Recently I am doing an experiment on myself. I am experimenting to see how much of science I can learn online without going to any school or educational institution. I am not completely done with the experiment. But I think I can share some now, and it is good to wait and see if this experiment will succeed or fail.
In the past, in my work for alternative learning, I have always advocated the point of view that not everyone is to become a scientist. Actually most people are not going to be a scientist after they grow up, or involved in scientific work.
In China, where I grew up, certainly the school is set up to train future scientists. I remember when I was a kid, if you asked most kids what they wanted to become of after they grew up, most of the answers you would get is “scientist”. After all, it is an era that the country needed a lot of scientists and more importantly engineers as the country was opening up its economy and joining the global economy.
In US, I guess there was a change in the 60s that schools were more oriented towards training scientists and engineers during its competition with Russia. More emphasis was put on science and engineering. And people in US lamented the insufficiency of US education in these two areas. That lament is still here today.
However, even in China, most people don’t do scientific jobs. So it is bizarre that the whole education system is to train everyone to be a scientist.
As a previous Biomedical Engineering student, I have spent 7 years in that major of study, including getting a master degree from a US graduate school. That major of study includes quite diverse courses: many different subjects on chemistry, biology, life science, electronics, auto control, mechanics, material, computer hardware, instrument, information processing, software, and a lot of maths. Pretty anything you can think of that can be applied to human body is a field of study for us. So our study pretty much covers all engineering disciplines, except civil engineering.
However, I have forgotten almost all of what was taught in school. As a programmer, I don’t need any of these knowledge. So after more than 10 years of not using it, they are all gone. So why did I spend 7 years of my life and very hard working on them? Should they be forgotten so completely? Well, I still remember a lot of life science stuff since it is related to something in my everyday life: my health. So I have kept using it and reviewing it whenever I or people around me have any medical conditions.
I worked all these years as a software programmer. Most people view software programming as a science/engineering major. However, in my over 10 years of career as a programmer, I never used all those engineering knowledge I have learned during those 7 years. Instead over and over again, I have to practice and gain more insight into how to design things, how to tell good stories when writing software, how to understand nature of various fields, such as finance, media, translation, crowd sourcing, social network, ecommerce, O2O, learning/education, and so on. So really, what is software? Sorry for this little digression here. Let’s come back to our main topic.
Since childhood, I am not a person with a strong interest in science. My old brother is. He bought a lot of science books, and he is very interested in astronomy. I never bought a science book. I only bought liberal arts books. But I did read all the science books my old brother bought, after reading all my liberal arts books and his Chinese textbooks (my brother is many years older than me). My study of science subjects such as math and physics at school is however always quite good. I guess I was just able to take the pains to do it.
However, recently I started to have strong interest in science. Maybe it is because I feel I have studied enough of liberal arts. Liberal arts, after all, is what we have to face as a human being living in a human society. We have to think of how to live our lives and how to take responsibilities for our actions. (Schools don’t teach much of that, do they? I learned most of my liberal arts knowledge outside of school.) So I always feel a very urgent need for liberal arts study. But now I see science study as part of liberal arts study, and my life up to now has accumulated enough experiences for me to generate strong interest in diving deeper into science. It is sort of the next big thing for me to learn.
I also want to prove that even if you are interested in learning science, school is not the best place for that learning and you can learn much better outside of school than in school. After all, I have forgotten quite completely what I learned about science/engineering at school. If you don’t speak a language for 10 years, you will forget many words of it. Not to mention science/engineering.
While I was learning those subjects at school back then, I knew the way school taught it was never going to make it stay with people long after the course was over, because it was not connected to people’s everyday lives, and not connected to other subjects.
I feel knowledge, in a way, can be divided into 2C knowledge and 2B knowledge. For people unfamiliar with these two terms, 2C means to customer, so websites like amazon are 2C because it faces individual customers. The counter of the bank is 2C, since it deals with individual customer. Transaction among banks is 2B, and most individuals are not familiar with these 2B stuff unless you work in that field. If you have a startup, you need to think clearly if your business model is mainly 2B or 2C. It is quite different.
The school only teaches 2B knowledge. They don’t relate it to your everyday life experiences. And those 2B knowledge are segregated into different disciplines. So if you don’t work in a field, you forget what you have learned quite quickly.
