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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

#rawthought: The Beauty of Backwards Learning

Have you ever thought yourself to be a fraud in some respect? Have you questioned your so-called “expertise” in your field or even wondered, as so poetically expressed by eighties new waver-in-existentialist-disguise David Byrne,

How did I get here?

Whilst I am relatively confident in my own skills, experience, and talent, I’m certainly not immune to self-doubt. It occurred to me this morning that, while I love learning for learning’s sake, and continually seek out opportunities for new knowledge in a sort of intrinsically motivated way,

I mostly learn “backwards”.


Steve Jobs supposedly owed all to intuition meeting action, then sense-making after the fact:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.

So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.

You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”


I think he was drawing from Kierkegaard:

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

As I look back on the things I’ve become adept at, such as edtech, social media, personal branding (for eternal want of a better phrase), European and Art History, emerging literacies, creativity as a discipline, visual thinking, …even certain apps (!), I’ve come to realise that I got good because I needed to…that

Urgency (or Emergency) leads to Agency


We often think of learning as carefully plotted out…something that unfolds in a logical trajectory based on preconceived plans (after all, “curriculum” stems from “running” a “course”). A “course” is usually set, but I like to think of myself as a flâneur of sorts…someone who saunters or strolls around from inspiration to inspiration. Maybe it’s like being a

mind butterfly –

flitting hither and thither from one learning experience to another.


My favourite expression describing this is the


Translated from the French as “drift“, philosopher Guy Debord describes a dérive as an unplanned journey through a (usually) urban landscape, where participants “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”. 


I think learning is a lot like this (or should be), but that does not mean it needs to lack focus – the focus is merely sporadic and more  like a glittering constellation rather than an overpowering sun.


Think of a bird alighting on flower to flower – she still has a decided purpose, but by no means is stuck in one garden or on one type of blossom. Compare your drive to work (you probably take the same route daily) to the meandering you do while exploring a new town. In the latter instance, you might indeed be trying to locate that special souvenir in the local shops, or pin down the best regional cuisine – you have a target goal, but are willing to get there in a circuitous fashion.

So is this Circular Learning?


Perhaps, but my point about backwards learning is that instead of knowing ahead of time what you need to learn, you

learn to keep ahead of time

That is, you are thrust in a situation which requires you to gain some expertise on the spot…or else!


It was only when I had to teach certain classes (my oddest one was a “keyboarding” class in the nineties; my tricksiest was Latin for 5th graders!), that I buckled down to get an edge on the subject matter.

It was only when I took a hiatus from teaching and worked selling designer jewelry that I immersed myself in gemology.

It was only when I saw people tweeting about my YouTube project that I learned how to navigate, then leverage social media platforms.

It was only when I was put in charge of the school Yearbook that I took up graphic design, photography and publishing software in a serious way.

I could go on and on but the point is I wonder if we are often too dismissive of this type of learning. I recall being asked what I wanted to study in college and “be when I grow up” as early as age 5. Since then I’ve gone through about 1001 different options – everything from spy to museum curator to elevator voiceover artist. Perhaps this is true for most people, so why are we so quick to hop on a contrived track?


Learning shouldn’t be the safe route, it should be the back alley trek.

So…trek >track?

took  this whilst wandering through Carmel, California

This is not dissimilar to something in one of my previous posts regarding how our tools can inform our tinkering. Most of us think about the problem or need, then determine which tool is appropriate for that job. In education, this is the reiteration that pedagogy and the learning need  is paramount to tool use (very popular when discussing ed-tech). I make the argument that

artists often use the tool as a springboard – a sort of creative constraint.

The “necessity”, then, is the tool itself rather than a task. One might think, “here is this thing for me to play around with and see what I can make or do”…”could I possibly change the original intention of this tool? What can I mash it up with to create something unexpected?”

Why don’t we approach learning like an artist? Be comfortable in the unknown…the possibilities? Gain expertise upon demand, spontaneously, and not shy from the dérive? Go with the gut, so that we can grow our dots to connect at a later point?

Most importantly, when our own talking head asks, “how did I get here?”, remember that straight paths are not the only way to knowledge and /or success…that perhaps the best things happen by way of the backroads.


#flaneur #education #artist #knowledge #rawthought #amyburvall #learning #derive

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