I Woke Up This Morning

Antifragile Learning

Mar 13, 2015 2 minute read

Black Swan

Recall that in a previous post we talked about some of the lessons in the book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. In a nutshell:

  1. Learning is hard and is supposed to be hard. Or, in other words, if you are enjoying your lecture/slides/youtube video, you are entertained but learning you’re probably not.
  2. Learning benefits from repeatedly testing yourself (actually, that’s a crucial aspect).
  3. Varying your learning material might feel more exhausting (it feels easier to cruise for a whole day through the same material than to study 5 different topics on a day), it is also more effective than blocked learning.

So that’s that. Now let’s see how that fits into the concept of Antifragility, explained at length by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragility: Things that gain from disorder.

A simple definition provided by Taleb in the book is:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

A very simple example of something that is antifragile (gets stronger under stressors) is the concept of muscle growth. It is only under certain stresses (lifting weights, throwing your hands up in the air) that your muscles will get stronger. Not stressing them will result, in the best case, in a status quo, but in the worst case, you will wither away.

A less simple example of antifragility is indeed learning. I’m saying less simple as most teaching/presenting seems to be geared to make it as easy as possible for the audience, an approach no-one would think of taking for muscle growth (“OK Johnny I’ll show you how to lift this weight and then we are done for the day!”). Effective learning is antifragile. The more you vary your learning and the harder you make it (for example, by consistently testing yourself), the more effective your learning efforts will be.