Charity teaching people to learn & form knowledge effectively
Estimated time to read: 11 mins
Update- since posting this, I kept the momentum up by revamping the (still very rough) website & published the first post on effective learning & knowledge formation. If the topics here interest you I’d highly recommend checking it out, and would love any feedback you have!
80,000 Hours is a fantastic for choosing a career path. I’d like to propose a similar website, but containing details on how to learn and work effectively. This could help more regular people (like myself, as opposed to the more academic superstar-types interviewed by 80,000 hours) to improve their chances of making an impact. In addition to acting as a one-stop resource for science-backed learning techniques like spaced-repetition flashcards with in-depth guides, it could also include write-ups of workflows used by people in EA-aligned areas, for example how a researcher at the Rethink Priorities Think Tank goes about their workday, what advice they have etc.
(Calls to action are included at the end of this post)
Brief bit about me
My name’s Alex, I’m a 25 year old data analyst from the UK with a Master’s Degree in Bioengineering. I’ve previously worked with the EA-aligned & funded “Cellular Agriculture UK”. For the past few years I’ve been iterating on a process of learning effectively, and have been thinking about how best to share this with people, as I think it’s enormously powerful. Until recently I was planning on setting up a business (www.teachingyouhowtolearn.com is my current placeholder website), but I’ve recently rediscovered EA and think it could be a good candidate for an EA-aligned charity/ website akin to 80,000 hours.
The idea: an EA-aligned charity teaching effective learning
80,000 Hours is a fantastic resource for helping choose a career.
However, when it comes to the process of learning, either with a first undergraduate degree aligned to an 80,000 approved topic, or retraining after discovering EA later in life, there’s a huge gap with regards to knowing how to learn efficiently and effectively.
We’re never taught how to learn at school, and I used a lot of really inefficient methods at university before stumbling across spaced repetition and the open-source flashcard tool Anki. And at least in my experience, a few years after Undergraduate I’ve retained very little of that learning, both due to poor study habits at the time and a lack of mechanisms for reviewing and strengthening the knowledge over time.
Why this is relevant to EA
Using 80,000 Hours as an example and assuming someone uses it to choose an undergraduate degree, it’s a pretty undisputed fact that the vast majority of insights from university will be forgotten. This is a natural process of learning and the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. Therefore there is a lot of wasted resource.
Teaching students to remember everything they are taught/ they choose to remember is hugely powerful both for future grades (which would potentially correlate with future opportunities & impact) and ensuring a solid knowledge base to build on each year (which would ensure the expensive University knowledge doesn’t degrade with time and can be used in future pursuits, and applied in intersectional/ interdisciplinary ways).
A well-known proponent of Anki is Quantum Physicist Michael Nielsen, who speaks of using Anki to gain a deep understanding of new fields, fully internalising the findings of a particular key paper in a new field, using it to perform many shallow reads of other papers, using it to retain knowledge in the long term in his excellent primer “Augmenting Long-Term Memory”. (He’s also working with Andy Matuschak to develop better tools than books for learning, with their first live example being their “Quantum Country” textbook which uses spaced-repetition & active recall embedded in a medium they’re calling the Mnemonic Medium. Andy is also working on a project called Orbit which is the next iteration of this tool.)
Teaching these methods seems to me to be a powerful way to empower people to help with Effective Altruism causes: any method to increase the ease of switching topics later in life or maximise the gains from University seem very valuable.
What it could look like
I’m envisioning a website outlining how to learn effectively: similar to 80,000 hours, it would have a variety of guides, starting with the essentials like the basic theory of learning, tested and effective techniques like spaced repetition and active recall, an introduction to tools like Anki, and then all the basics you need to get started with tools Anki, including dos and dont’s (which could easily be tool-agnostic).
All of these resources do already exist in various places on the internet but I believe that putting all the essential information in one place would be immensely useful. With the current state of things, I’d argue it would take a moderately engaged user of these tools many months of years to iron out inefficient strategies and develop the most powerful workflows for learning. Bringing all the essentials together in a single free resource would therefore allow people to hit the ground running much more quickly.
In addition to the theory of learning and tools like Anki, other learning workflows and tools could be discussed i.e. how to read a textbook, incremental reading, and also the theory of knowledge i.e. chunking, tools used by PhD students to find relevant papers to read and manage citations etc. Potentially even summaries of effective study methods and ways to avoid procrastination etc.
This charity could work well in conjunction with 80,000 hours: once you’ve chosen a field, how do you then learn it effectively and quickly, retaining as much knowledge as possible, being able to fluently recall information you have learned in day-to-day life/ interdisciplinary ways to use creatively in various ways?
