Friday, July 5, 2024

Answer: How to find the best learning resources in a crowded field?

 If you're going to teach yourself something...  

Pyramid of Giza. P/C Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash

... you might as well start at the beginning.  Since Ancient Egyptian history begins around 3150 BCE, that pretty much qualifies as "the beginning."  (Yes, I know there are earlier civs, but it's a nice, big topic with great resources to demonstrate my points today.)    

As I said, suppose, just suppose, someone in your household gets an interest in learning about ancient Egypt.  It won't take you long to learn that there's an entire scholarly discipline on the subject. 

Knowing that brings up an entire world of questions--how can I approach teaching myself a big topic?  

And so... 

1. How would you organize a plan to learn about Ancient Egypt?  What kinds of searches would you do to get to the heart of a big, well-established topic like this?  What kinds of things should one think about when starting on such a project?  

The first thing to think about (and be able to answer)... 

1. What do I want to learn about this topic? 

It's important to know for yourself what you're trying to learn.  Note that it's totally fine to wander around without a goal, but understanding what you want to learn will help determine your steps.

There are several kinds of ways you can answer that question ("what do I want to learn?"). 

Topic area: The hardest thing when you start to teach yourself a topic is knowing what's in it. With a gigantic topic like Ancient Egypt, there are a zillion subtopics in that space.  Advice:  Start with what interested you and expand as you learn more.  But be metacognitively Marie Kondo about your topic choices--"will learning this topic spark joy in my life?"  Remember you can always change your topic areas as you learn more.  (It might turn out that studying Ancient Egyptian sculpture styles no longer excites you as much as you though!)  

Breadth vs. depth: You could be interested in just a quick, broad overview of a topic.  You've only got 2 days before your trip to Cairo--what are top 20 things I need to know?  

Or you could want a deep knowledge of the topic and plan on spending the next year studying Egypt every day.  

In either case, what you want to learn will tell you how to organize your time.  Quick and broad?  Or deep and intensive?  Both are fine approaches (I've taken many an online course for only the first few hours just so I'd have an idea of what the topic covers.)  

Skill vs. knowledge learning:  If you're teaching yourself something that's skill-based (I want to learn to speak Arabic) then your approach would be very different than if you want to understand a body of knowledge (the culture of Ancient Egypt), which is more of a knowledge-base.  

Naturally, some topics have both parts:  Learning physics or chemistry requires you to both learn the knowledge (e.g., what is inertia? what is a covalent bond?) AND learn the skill of doing the math that goes with the knowledge.  You can learn physics without the math, but recognize that it's a very different kind of knowing.  For our purposes here at SRS, teaching yourself a skill (like physics math or speaking German).  Learning something like "play piano" is amazingly difficult from a book--performance / behavior skills are really much better with a tutor.  

2. Organize your learning approach.  

Where do you start?  The topic of "Ancient Egypt" is just massive.  We normally talk about "Ancient Egypt" as running from 3150 BCE to 30 BCE.  There were about 170 Pharaohs (list of all of them) during this time span--that's a lot of history to take in.  

Timeline from Wikipedia article on "Ancient Egypt"

 Think about what you want to learn and organize your self-teaching to match your target.  If you are looking for a broad-brush approach, seek out overviews and tutorials that match your time budget.  If you're looking to learn more about a topic in detail, think about finding sources that go into depth on that.  But first... 

Get an overview to start:  Even if you're going to plumb the depths of a topic, you need to start with a decent overview, if only to learn what the boundaries of your topic really are.  

I usually go to the Wikipedia article as a starting point--they're usually quite good and people spend huge amounts of time arguing about what should (or should not) go into the article.  For instance, the Wiki article on Ancient Egypt is around 13,000 words long (about 29 printed pages), with 216 citations, many with helpful links to get you to the original articles.  

And even if you're going to pursue a topic in depth, there is often a Wikipedia entry about that topic as well.  Examples:  Music in Ancient Egypt; Ships in Ancient Egypt; Clothing in Ancient Egypt.  Of course, you don't need to limit yourself to Wikipedia--there are many other encyclopedic collections online. (For instance, has a great intro to Ancient Egypt that has about 3 times as much detail as Wikipedia.)  

Leverage other people's overviews:  If your topic is likely to be taught in schools, chances are really good that someone (some teacher!) has gone to the trouble of making an outline, course overview, or syllabus that will let you know the lay of the land.  

I know that Egyptology is a thing--many universities still teach it as a subject area.  If I want to search for their syllabi, I'd do one (or all) of these searches: 

     [ Ancient Egypt syllabus ] 

     [ "course overview" Ancient Egypt history ] 

     [ "course summary" Ancient Egypt ] 

You'll find a LOT of syllabi that will each give their particular outline of the topic.  

Make a list of what you want to learn:  Once you know what you want to learn, I highly suggest making a quick list of the things you want to learn. It doesn't need to be anything complicated--it's just a way to help you map out what you want to know at the end of your studies.  (I have a couple of yellow sticky notes that I use to organize my thinking / reading / studying on a topic.  Easy, fast, simple.)  

