Unbounded learning: how to unshackle your education

While bounded learning is based on a fixed curriculum with specific educational outcomes, unbounded learning embraces the never-ending cycle of personal growth generated by continuous education. It is based on strategies and tools that avoid unnecessary direction and restriction, that foster curiosity, and that reward exploring adjacent questions.

Today’s world offers many opportunities for unbounded learning, including online courses, community-based learning platforms, and new tools for thought to connect ideas across many research domains. However, it may be hard to break away from the traditional education paradigm school has taught us to follow. In order to become lifelong learners, we need to unshackle our self-education.

The benefits of unbounded learning

One of the main benefits of unbounded learning is to cut out the “middleman” of traditional knowledge providers. As Judy Nagy and Chris Bigum write in the Online Journal of Distance Education: “The advent of computing and communication technologies provides knowledge workers and the consumers of their products with alternative means of production and distribution, thereby directly challenging the role of publishers. Publishing on the Internet significantly reduces the time it takes for a consumer to obtain a product. The use of the Internet in this way highlights the role of publishers as essentially the middleman in the knowledge production and dissemination of knowledge products.”

Instead of relying on the guidance of a middleman, unbounded learning encourages students to directly access knowledge they find relevant to their goals, whether it neatly fits within a structured curriculum or not. Want to study the intersection of marketing and psychology, or the impact of online communities on local governance? You can pick and choose the best content from various institutions or independent teachers, and craft your own learning journey.

Another advantage is serendipity: you may never know what doors a specific research path may lead you to. By allowing your education to branch off in virtually any direction, you may discover new areas of knowledge you could not predict when you started your learning journey. Studying finance may draw you to study cognitive biases; learning about history may lead you to explore a niche artistic movement; teaching yourself how to cook may unlock a wealth of cultural knowledge.

It also means that you will not be restricted by the sources or formats of the educational content you consume. Start the day with a podcast, read a book from an expert, take some notes while watching a YouTube video, go through a few lessons of an online course, and discuss your challenges in a learning community. Switching between different learning channels will help explore the concepts from different angles, reinforcing your comprehension in the process.

How to unbound your education

First and foremost, unbounded learning is a mindset: believing that you are the master of your educational journey, that everything you learn is connected, that new patterns of thought can emerge over time, and that learning together is more beneficial than learning on your own. Here are a few practical strategies you can apply to break free from linear, bounded learning:

  • Study the source material. Whenever you read an interesting article or a book, check the references to access the original source of knowledge. Then, check the references of these sources. You can go many levels deeper by exploring sources both horizontally and vertically. You can even paste the source into Connected Papers to generate a map of reference papers to explore further.
  • Mix and match the content to fit your needs. Don’t stick to just one course or one book to study a topic. Try different platforms, formats, and educators and keep the ones that work best for you. You could listen to a podcast from an expert, read a book by another, follow the tweets of a fellow student, and practice with tutorials you found on the web.
  • Use thinking tools for unbounded learning. While some note-taking tools are designed for linear thinking, others offer features that support the emergence of new patterns of thought. For instance, Roam is one such tool, but there are many alternatives you can explore. Look for features such as bi-directional links and a knowledge graph to explore and connect ideas across several domains of study.
  • Learn in public. One of the easiest ways to unbound your education is to learn with others. Whether you have a study buddy or a Twitter account, document your learning journey and ask questions along the way. Learned a new way to code a feature for your app, or a new psychological theory that may be helpful to marketers? Write a short tutorial and publish it online. Struggling with a concept? Post a tweet to see if someone can help clarify. You will discover fresh ways of thinking, and even maybe make some new friends.
  • Practice self-reflection. Make sure to avoid falling into the trap of linear learning, where we mindlessly climb the education ladder without questioning our processes. Metacognition is an essential skill for unbounded learning. It could take the form of journaling or a weekly review, or even regular brainstorming sessions with another self-taught student. Fail like a scientist by learning from your mistakes and by expanding your knowledge with continuous experiments.

Again, the most important aspect of unbounded learning is your mindset. As long as you believe you can design an unbounded learning environment for yourself, and as long as you keep on experimenting, you will have a much richer learning experience than students who just stick to a pre-established curriculum, without ever exploring adjacent knowledge. And, whatever strategies you apply to unshackle your education, remember to have fun!

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