There could also be a forum, with other people learning, where you can discuss learning particular fields, the best textbooks etc (similar to the great LukeProg LessWrong threads where people compile the best textbooks), organising of online knowledge sharing for people in similar fields, guidance for new starters etc. (This is just an aside for now though)
Potential avenue: the site as a “Mnemonic Medium”
One exciting potential avenue could be to incorporate the above mentioned “Mnemonic Medium” principles developed by Andy Matuschak and Michael Nielsen to a) vastly increase reader’s retention of the information and b) clearly demonstrate the power of these techniques. In the introduction to “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Kahneman mentions that one reason his & Tversky’s first paper was so impactful was because they included their cognitive bias-exposing questions in the paper, demonstrating to the readers how they could also be fooled. Thus having these powerful learning systems baked into the site could be particularly persuasive. At the very least, I would be sure to include a bank of ready-made flashcards at the end of each article to allow people to quickly chuck them into their preferred tool (this would be hugely useful for 80,000 hours and the EA Core Ideas series too)
Workflows in EA-aligned jobs
In addition to learning (which is my particular focus), a further topic could also be the discussion of workflows (the phrase I’m using to describe the work habits of people in various EA-aligned careers).
For example, what does the day in the life of a researcher at Rethink Priorities look like, how do they conduct research, what do they do and avoid doing? What about someone at MIRI?
Pair nicely with 80,000 hours: allowing people to read an account from someone in a field as to what they do on a day to day basis, helping them assess their own personal fit
Make self-directed study or work in a space more effective: if a key researcher outlined their research process, some tips, mistakes they’ve made and what they’ve learned in a transparent way, this could be immensely helpful. I currently think the working environment/ workflow of most jobs seems fairly opaque: a good repository of knowledge on this good have a good impact. A transparent outlining of the day-to-day tools or knowledge employed by an MIRI researcher would give clarity to someone who wanted to follow a similar path, allowing them to work on the same skills
This could even expand to a podcast where people discuss how they go about their work, how they collaborate, their tips etc. 80,000 hours type people, discussing in more in-depth interviews what their typical day looks like, what their blockers may be, what software they find essential etc. I.e. whilst 80,000 hours details the research aims, the backgrounds of people etc, this could focus more on what they actually do day-to-day.
Useful resource for any learner → drive traffic to 80,000 Hours, EA etc
A centralised, well-written & curated, free knowledge repository for effective learning could be a benefit to many millions of people around the world. I am of the belief that such a resource does not currently exist. Therefore this could have wide reach, and with prominent links to Effective Altruism, could be an effective way of promoting EA movement around the world to enthusiastic learners.
In my own personal experience, I’ve found that EA, 80,000 hours etc can be disheartening to more average people like myself who didn’t discover a passion early on or have a natural and immense proclivity for maths etc, as it seems fair harder to get involved when you’re not a academic heavyweight.
It makes total sense that 80,000 hours would focus on these superstars and that these people will be having the biggest impact, but I think having an additional resource to help guide more average people like myself to improve their knowledge and workflows could be a powerful way to harness the many people who may follow EA but not feel confident in their ability to join MIRI or Google or etc.
Therefore a place to a) read how to learn new fields effectively and b) read how effective people go about their work could be very powerful for empowering people to upskill and become more superstar-quality.
Also, please let me know if this kind of website already exists and I’ve totally missed it. For me developing these skills over the past few years, whilst the information is definitely out there (i.e. “Learning How To Learn” online course, Ali Abdaal videos on YouTube, articles by Michael Nielsen, Andy Matuschak), I’ve found that the knowledge is sequestered in these different pockets and it takes a slow and iterative process (years in my case, although not years of non-stop concerted effort) to find all the key points and implement them. Hence my proposal to have a single hub website dedicated to learning (and potentially working). Something I don’t think exists right now!
Calls to action:
As in the above paragraph: does this already exist and I’ve totally missed it?
Do you see this as useful/ something you’d like to exist?
Do you have any other comments?
There are already websites like Master How To Learn and SuperMemo Guru, the various guides on spaced repetition systems on the internet (including Andy Matuschak’s prompt-writing guide which is presented in the mnemonic medium), and books like Make It Stick. If I was working on such a project I would try to more clearly lay out what is missing from these existing resources.
My personal feeling is that enough popularization of learning techniques is already taking place (though one exception I can think of is to make SuperMemo-style incremental reading more accessible). So I would be much more interested in having people push the field forward (e.g. What contexts other than book learning can spaced repetition be embedded in? How do we write even better prompts, especially when sharing them with other people? Why are the people obsessed with learning not often visibly more impressive than people who don’t think about how to learn, and what can we do about that?).
I’m open to the idea and I probably haven’t thought about it as much as you, but I’m skeptical about the way you discuss going about it in your post and also that the work of the experts that seem to have inspired you is impactful.
I suspect the techniques you’ve discussed will greatly improve your memory, but I’d guess that it’s often not worth the time to memorize something. Based on my experience working as a software engineer, my attitude has been you can’t learn everything . At least in software engineering, you need to adapt to new languages and frameworks frequently and I’d imagine other relatively new fields are similar. In software engineering (and maybe these other fields) the most (if not the only) important thing to remember is what you need to google.
