an experimental mindset. Even the world’s most experienced engineers, programmers, and architects often modify their plans partway through a project. In trying to solve a hard problem, you’ll probably bump up against obstacles. So it’s important not to fixate on one single solution. Instead, focus on experimenting with different approaches, and be willing to adjust your thinking based on what you learn. If you’re trying to solve a problem that can be described with numbers, tools like the Wolfram software12 and Brilliant.org13can help you explore, test, and visualize potential solutions. Regardless of how the project turns out, this will maximize your own learning.
  • Give yourself permission to fail. Many people are afraid to start bold projects because they’re afraid they’ll fail. Sometimes they think that a failed project means that they failed as a person—or failed as a scientist, artist, or entrepreneur. Sometimes, people get their ego tied up in a project and will be embarrassed if it fails. In some cultures and traditions, failure is an embarrassment. If you feel these fears, you need to fight them. The essence of “Silicon Valley” is that failure is called “experience.” Every great pioneer you’ve ever read about has failed. Usually, they’ve failed many times. Apple founder Steve Jobs was fired from his own company before making a triumphant return and making it the world’s most valuable corporation. Bill Gates had a company called Traf-O-Data, which failed before he started Microsoft and became the wealthiest person on earth. According to Gates: “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” A similar idea is often attributed to Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Learning from failure greatly helped all these figures succeed.
  • Find lessons in every experience. You have opportunities to learn by doing even in unexpected activities. Whenever you talk to groups of people, you can learn about public speaking. Whenever you search for information online, you can learn about researching answers efficiently. Whenever you travel to a new place, you can learn about relating to people who’ve had different experiences. Also, make a point of learning from “near misses.” When most people crash their bikes, they learn something about how to ride more safely. But the best learners try to learn just as much from the crashes that almost happened. Consider following writer Julia Galef’s idea of keeping a “surprise journal”14 to record every time your expectations are violated, and try to figure out why. This can help you discover hidden patterns in your own thinking.

For a better idea of how you or your school can apply the learn-by-doing philosophy, look over these organizations that are already implementing it around the world:

  • Before schooling was common, learn-by-doing apprenticeships were the main form of education for young people. They learned skills in valuable trades by working under the supervision of an experienced master. Today, the Global Apprenticeships Network15connects young people with opportunities to learn job skills by applying them.
  • Piper16is a kit that lets young people learn about computer science by building their own computer and programming it themselves.
  • MEL Science17is a company that sends you chemistry experiments to do at home and safely learn science in a hands-on way.
  • Here is a worthwhile report18with a lot of information on entrepreneurship education around the United States, including national programs that encourage learning by doing.
  • Short explainer from the Buck Institute for Education19 illustrating how project-based learning works. This approach lets students combine learning in several different subjects into work on a single project, using a learn-by-doing approach.
  • Helpful overview of project-based learning by educator David Lee.20 Describes the steps of the process, including how teachers can use this approach in the classroom.
  • Clear and helpful diagram21comparing the normal direct instruction that happens in most classrooms to project-based learning.
  • Interesting video22 about a partnership between America’s National Science Foundation and Pace University to help middle school students do marine science research with real-world environmental benefits.
  • Expeditionary Learning,23 a nonprofit affiliated with the Outward Bound movement, helps schools create in-depth learn-by-doing programs. Their focus is projects with practical impact that take kids out of the classroom and get them into their wider community.
  • A closer look at how learn-by-doing can be applied24in elementary schools. Shows kids at Deer Park Elementary in Florida learning about science through a realistic problem: How can campers in the wilderness use light and sound to communicate at a distance?
  • A quick video25 on how learn-by-doing can be applied in high schools, focusing on Sammamish High School’s transition to a problem-based learning curriculum.
  • Information from the Nueva School (kindergarten through 12th grade) on their “Learn by doing, learn by caring” philosophy,26which focuses on hands-on exploration and social responsibility.
  • Deep Springs College,27which applies learning by doing to college-level education. In addition to regular classes, the small student body runs a working farm and ranch where they put their skills into practice.

For more information, please see the following entry in the companion book A Chronicle of Ideas: A Guide for Superheroines (and Superheroes): The Stern Schule.


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