My ears perked up when I heard the word metalearning in an interview with the author of The Four Hour Chef, a new book by Tim Ferriss. I was curious how metalearning—roughly defined as learning how to learn—related to a cook book.
I wondered if the author had devised a new speed learning model based on experience that could be applied to instructional design.
As it turns out, the author learns to cook as a way to demonstrate his methods for accelerated learning. He claims his approach can overcome the dreariness of slow learning we often experience when acquiring new knowledge and skills.
This is not an academic tome, but rather an informal, conversational and circular read. If you prefer a linear narrative, you won’t find it here. The author jumps from one experience or anecdote to another, which certainly keeps things lively. Still, I did wonder whether an editor was involved in Amazon’s first foray into book publishing (rather than facilitating self-publishing).
The DiSSS Method for Accelerating Learning
Over the years, Ferriss has constructed a quick-learning methodology, known as DiSSS, that he’s used to learn languages, tango dancing and other pursuits. The acronym comes from his technique: Deconstruction, Selection, Sequencing and Stakes. (The “i” just helps with acronym pronunciation and mnemonics.) Below you’ll see what each learning phase entails.
- Deconstruction is similar to chunking but it goes further. During deconstruction, you identify the minimal units that are required to become competent at a set of knowledge or skills. The author calls these “Lego blocks.”
Some deconstruction approaches that Ferriss finds helpful include: viewing the subject from a variety of perspectives, looking at what successful outliers are doing, probing the minds of experts through interviews, and finding simple commonalities in a domain that can serve as a key to accelerate learning. One important point: when interviewing experts, take in the explicit knowledge, but watch keenly for their implicit expertise (what they can not verbalize).
- Selection is based on the Pareto Principle, which states that for many events, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In terms of metalearning, identify which 20% of learning units will give you 80% of your desired outcomes. It’s a matter of distilling and simplifying to the fewest moving pieces. Selection demonstrates a concept trumpeted throughout the book—the Minimal Effective Dose (MED). This is encapsulated as, “The lowest volume, the lowest frequency, the fewest changes that get us our desired result.”
- Sequencing is the familiar act of organizing content or in this case, the learnable units, into a logical flow.
- Stakes requires you to construct consequences that will enforce sticking with the program. It’s a way to remain committed when the original fire of motivation begins to dwindle.
Second Set of Principles: CaFE
You didn’t think it was that simple, did you? There is a secondary set of principles that are part of this method. Here goes:
- Compression: Find a way to squeeze the minimal learnable units into a one-page study aid or cheat sheet. The author recommends two types: the Prescriptive One-Pager lists rules or principles that help you generate real-world examples. The Practice One-Pager lists real-world examples to practice, which helps you learn the principles indirectly.
- Frequency: Plan a study/practice schedule that provides the frequency needed to gain competency.
- Encoding: Find ways to associate the knowledge and skills with what you already know.
10 Applications to Instructional Design
You’ve probably found that many of the methods in the DiSSS approach are familiar to instructional design. One great difference is that DiSSS is completely learner-centered. The learner has the control, creates his or her personal program, and devises consequences for failure to follow through. For anyone with high motivation, this is an intriguing approach to try.
But what about workplace employees? The ones who take compliance training and other courses that are required for their jobs? If we could accelerate learning for the masses, imagine how appreciative they would be. Here is what I think instructional designers can borrow from this method with good results:
- Find ways to give learners more power
- Include audience members in analysis and design
- Reduce content to its minimal moving parts
- Stop and look at the goals and objectives from a variety of perspectives
- Turn content on its head; start at the end and work your way backwards
- Speak to experts who gained mastery in nontraditional ways
- Observe experts for their implicit knowledge
- Consider which 20% of skills will provide 80% of the desired outcomes
- Distill, distill, distill
- Provide study and performance support in simple one-pagers
The Four Hour Chef reminds readers that there are always setbacks and plateaus during learning, particularly accelerated learning. When people are aware that this is part of the process, it can help them maintain motivation. Do we ever talk to learners about how they learn? We should.
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