Clawing Up the Learning Curve by Amazon

More than once this summer, I’ve tried to learn something, and more than once, I’ve succeeded.  My secret methodology?

You might think, Google!  You might think, Bing! You might think, Yahoo!

You’d be wrong.

Amazon.com is increasingly my second go-to source of information after Wikipedia.  How did a book store, of all things, become my key source of information-gathering on the world wide web?

See, I am an adherent of the Harmione Granger school of thought.  Her personal motto should be ite ad bibliothecae! Go to the library! Except that there really isn’t a library in the world that is as good as the digital catalog of Amazon.com.  And here’s how it works:  Pick a subject, any subject.  Make it somewhat unusual.  I did. Add the words “for dummies”. I did.  And I found a whole chunk of relevant resources, but most of all, I found the specific “X for dummies” book that I was looking for.

Only, it turns out that dummies don’t buy those books. Really smart people buy the “For Dummies” books.  Because the parallel recommendations are all the top-notch textbooks and major guides by the big-name players in the relevant fields.  People buy the “for dummies” or “The complete idiot’s guide to” book, because they use that as an overview to the main thing they want to study, which is… financial accounting. Or starting a small business. Or jewelry making.  Or any of a dozen or sixty other skills they want to acquire.  BUT, and this is the important bit, they also tend to buy the major books in the field, or at least Amazon.com pretends that they do, because those tend to be big books with big-ticket prices.  Still, those books are by critical authors, and if you really want to get a solid grasp on a given subject, like film making or screenwriting or puppetry or modern dance, you may want to consult these volumes in the process of making your own study of the subject.

So Amazon.com yielded about thirty titles. And looking through the parallel ‘recommended’ lists revealed a range of related subjects that I needed to be thinking about. Not just financial accounting and small business, for example, but whether to start by opening my own business ($100 startup, for example), or whether to buy someone else’s.  Amazon.com helped me to ask questions about personal finance and how to investigate opportunities for a small business loan; but it also helped me understand the difference between opening a manufacturing company and a retail operation and a service operation.   In short, the twenty titles that Amazon.com gave me the option to browse helped me realize what questions I needed to ask about what I was trying to learn, instead of floundering around for a while.   And instead of asking obvious questions, I could leapfrog to more complex questions.

And Amazon helps you ask excellent questions.

It’s important to note:  I wasn’t investigating starting my own business.  And I wasn’t really interested in financial accounting. That wasn’t what I was investigating today. These examples are just metaphors for the larger issue I WAS researching.  But the thing that I researched, if I can get a colleague to really buy into it, could change the way middle school is taught — not just at my school, but just about anywhere.  We can revolutionize how we teach kids to approach learning.

It’s also worth noting — I didn’t buy any books today.  I don’t need to. I’m doing a first pass-through here of research, finding out what I need to know to get a colleague interested, and wrap my head around the whole big topic.  But when I enter the wave here, I’m going to be entering it much higher on the learning curve than I might otherwise do, and I’m going to be bringing my colleague along for the ride.

Herein lies the real power of design:  I used a pre-made component (Amazon.com) to leverage what I already knew, and some key research skills (Amazon.com’s recommended lists), and some simple Google searches of authors’ names, to confirm that I was finding the right materials and asking the right questions.  And I’m just getting started.

When you start learning something new… are you starting at the bottom of the wave, like a tourist on Hampton Beach? Or are you paddling out a ways from shore, so you can ride a big one, almost all the way to the lifeguard’s chair?  Leverage your research skills:  Search Amazon.com as well as the more typical offerings.

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