Learning to learn: How to cultivate the most important life skill

As usual on the first day of class, I left school with a stack of assignments to complete over the weekend. One class in particular, however, left me to learn an entire program on my own before the assignments it utilized came due within the first three weeks of the quarter.

The professor explained that, in order to be successful, we would need to be adept at keeping up with the changing technologies that dominate most careers, and therefore be able to teach ourselves large amounts of information fairly quickly.

This brought to mind a line I heard quite frequently in high school: in a fast-moving world, with constantly changing technologies, when you go to college you will be preparing to enter jobs that do not yet actually exist.

This of course does not mean that college and degrees are not an integral part of gaining a career. However, the most important skill we can pick up during our college years is learning how to learn: by taking responsibility for your education, not depending on someone else entirely to further your knowledge, and understanding the difference between actual learning and just doing work for a grade.

For advice on cultivating this particular skill, I turned to Jennifer Dewalt, an aspiring artist whose project I had recently discovered online. After exploring art as a way in which people represent themselves, she found that it was no longer about drawing and sculpture , but the Internet. She decided to to move from physical mediums to web programming.  With no prior web experience and no classes or seminars, she set about building 180 websites in as many days, posting each online for people to see.

“Doing a self directed learning project has been really great for me. I think the best way to learn is to solve problems you actually have,” Dewalt explained.

Using books and online resources,she applies newly learned skills in programming to the problems she encounters as she works, giving her the opportunity to learn at her own pace, and dive into new concepts as they come up in her actual work,as opposed to in a curriculum.

With languages such as JavaScript and Ruby, she builds websites and apps such as “All Draw” which allows users to draw on a canvas that maintains whatever is created for all future users as well.

Although the absence of any formal instruction makes finding answers to difficult problems much more of a challenge, she has found that the key to avoiding frustration is to keep moving forward, not getting bogged down by her mistakes.

“Start small,” she advises those looking to teach themselves complex subjects, “and don’t worry if you don’t understand everything.”

Dewalt has finished her project, and her apps can be viewed on her website jenniferdewalt.com. She aims to continue building, hopefully working with others, while continuing to learn new things.

Though challenging and sometimes frustrating, self-teaching removes limitations of degrees and majors, as important as they are, and allows for people to do anything they may find interesting.