3. Find high quality resources that match your interests.  

Take everything we've ever talked about in SearchResearch and apply it here.  Your goal in teaching yourself is to be efficient and accurate.  Be constantly aware that there are multiple voices and opinions on everything, even something like Ancient Egypt, where you think things would have been figured out by now.  Not true!  Be sure to look for reputable sources, be sure to triangulate what you learn, etc.  

Remember that there are a LOT of books online: Google Books, Hathi Trust, Internet Archive.  (And of course, your local library!)  

One other resource to consider are the plethora of online courses.  In the case of Ancient Egypt, they're plentiful.  A search like this will find what you seek: 

      [ online course "Ancient Egypt" ] 

There are the usual online course providers (edX, Coursea, Udemy, etc.), but many universities also have online classes (they can be high quality, but usually also charge for the classes).  

In addition, I've found the professional online teaching sites (e.g. The Great Courses, or something like ClassCentral that organizes other online courses) that offer Egypt classes to be quite good.

Finally, don't underestimate the value of in-person classes (there's much that you learn that's NOT in the video or books).  I've taught a lot of in-person classes (probably around 2000 or so) and as you know, I've done a lot of online classes as well (around 20, each with many lessons, with a total student engagement of ~5 million students).  So take it from me--as great as online classes are, the in-person classes are often better.  You can ask questions, and the extra information and contextualization of knowledge is an important part of real teaching.  

Overall, my recommendation is for you to be very metacognitive about what you're doing.  (This means constantly asking yourself "What am I trying to do here?  What's the next step?  How will I know when I'm done? Is this the best approach?")  Learn more about being successfully metacognitive about your own self-teaching here.

Keep Searching!   (And have a great time learning whatever it is you want to learn!)  


  1. I had thoughts, but then I forgot…
    where did I put مصر بلد/Αίγυπτος?
    have to avoid over-thinking the task. Thx, DmR
    Alvin Toffler reference… to go along with metacognition.
    found "slow looking" -
    remember to:

    1. Speaking of Alvin Toffler... I've used a slightly modified version of that quote in my talks for quite a while. See:

    2. bingo![s] … (ate my baby*)
      that's where I saw it - from when you were in Zurich speaking to UMD College of Information Studies
      Search Mastery Speaker Series
      "Free Range Research Scientist (Formerly of Google)
      Thursday, October 19, 2023"
      * "What happened to the dingo that ate my baby lady?
      At a fourth inquest held on 12 June 2012, Coroner Elizabeth Morris delivered her findings that Azaria Chamberlain had been taken and killed by a dingo. After being released, Lindy was paid $1.3 million for false imprisonment and an amended death certificate was issued."

      “A single conversation with a wise man is better than ten years of study.”
      - Chinese proverb
      ― Alvin Toffler
      “If you don't have a strategy, you're part of someone else's strategy. ”
      ― Alvin Toffler
      "Tomorrow's illiterate will not be the man who can't read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn. “ Alvin Toffler himself did not make that statement – it was made by a Herbert Gerjuoy. (The book's notes state that “Gerjuoy's comments are from an interview with the author”.)"
      savants - from a past future?
      "Three mutants, known as precogs, have precognitive abilities they can use to see up to two weeks into the future. The precogs are strapped into machines, nonsensically babbling as a computer listens and converts this gibberish into predictions of the future."

  2. Thanks Dr Russell.

    For me, it's a fantastic Challenge and in my top list. I even think that this "summary" should be in your book: The Joy of Search. Or in future books of yours.

    In-person classes are fantastic. However, I'm grateful that we have online. Taking classes with Masters like you;for many of us,is only possible online because of distance, cost and many more factors. So thanks for doing this for me and for all us that read you now and in the future

  3. Thanks for this challenge question. While I enjoyed the thought process of reflecting on recent areas of my own learning, I was a bit slow to get a response written. With your stated challenge on learning about Ancient Egypt, I went to what worked for me on a previous trip to a region in France that I knew little about. What worked for me was watching a Great Courses class about the history and culture of the region. The professor had taught the course for many years and was organized well to lead the learner (Me) through the history and building on previous knowledge throughout the course.

    What also became apparent is that approach would not work for every learning experience. For example, there is no Great Courses class that I could find to learn about the differences between 55+ Communities, Continuing Care Retirement Communities, Life Plan Communities, Assisted Living, etc. Access to very few books and the field has changed greatly due to COVID. For these subjects, I'm learning most things by speaking with marketing people and visiting places in person. With every visit I learn something more and then need to go back and follow up with previously visited places. It feels very disorganized and time consuming.

  4. Baader Meinhof phenomenon in effect from this challenge. :-)
    I watched this today and thought about the skill vs. knowledge part of the answer above. 4 Principles to Learn Efficiently

  5. Είναι όλα ελληνικά για μένα
    no hablo español, but I was curious…

    1. side question - have U.S. Presidents always consorted with scary clowns?