However, knowledge is connected. By focusing on 2C knowledge, we have the hope of encountering that knowledge over and over again in our daily lives and have it connected to many other seemly different disciplines of knowledge. Thus it can always be a good foundation for us. We will never forget it. We will keep perfecting our understanding of it as we gain more experiences.
So this is my strategy for teaching myself science online: finding those 2C knowledge and focusing on it.
I have found a lot of such knowledge on mainly two platform: one is a lot of great documentaries (from BBC, National Geography, Discovery and so on), the other is Zhihu (Chinese version of quora).
I feel the documentaries of recent years seem to be of very high quality. Maybe it is because of latest technologies. It is great to see those 3D computer animations showing how a cell is fighting against invading virus. When we were studying Life Science, quite often you had to spend a lot of time trying to guess what an organelle looks like based on the text description. The colorful images in the textbook helps, to a degree. However, having these 3D computer animations is always what I dream of. It has become extremely easy to learn of biology and save me a lot of time trying to just guess what something looks like. There are also videos taken of plants over a period of days or weeks, to show you how the plants are also full of choices and active behaviors, just like the animals. A lot of wild life documentaries about creatures in the polar areas, in south pacifics and so on. A lot of concepts in modern physics are explained like stories with very beautiful computer 3D animations.
Documentaries are usually made to cover topics that people are generally very interested of in their daily lives. And things made into documentaries normally won’t be very difficult to understand. If you come across something that is beyond your mind, you can just skip it for the time.
Although Zhihu is kind of a copycat of quora, it differs in the Chinese setting in that a lot of experts are flocking on it spending hours and hours trying to just write an answer. I know quora attracted a lot of experts as well. But normally I don’t see very long answers on quora. On zhihu, however, there are people who tend to write very long and complete article to just answer one question. They try to write in a way that even average Joes can understand. In America, content is usually scattered across many different websites. So it usually takes a little bit of googling to pull all things together. But in China, since content is tightly controlled, it is hard to find good content. From time to time, people will concentrate on one site. So Zhihu currently has attracted a lot of such people. It saves me time definitely so I don’t have to do searching for a long time. And since they usually write an article to introduce the whole knowledge of the topic, with a lot of great pictures, it is very easy to pick up knowledge quickly. And as in quora, questions there are usually related to everyone’s daily life. So you can expect that topics like earth origins, geology, human origins, history of human civilizations, modern physics, astronomy, and etc. become the hot spots. Even subjects like math have a lot of 2C knowledge covered that is related to everyday life.
I feel all these topics become so popular mainly because traveling has become more and more popular in China. Even overseas traveling is not very uncommon. So as people travel, it opened their eyes to new horizons and their interests grow in many things. When I first went to US for my graduate school study in the year of 2000, I was a little surprised to see that Americans love documentaries so much and they liked watching Discovery Channel and National Geography. Now I think I can understand a lot more of that. Americans at that time were already traveling around the world. So they have a lot of interests in many things. For example, when you see human origin exhibition in the museum, you start to have interest in human origins and want to know more about it. Seeing different landscapes around the world makes you wanting to know the geology that shapes those different landscapes. I don’t think I need to give more examples. You Americans should be full of experiences in this. (Actually I feel this is the strength of American education, relatively speaking. And it is one reason why America is full of innovations. I don’t think Americans should be so worried about their science education.) So I am lucky that there is this flourish of knowledge on Chinese websites. Otherwise, I will have to rely on English sites for my science study.
So just by using documentaries and Zhihu, I am able to study endlessly online. All knowledge is connected together. I can jump from one field to another field constantly, and always feel a lot of fun. I don’t need to stop, since I find it takes really little time assimilating vast amount of knowledge in different fields.
Other tools I used along with Documentaries and Zhihu, are wikipedia, and google map/earth.
Since this is about science study, I will not talk about my study of liberal arts fields such as history, architecture, and so on, although these liberal arts fields actually interconnect with science fields quite a lot. For example, when studying human origin, you need knowledge of gene and DNA. When studying earth origin, you need knowledge of chemistry.
For the study of Life Science or Biology, although I haven’t finished my study, I have confidence that my knowledge in this field can finally be solid and connected to many everyday things. I always prided myself for having the background of Life Science study. I felt it helped me gaining quite deeper understanding in many things. However, the recent study online let me feel that pride or advantage may go away very quickly.
For modern physics, I feel it is not quite difficult to study those 2C knowledge, and you can probably get into a deep level. The challenge is to deduce it in math.
I am still on my way of science learning. However, I want to state a few things here. We can see if they can be proved.
