The Learner’s Toolkit

Math. Science. History. English. These are some of the domains we might encounter as students. We learn content in each, most probably isolated from everything else we learn. Multiple schools, researchers, and educators are looking for ways to combine these domains. For example, the Common Core Standards are looking to weave more of the content from English language into the domain of mathematics. Therefore, whatever tools we learn for thinking about and solving problems in one domain are likely to remain locked for problems in that domain. In high school, I made the conscious decision to try to use tools I learned in one domain in all the others. I did not fully understand the ramifications of that decision, but it set me on a lifelong journey that continues to inform much of my learning and teaching.

I have switched fields multiple times and, to me, what I learned while engaging with each field does not exist in vacuum, isolated from everything else. While I certainly gained factual knowledge unique to each field, I primarily developed mindsets and ways of thinking. Looking at what tools I took away from some of the key domains in my life thus far:

  • Art – visualizing complex ideas and leveraging perspective for showing relationships
  • History – recognizing patterns across events and comparing historiography across sources
  • Mathematics – using step-by-step proof for constructing arguments and generalizing specific instances to increasingly more dimensions
  • Materials Science – thinking in terms of variables rather than quantities and translating changes from one scale to another
  • Computer Science – decomposing complex operations into simpler methods and utilizing recursion to fill in the solution space

I have been collecting tools from other areas of life as well, including my physical and spiritual activities as well as my personal and professional life. I attribute a lot of the success in my life to using the tools and mindsets I learn through one domain and applying them in another. In fact, what I have noticed is that each time I apply a tool in a new domain, I come to understand the tool better. I suspect that this understanding comes from multiple examples in multiple domains stripping the tool of its domain-specific features and revealing the deep structure specific to the tool itself.

Using a tool from materials science to unpack a behavior in a romantic relationship or translating an insight from computer science to writing a history essay is what I really enjoy doing. To that end, I began to organize my learning in a completely new way. Rather than separating my learning by content domain and cataloging what tools I am practicing in each, I now organize my learning by tool medium and keeping track of what domains I am applying the tools in. The tool medium refers to which plane of living the tool operates at: physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional. We can still track which domain the tool originates from because that would be the first domain where we applied the tool. After that, what becomes more important than how much we use the tool is where we use it.

The Learner's Toolkit

I know that, for me, this view of my learning has created a very porous structure, where learning in one area of my life freely flows into another. The perspective is very freeing for me and plays to my natural curiosity because every time I face a challenge in any domain, I wonder which tool might be the most fun to apply to the challenge first. Because I separate the tools by their medium, I can also very quickly survey which medium needs more of my attention. I feel that most of our current schooling systems cultivate a variety of mental tools, but leave the others rather sparse.

Just because our schooling systems might impose a framework for teaching, does not mean that we must accept that framework for our learning. This re-organization of my learning toolkit was my attempt to take responsibility for my education and make it work for me.

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