"Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything" by Kio Stark

AUTHOR: Kio Stark

AUTHOR: Kio Stark

When you realise just how much more you want to learn, your world suddenly opens up to you and you discover that you really don’t have to go back to school to learn new things. There is a plethora of online courses we can take at our own time. Learning in the twenty-first century has become easier than ever before. It is just a matter of how we organise ourselves and our time to fit everything in, and prioritising the most important skills you want to obtain.

To support Chapter 1 “Skills for a Changing World” of the Diplomatic Planner, we would like to recommend the book “Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything” by Kio Stark. This handbook is an excellent guide for independent learning that provides concrete strategies on how to learn on your own. As a graduate school dropout, Stark is a big advocate for independent learning. Unless you want a job that specifically requires a specialised degree, the author advises her clients to not go to expensive schools. Considering the current climate and the rise in tuition fees, many are put off in the pursuit of a Master's degree or a PhD, unless they wanted to enter academia as a profession. However, it is advisable to secure at least a Bachelor’s degree if you want to enter into international relations.

The aspiration of getting a formal education has become a defining characteristic for our generation. We became conditioned by society to believe that without a degree, we will end up in low-paid jobs, flipping burgers or stuck at retail. However, while more and more people have joined the path to a formal education, our degrees have simply become a prerequisite that is ticked off when entering the job market. Having a degree loses its value when everyone else has it too which wasn’t the case during wartime. During that time, college degrees guaranteed higher earnings, easy employability and an annual increase in the value of a degree. Nowadays, having a degree doesn’t provide any of those guarantees. So what can we do to future proof ourselves and ensure that our skills remain sharp and useful in the field?

Firstly, degrees are not the only thing that can help us get a foot in the door. If anything, putting together a work portfolio of your niche and expertise is a more convincing way to portray that you are the perfect candidate. Jobs are found through connections and within communities. Knowing someone who can help you land a job is perhaps more important than a degree. Independent learning is also far more satisfying than traditional schooling. Think about all those times when you were falling asleep in lectures because it didn’t stimulate you. If you aren’t interested in a subject but are forced to learn it anyway, how will you ever retain that information long-term? The likelihood is that you won’t and all those hours you put into attending unnecessary classes will never be returned to you.

Stark acknowledges that we are far more motivated by intrinsic motivations. We are more likely to do things when the reward is the task itself. When we are already excited to learn about something new, the learning process becomes easier because we actually WANT to learn. Learning what you want to learn leads to better and faster achievements as well as a longer period of engagement. However, just because independent learning has a lot to offer, that doesn’t mean that we should abandon school entirely. In fact, independent learning still relies on materials produced for and by schools and universities. How we engage with the learning is where the shift in mind comes to play. You will still need to obtain resources to read from specialists and engage with materials in your field of interest. Substance of what you learn is important and that means reading academic resources and technical materials.

In addition, independent learners shouldn’t hide away and become invisible. Stark encourages learners to connect, interact and share. Quality learning requires the support of not only learning materials, but also other learners. By learning from others, you have the opportunity to share your knowledge and experience, and receive feedback on how you can improve. According to Stark, you learn best when others tell you what they know and in return, you offer your own knowledge that the other learner is interested in. This method is very different from the ‘be silent and absorb’ method used in schools.

To avoid becoming a passive learner, it is important to find your learning style. As an independent learner, you are free to choose your own educational path, but you need to be able to learn in a way that suits you best. First, identify the process and method that helps you learn effectively. For example, as a language learner, you might want to learn systematically or methodologically by following each chapter on grammar. You may prefer a more chaotic approach and pick and choose from various sources and interact with people in no particular order. Learning in a real-life context gives you real life consequences. You will find yourself failing but with failures comes greater motivation and personal rewards.

In cases where you do lack a degree, your soft skills and personality will need to shine. Insistence and a confident attitude can make a difference between a yes or a no for opportunities. Even if you don’t have particular knowledge or skills that your employer wants, be sure of yourself and your potential, and believe that you can successfully master the knowledge and skills required. Much of the exercises in the Diplomatic Planner focuses on just that - giving your the confidence and ability to perform. While confidence is important, you will also need evidence to prove that you know what you are doing. Grab a few recommendations to back you up. This is where your network plays a big role. As you embark on your journey as an independent learner, you should make it a goal to get in touch with others who are interested in the same or related topics as you. There are plenty of groups you can connect with online. A list can be found on the Grassroot Diplomat Online Academy.

You may also want to consider getting in touch with professors or other experts. Write them a simple email with questions that they will find interesting and not just the kind of answers you can find quickly on the internet. For example, we constantly get emails from students that are vague such as: “I want to become a diplomat. How do I do this?” This shows us that they haven’t done their research and provides no explanation as to why this may be of interest to them or our organisation. Such vague emails is also a disservice to the person you are trying to reach. When we get asked questions like this, we are unable to provide a helpful response which may be disappointing to the sender. Also, remember that the experts you are trying to reach are busy so you need to be able to make your query as easy to understand as possible.

As a final caveat drawn out from Stark’s book, remember that the best job is the one which you will learn the most. You don’t have to be an expert on everything and learning on the job is best achieved by adopting the attitude of an apprentice. Be helpful. Ask quality questions. Take risks. Be available to opportunities only if you know you can take them on without burdening yourself with more work.

“Don’t Go Back to School” is recommended for the purposes of the Diplomatic Planner. The Diplomatic Planner is a 12-month career development toolkit for diplomacy and internationals for professionals looking to explore or grow their expertise in the field. Both books are available for purchase via Amazon. For further recommendations, insights, case studies and practicable worksheets, please join the Grassroot Diplomat Online Academy via: www.grassrootdiplomat.org/register