S2EP2: Exploring the study methods of Ben Franklin.

The Autodidactic Podcast
S2EP2: Exploring the study methods of Ben Franklin.

Hello and welcome to the Autodidactic podcast, season 2 episode 2. I’d like to apologise for the delay in getting this weeks episode out. I ran into some technical issues and also getting a quiet area to do the recording. Hopefully I’ll be able to be more consistent in future.

This week I’m going to start delving into the lives and study methods of autodidactics through the ages and into modern times. I’m going to start with a person who most listeners inside the United States would need no introduction. I haven’t yet worked out the format of these podcasts about autodidactics, but I will generally start with telling you a little about the person, what they accomplished, and what we know of their methods. Then I’ll try to dig a little deeper into the methods they used and relate it to what we can emulate today.

The person I’m going to talk about today is Benjamin Franklin. Ben Franklin was born in what would become the United States on January 17, 1706 and died on April 17, 1790. Franklin was an American autodidactic and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He was a leading writer, printer, political philosopher, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. Franklin became a successful newspaper editor and printer in Philadelphia, the leading city in the colonies, publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette at the age of 23.

Benjamin Franklin became a luminary in everything from politics to physics, and he did this without modern educational techniques such as schools, teachers, or the Internet.

Franklin was a prodigious inventor, but Franklin never patented his inventions. Probably the first advocate of opensource/open knowledge movement he wrote: “… as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”

Franklin studied, electricity, ocean currents, population and demography, wave light theory, meteorology. He was an avid chess player, and with a friend learned Italian. The loser of these matches had to perform some task given by the winner, such as reciting sections of Italian grammar, or 100 animal names at the next meeting.

Ben Franklin’s autobiography can give us many clues about the man and how he used his time and many of his writings are available online to read. I’ll put links to his writings at the end of the transcript on the autodidactic.info website.

Although there is a lot to learn from his writings, I believe that Franklin had two methods we can emulate as autodidactics. The first is known today as “deliberate practice” and the second is measurement or monitoring.

Of all the things Franklin does these two things lend themselves most to self-study and autodidactism.

First let’s look at deliberate practice. What is it?

Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance. What sets deliberate practice apart from other training methods is a rigorous sequence of ongoing performance assessment, tailored goal-setting, and systematic skill-building informed by expert feedback.

Franklin shows us how he used deliberate practice when he taught himself to become an author and better writer. Let me read an excerpt from his autobiography.

About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

—Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

Here Franklin is doing what is known as “deliberate practice” in order to improve his writing. K. Anders Ericsson likens it to how artists practice by trying to imitate some famous work. Mathematicians are taught to attempt to prove most theorems themselves when reading a book or paper — even if they can’t, they’ll have an easier time compressing the proof to its basic insight.

Deliberate practice can be used to learn any skill from music to computer programming.

Let’s use some examples of how you could use deliberate practice for something other than writing as Franklin does.

Many people are self-taught programmers who use a programming textbook to learn a programming language. But if you just read the book and cover to cover you’ll not get the maximum value from it. Instead when you come to a section in a chapter showing a small snippet of code to open a file. Look at the snippet, close the book and actually try to create the program yourself without opening the book. Chances are you’ll fail, however when you open the book back up you’ll be able to compare your work against the snippet. You’ll get some immediate feedback about where you’ve gone wrong.

Otherwise when studying you can use this method by simply reading a page of the book you’re learning from, a recorded lecture, etc. Close the book or pause the video/audio and try to write down everything you’ve just read or listened to. Try not to do a summary, but to remember everything. It would be tedious to reproduce and entire book verbatim but this method would give immediate feedback about knowledge gaps. It might show you that the information you’ve missed tends to always been at the end of paragraphs, so you can modify your behaviour to focus on the end of paragraphs as well.

But deliberate practice is bigger than this. The exerpt I read from Franklin didn’t cover the three primary things you must do for deliberate practice. Mostly because Franklin himself had done the other steps “off camera”.

The three steps are:

  1. Have a specific goal, and break it down – Break down what you want to know or practice into a well defined small amount. For a textbook this might be into chapters for example.
  2. Create a plan – Have a written plan for how you’re going to practice, with times and a schedule. For example, you might decide on a chapter per week, with X number of exercises.
  3. Get a coach (or some form of feedback) – this is probably the most important thing to have. Remember Franklin used the original Spectator articles as feedback to compare against his own writing. You also need some type of feedback mechanism. In the programming example you have the authors version of the file opening snippet.

When you do your plan you need to keep your goal in mind. When you break this down into practice sessions you need to have a goal in mind for each section.

Goals like:

  • Play or sing a certain song at a specific speed with no mistakes three times in a row.
  • Memorise the first 10 digits of pi.
  • Type at 50 words per minute with no errors.
  • Summarise each page of the textbook with no gaps.

If you’re interested in deliberate practice I recommend the book Peak by K. Anders Ericsson

The other area we can emulate from Franklin is tracking or monitoring of progress. Franklin had a little book where he would track his errors each day, monitoring himself to try to improve.

A phrase most managers in most companies will immediately recognises is “You get what you measure.” It’s human nature to shoot for the objectives set, and it is human nature to pay attention to the metrics which are being measured. However, a word of caution here. You need to make sure that you’re measuring the correct thing, or that the instrument you’re using to measure is correct. Just measuring time studying doesn’t indicate amount learned.

Sir Arthur Eddington, an English astrophysicist, told a short story involving a scientist studying fish by pulling them up with nets. After checking all the fish hauled up, the scientist concludes that there is a minimum size of fish in the sea. But the fish seen were determined by the size of the holes in the net, the smaller ones having slipped through, unmeasurable. The instrument you use affects what you see.

So you need to think carefully about what you are trying to learn and try to find a way to measure your ability.

If you are learning from a textbook you might create a simple form to fill out at the end of each chapter with some questions rating from 1-7 where 1 is defiantly not, and 7 is defiantly yes. Some statements might be:

“I understand ALL the concepts in this chapter.”

“I found this chapter easy.”

This type of survey would let you judge how well you learned from this book, and if you should re-read, or find an easier or more difficult resource.

If you were learning a skill such as learning how to remember names you might score yourself 2 points for all names remembered and -1 point for any name forgotten. Then you review your scoreboard each week, plotting it to spot trends. You might discover you typically fail to remember when introduced to a group of people at the same time, but are ok individually. Then you can use deliberate practice to focus on remembering names at group introductions.

If you were learning photography you might have your photos scored based on framing, lighting, focus, filtering, exposure, etc. Then you design practice sessions with deliberate practice on the elements you score low in.

For monitoring you need to:

  • Break down and list your goal into things which can be measured.
  • Eliminate things from the list who’s measurement isn’t essential
  • Be clear on what you need to measure, why you are measuring it, and how you’ll measure it.
  • Schedule periodic reflections on the measures
  • Design repetitive, deliberate practice to overcome measured defects.

Remember you can’t improve what you don’t measure, but measuring the amount of time spend generally isn’t useful. Review what you’re measuring in order to design better practice, and review your measures to ensure you’re still measuring essential matrix.

Well that is all for this week. If you enjoy the show, please give a rating on the platform you’re using to listen, and please share the podcast with friends and family who might be interested. Also let me know if you find these explorations of the methods used by other autodidactics useful, and if there is someone in particular you’d like me to research. As always you can leave feedback on the website autodidactic.info, or send me an email to rick@autodidactic.info.

Thank you very much for listening.

Writings of Ben Franklin

NOTE: I apologize for the transcript not being 100% accurate this week, I had some difficulties getting it out.