1. 2C knowledge is vast enough to cover 2B knowledge in different disciplines. In US, there are websites that focus on life long learning, or as some people call it, hobbies. For example, the now defunct TeachStreet.com. The failure for sites like TeachStreet.com is often attributed to that its content is not mainstream learning and thus cannot compete with mainstream school learning. However, I feel it is only because it is not done right. 2C knowledge is very vast like oceans. For an analogy, 2B knowledge is kind of like the Hawaii islands that stick above the water. What is underneath it is water flowing all round connecting those islands. 2C knowledge is the mainstream! But people at TeachStreet probably didn’t realize this themselves.
2. Knowledge is unlimited, how to filter it in your life is the key to learning. If you want to study any field of knowledge, it might take your whole life. However, 2C knowledge serves as a kind of filter to absorb that great body of knowledge. One of my friends likes to talk about filtering a lot when he talks about how to deal with vast amount of information. You have to pick what makes sense to you now, what interests you, and what can quickly improve your understanding of things around you to a greater degree. People travel around to see the world, to get in touch with the world, and that generates interests in various things. So your real life is a sort of filter mechanism for you to effectively absorb knowledge. Knowledge is organic (just like synapses in your nervous system that form a network, the important thing is the connections among them), and thus it has to be learned in organic ways. Pushing knowledge down the throat is never going to be effective. Also you don’t have to push yourself hard by reading books endlessly. A lot of books are not that good, and book reading is quite time consuming. When you get exposed to something and suddenly have some understanding, you can start learning that. When you find a great resource of knowledge, you can spend a big block of time focusing on it. Otherwise, just take it easy. To learn organically means learning should never be separate from your real life or from playing. Your real life and playing are how you establish personal connections with knowledge, and they serve as very important mechanism for filtering knowledge, just like how travelling does it for you.
3. In the future, if schools still exist, I think it will base its teaching on the 2C knowledge. Modern schools, with its 150 years of history, have been designed to strip away 2C knowledge from people and put knowledge into segregated 2B knowledge majors. The purpose is to deprive people from gaining social capacity and become workers working along the assembly line becoming part of the machine. However, that time has been long gone.
4. Mastery performance in science comes from the foundation in the 2C knowledge. When we look at those great physicists in history, most of them are very versed in a large variety of subjects. I remember when reading Albert Einstein’s biographical book in college, I found that when he was young he was frequently meeting with a group of people discussing a wide range of topics such as geology, mechanics and so on. His work at a Swiss Patent Office probably allowed him exposed to a vast variety of subjects and innovations. So I guess that is why he is able to come up with the theory of relativity, and is able to say that “Imagination is more important than knowledge!” To my understanding, it is because of the free flow and combination of 2C knowledge that gives him the great imagination. I feel after we restore 2C knowledge for the learning, we will again generate many great scientists like Einstein. Einstein himself said that he was almost killed by schooling. Maybe we have already killed many Einsteins by modern schooling.
5. The revolutionary change that internet will bring to learning/education will be the flourishing 2C knowledge and better filtering mechanism for assimilating knowledge. The Internet, which connects everything, essentially give the mass the tool to express their interests and their concerns. That is why you see the 2C knowledge sprouting up here and there on the Internet, enriching people’s life again. We shall see more and more of the 2C knowledge produced and good mechanism coming up helping people finding knowledge that relate to them now. I feel it is in these roles that online learning should be focusing on.
This Presidential election in US has generated a lot of turmoil in US and around the globe. However, I see it only as a crisis that has been going on for at least over a decade. The crisis is just getting bigger and bigger. When you have a far outdated education system that was produced 150 years ago in the industrial time, and have a far more complicated and advanced modern society, surely you will have a crisis since the people coming out of that education system can not deal with the kind of responsibility and knowledge that is required by the modern society. Although US has a lot of independent thinkers, population wise it is still of a very small percentage. When I saw that over 70% of people voted for going to war with Iraq, I knew that even in America independent thinkers were only a small percentage.
Early this year, I did a traveling across US. I saw some old good friends. At one friend’s place, I found him reading Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man”. I read part of the book while there. It was such a great experience. The book speaks to everything happening in America today. I realized that what America needs now is another era of enlightenment. In my understanding, Common Sense, as Thomas Paine called out aloud to American people then, is the 2C knowledge!
So in this new year of 2017, I wish you learn more of 2C knowledge this year!
Happy New Year!