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Unschooling is Jack-of-all-Trades Learning

Jack-of-all-Trades Learning
By Anna Simmonds

There is no Nobel Prize for knowing a little about a lot. Our culture supports specialists: experts in their one or two fields who build up their work over a lifetime. From a young age, we are pressured to focus our attention and learning onto one subject.

But what if specializing isn’t the best way to go about learning? Learning is so much more than just choosing a career, going to college for four years, and working for decades on that schooling alone. It just doesn’t happen like that. It wouldn’t even if we tried to force it to.

Our brains are meant to handle more than one thing at a time. It’s how we thrive. Why should learning have to be to the level of expertise or nothing?

What is Jack-of-all-Trades Learning?

Jack of all Trades is like the child of the Renaissance man. Whereas Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and other polymaths are by definition experts in more than one field, Jack of all Trades knows a little about a lot. Jack’s not a rocket scientist, acclaimed nurse, and famous fashion designer all at once. Jack (or Jill!) is the everyday person who likes variety.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none.” It’s a fancy way of saying being a generalist is as good as being unskilled. It’s usually an insult, and it’s often used to rationalize why we have to focus our skills and specialize in one field.

When I was fifteen and still in public school, I thought I would have to pick a career, go to college, and be stuck in that field for the rest of my life. I tried everything I could think of, because I wanted to be sure I would pick the right thing. I tried computer programming, floral design, knitting, writing a novel, photography, mathematics, dog training, business communication, gardening, and anything else I found enough time for.

Was it really natural to have so many hobbies and interests, I wondered, or had I just not found my “calling” yet? Off I’d go again to try something new. I drove my parents crazy. My friends got used to my excitement over whatever cool new thing I had discovered. It stopped being about finding a dream career. It was just about the learning and discovery.

Then it clicked. Why not learn about learning?

We Learn With Puzzle Pieces

If you could look into the brain when you’re tackling new problems and learning new things, you’d see it releasing a hormone called dopamine. Dopamine acts as a self-rewarding system for the brain. Your brain is capable of patting itself on the back for its own hard work. How cool is that?

Dopamine is just the everyday reward for learning. The best part of learning new things is that as your brain forms new connections, you’re keeping its neural networks young and refreshed. That means better long-term memory, faster recall, and a brain more richly aware of the world around you.

“Jack-of-all-trades is like the child of the Renaissance man. Whereas Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and other polymaths are by definition experts in more than one field, Jack of all Trades knows a little about a lot...And it turns out that learning about a diverse range of topics comes with its own bonus benefits.”

Our neurons get reinforced as we learn new things because the way we see memories as stagnant, never-changing logs of information is a bit misleading. The brain handles complicated things like memory by calling on different neural connections to build up a memory like a puzzle. The same pieces – like the feel of a fabric’s texture or the weight of your favorite childhood toy – could well be used in more than one memory. The pieces just get put into the correct context. Sometimes the brain messes up a bit, and uses the wrong puzzle piece. Suddenly our memory will have the wrong color car or a different movie on the TV. It’s because our memories aren’t stagnant, but altered every time we remember them as the brain shuffles the puzzle pieces around. Therapy for emotional trauma often takes advantage of that by forcing the brain to put a memory into a different context.

The puzzle piece method of recall happens as we learn things, too. In order to understand new information, the brain uses flashes of our memories to put things into context and give them meaning. As the brain uses those neurons to understand new things, the connections between them become stronger. The connections will echo and light up related neurons, too. So if you’re reading about trees and photosynthesis, your brain might quickly flash with recollection of a plant encyclopedia you had as a child. All of a sudden, that book will be very clear in your mind when you think about it, because the brain’s recollection has been reinforced.

The science behind neurons, memory, and learning is a bit more complicated than that, but knowing the gist of how the brain uses neural pathways to connect our memories and new information means that you can take advantage of it.

Creativity and Problem Solving

Learning feels good and benefits us whether we’re striving for expertise in a single field or if we’re learning how to say “hello” in fifty languages. But learning about a diverse range of topics comes with its own bonus benefits.

As I desperately looked for a dream career, I started noticing a snowball effect. As I moved from one discipline to the other, the Big Picture of everything slowly built up. Most of it was just little things. Understanding composition in photography helped me make prettier cakes. Reading about nutrition helped me choose better foods to combat exercise fatigue. I found myself relating to other cultures with more emotional depth. It wasn’t anything that was going to win me a Nobel Prize, but it was making my life better in little ways.

Learning about different things felt like scattered ripples over a lake that were slowly meeting across the distance. It turns out that’s a pretty good description of what’s actually going on in the brain. The neural network that the brain builds up memories from is what’s called a dendritic tree. Each neuron can connect hundreds of times to its neighbors to create a web of interconnected memories and experiences.

When different parts of your memory are used at the same time, the connections between them and the dendritic tree becomes stronger. Strong connections mean that it’s easier for the brain to jump from one thought to the other. It’s the brain making the most efficient routes between the knowledge you use the most. It’s like stronger ripples that travel faster across the lake.

Our dendritic trees are what help us solve problems quickly and come up with new ideas. The more we learn, the quicker our brains are to jump to new conclusions and to cut-and-paste problems until we can find a solution. Brainstorming for solutions is so effective because it wakes up so much of our dendritic tree and puts more of the brain to work.

Learning to Stay Flexible

The brain benefits especially from learning a diverse range of topics when it’s young. Setting the brain’s neural networks up to be as complicated and well-connected as possible means less degradation over time and a brain more flexible to learn complicated things in the future, such as a new language or entering an entirely new career.

But learning isn’t just for the young, and it benefits us as we get older, too. Retirement often gives us the chance to tackle new hobbies and most of us change our careers more than once. Studies have shown that living a life-long learning lifestyle does minimize the risk of dementia and even the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. By learning and keeping your neurons and the connections between them healthy and diverse, the brain has a higher chance of recovering from trauma and using the remaining healthy tissue as efficiently as possible to keep itself fully functional.

Being well-read is more than just dopamine, problem solving, and keeping the brain healthy. It helps us prepare for change. The world is always changing, and the more you know and are familiar with the easier it is to adapt. There’s nothing more paralyzing than the unknown until you explore enough to realize it doesn’t need to be scary at all.

Knowing about a variety of things can be as simple as keeping a rich variety of hobbies, but it can be important for the future, too. I feel better prepared for the changing job economy. If something I work with becomes obsolete, I have other interests to jump back into.

The next time you come across something that’s new to you, give it a try. It can be as little effort as picking up a new magazine or book. You might be surprised by how much you can connect to.

Feel the dopamine yet?

Learn More

Creating Mind: How the Brain Works by John E. Dowling (W.W. Norton, 2000)

Evolutionaries by Carter Phipps (Harper Perennial, 2012)

Ready for a Changing World by Wendy Priesnitz

Anna Simmonds is a life learner living in the UK with her husband. Until the age of fifteen, she went to public school, when she discovered homeschooling and then life learning. She wrote How Unschoolers Get Over Math in Life Learning Magazine’s May/June 2011 issue.

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