Additionally, I’d also guess that a lot of the truly most impactful work comes from learning about new domains . This also can’t be learned through memorization. Even googling the right questions often won’t give you a quick answer. Haseeb Qureshi wrote a post about this type of learning, which he calls “unstructured learning” that I think is worth reading https://haseebq.com/the-hard-thing-about-learning-hard-things/
I’m aware that you said you mentioned you’re not targeting superstars, but as far as I know there’s no reason superstars would learn differently than anyone else. I’d also guess anyone can get a lot more out of themselves if they do their best.
I’d also guess that it would be hard to make your idea be much more than an incremental improvement over the Learning How To Learn course. I admittedly haven’t taken that course so take that with a big grain of salt.
Maybe it could be worthwhile to try to create a course or program that focuses on teaching unstructured learning. I don’t know how you’d go about it and I think there’s a high chance the course would be crap, but maybe its worth the risk?
Cheers for the reply! Some thoughts from your comment:
Target audience/ sectors where this would be most useful
I definitely agree that in general what I have in mind is academia/research-type fields as the sectors where this system would be especially useful, particularly in committing to memory new ideas from fields, research papers etc. Whilst I’ve had some success using flashcards to learn Python and some other comp sci-adjacent things, it’s definitely the case that in programming your learn primarily by doing. I think the flashcards still help a great deal in i.e. ensuring I remember the essentials of a particular Python library despite not having used it for a long time, but I’d definitely agree overall that it’s less useful in programming. I’ve also ran into the bad habit of making coding flashcards on things I a) haven’t fully understood or b) haven’t really needed, which has wasted time—these are some of the things to avoid that I’d definitely make sure to cover.
Unstructured learning is a new concept to me so I’m excited to check it out! This sounds like it could be something I’ve totally missed from my workflow that could introduce some really big gains.
Re: not targetting superstars, I was more saying that I’ve found myself struggling with motivation when I consider the career path & potentially early opportunities or many of the most well-known EAs / 80,000 hours interviewees, and I think this has the utility of empowering more people who come to EA and being productive late (for example I squandered a large part of my teenage years playing video games) to make up for lost time. Superstar academics could also benefit from the techniques, but they’d be (naturally) less likely to need them due to their potentially early start in academia (I’m thinking of a Yudkowsky here) & incredible IQs.
Competing with/ differentiating from Learning How To Learn
Re: “Learning How To Learn”—I love that course but found it mainly focused on theory rather than a detailed step-by-step guide on what tools to use, use patterns and antipatterns etc. My aim here would be to collect everything useful in one place (whilst keeping it concise), whereas I think LHTL lays a great foundation but a) is relatively long (being a video course) and incomplete.
Utility of memorisation
A final point of the utility of memorisation: I’ve found that it’s not simply about memorising the correct answers to things, it’s about increasing the speed at which you can recall potentially relevant information (referred to as “fluency” in the literature), allowing you to think of potential solutions faster, or use some cross-disciplinary data etc. In the case of coding, this means reducing Googling-time, which may be a marginal gain as Googling doesn’t take long, but I found made coding more enjoyable. But this idea of fluency has far more profound implications in research, where absorbing and internalising information from textbooks and seminal papers allows you to draw more elaborate connections between ideas and fields, and engage more deeply with further research, including developing original research questions (a lot of this I’m getting from the Michael Nielsen piece linked in my post rather than my own experience but something I 100% stand behind). A big focus for me in this website would be getting across the diverse & powerful utility & profundity of memorisation i.e. disabusing people of the notion that it’s simply about rote learning, something Nielsen does really well.
A few relevant quotes from his piece here:
”With a few days work I’d gone from knowing nothing about deep reinforcement learning to a durable understanding of a key paper in the field, a paper that made use of many techniques that were used across the entire field “
”for creative work and for problem-solving there is something special about having an internalized understanding. It enables speed in associative thought, an ability to rapidly try out many combinations of ideas, and to intuit patterns, in ways not possible if you need to keep laboriously looking up information”
I think helping people be better at learning and working can be very impactful, but instead of a charity, why not make it a business? Corporations would definitely pay for this if it’s high quality. You could then do pro bono work for charities.
There are strong theoretical reasons against corporations investing optimal amounts in job-general training, fwiw.
I have considered this and set up a basic website with the idea of starting with free Zoom 1:1s (to iterate and learn), the moving to paid (for a low cost) 1:1s, then cohort, then one day corporations etc. My main dissuaders right now are startup cost, early investments, how to actually run a business etc. Definitely something I’m considering though!
Definitely want to do some research into the potential impact of a corporation vs non-profit as mentioned in Linch’s comment. I got briefly excited that “Charity Entrepreneurship” could provide a grant but they have specific problem areas—will look into other funding means for it as a non-profit venture...
I think most people who aren’t able to successfully run a business would also struggle to successfully run a charity—there’s a lot of overlapping skills required. If I were considering donating I would want to feel confident the founding team had the relevant skills and experience!
I want to second that there aren’t many people who I’d be excited to start a charity who can’t also start a business.
ETA: But they do exist, and EA should arguably encourage more people like them!