Francisco Contreras – Unabashedly Skeptical

"The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks." –Christopher Hitchens

Open Source Learning: A Personal Manifesto

Ever since I graduated high school I have been experimenting to find out how to learn and how to think better. This journey has been extremely rewarding and worthwhile; I have been introduced to theories and people who have inspired me and have discovered the tools that have allowed me to forge my career path relatively effectively.

When I started on this journey in the summer of 2013, my goal was to make up for what I had missed in high-school. My educational mindset back then was very knowledge-based; I believed that the purpose of education was to give students the necessary the canon of knowledge that they would need in order to succeed in the “real world”. Given this mindset, I set out to construct a comprehensive reading list that would provide me with this education. My reading list consisted of about 150 volumes that were divided into the general subjects with which I was familiar during high-school: Literature, History, Mathematics, Physics, and Theology/Philosophy.  Along the way, I also discovered MOOCs  (Massive Open Online Courses) and decided to complement this canon with about 15  MOOCs that seemed the most relevant to my project. I was able to complete this journey, and the results have been  mostly positive.

Some of these results have been:

  • I have been exposed to amazing works of art, scientific theories, and learning resources that I wouldn’t otherwise have known.
  • I have developed a deep, introspective understanding on how I best interact with information.
  • I have learned how to engage with different media.
  • I have gained a new perspective on what it means to be educated and to think clearly. In other words, I have begun to understand how little I actually know.

However,  despite the positive results my initial plan seemed to be delivering, I am very frustrated with the whole endeavor. I look back at my canonical list of books and I am ashamed to admit that a lot of the information and details have effectively vanished from memory. Moreover, despite the breath, depth, and quality of the resources with which I was interacting, I see too few effective skills developed. I see only glimpses of skills being formed in me: I am a slightly better writer, I can do rudimentary computer programming, I can even produce  passable  introductory papers on niche topics like existential philosophy and philosophy of religion. However, despite the effort I have given to the project, I feel more like a clumsy, glitchy, hopelessly incomplete human encyclopedia than an educated person capable of divergent thinking and able to produce creative output.

Which brings me to my current project. This knowledge-based way of education is clearly not giving me the results I want. Using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a reference, my original plan mostly provided me with lower-order cognitive skills (knowledge, comprehension, and some application), while what I was aiming for was higher order cognitive skills (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation). It also failed to develop me emotionally and socially, making the information I had acquired of little use.


What I will now outline is a new plan with improved aims and a radically different framework.  This new plan will no longer follow a rigid, curriculum-based structure with the aim getting me to specific places such as a prestigious college or a better job. Rather, it will be a holistic blueprint with the aim of producing a more self-actualized version of myself.

This plan will have three general aims: 1. Intellectual Development, 2. Social Development  and 3. Emotional Development.  These three aims are based on the principles of Goldstein’s theory of  self-actualization and largely borrow from Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.


1. Intellectual Development

My previous approach to intellectual development had failed in that it tried to do many things incorrectly and accomplished very little. My interaction with the material was very passive and my choice of material was somewhat unstructured, and therefore didn’t produce any meaningful output. This new approach for intellectual development will focus on collaboration, mentorship, and interdisciplinary projects that produce real results. These results will be the components of a learning portfolio which will provide me with evidence of learning and a means for self and peer assessment.   The material with which I will be interacting and the activities I will be doing will be varied and for the most part freely available (I will provide a preliminary list of resources at the end of this document), but they will all focus on tackling three core competencies: Critical Thinking, Creative Thinking, and Effective Communication. These three competencies  are inspired by John Taylor Gatto’s analysis of elite prep schools in the United States,’s summary on the Trivium Method, and Minerva School’s first year Cornerstone Courses.

  1.  Critical Thinking-  Pedagogically, my studies in critical thinking will consist of training in deductive and inductive logic, rational thought, Bayesian statistics, computational thinking, and heuristics and biases.  The material I will mostly be using for this core competency includes but is not limited to LessWrong sequences,  the Overcoming Bias blog, Quora, Code Academy, Coursera MOOCs, and Bayesian statistics textbooks.  This list is by no means exhaustive and is subject to change. Like I have previously said,  I will not focus on the resources themselves but on the skills they will provide which I will then incorporate into real-life projects in my learning portfolio.
  2.  Creative Thinking-   The basis of this core competency will be the generation of ideas (see James Altucher’s guide to becoming an “Idea Machine”).  By integrating the knowledge and skills I will be continuously learning, the goal is to come up with ideas and act upon then so that hopefully some will come to fruition and be part of my learning portfolio.
  3. Effective Communication- John Taylor Gatto continuously stresses the benefit of the active literacies of persuasive writing and public speaking.  In order to exercise these skills, I will keep updating this blog and will ask willing individuals to give me feedback and constructive criticisms. I will also seize every opportunity, whether it be though essay assignments in online courses or posts in academic forums, to write my thoughts and defend my opinions.  To exercise my public speaking skills, I will be actively involved in Toastmaster’s clubs and seek opportunities to verbally share my ideas with other people.


2. Social Development

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” — Jim Rohn

Richard Branson in his book Loosing My Virginity, and Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich say that a big part of achieving success is the people you choose have around you. In order to integrally develop myself socially , I will seek opportunities to interact with people who possess qualities that I want in my life.

The first way I will try to achieve this is through apprenticeship and mentorship. Charles Tips, entrepreneur and Quora writer, has an excellent story of how his son was able to get a million-dollar-quality education through apprenticeship.  Likewise, I will contact people whom I admire with the hope of offering them something of value in exchange for the opportunity to learn from them. My ultimate aim is to build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with like-minded people. I’m going to have to learn how to listen effectively,  communicate meaningfully and build a network of personal and professional contacts that will challenge me.

3. Emotional Development

  • Total Immersion Method for Emotional Independence. It is now very clear to me that in order to be truly independent and self-actualized, I need to place myself in an environment that radically challenges me in every way possible.  Chapter two in Gatto’s book Weapons of Mass Instruction illustrates the principle that I will call  the “total immersion method for emotional independence”. In the book, Gatto tells the stories of various businessmen, artists, and entrepreneurs who say that the pivotal experience that turned them into self-reliant, successful individuals involved going out into completely unknown environments, both physically and intellectually. I have already taken the first step by deciding to move to another city, by myself, and follow my own path.

Population sign on Highway 395 leading into Independence, CA.

  • Physical  and Mental Well-being- Emotional problems have been shown to be causally related to physical discomfort. Therefore, I will encourage physical and mental well-being by continuing capoeira training, taking long walks to foster creative thinking (following the footsteps of Steve Jobs, Goethe and Beethoven) , and by taking advantage of the numerous mental and physical benefits of a good night’s sleep.

Woman looking through binoculars at Pumori in Mount Everest Nati

Concluding Thoughts

I am sure I am not the only person dissatisfied with my educational experience. In fact, there are millions of us. Western education has systematically interfered with our development as intellectually autonomous individuals, and higher education has failed to deliver the critical and creative thinking skills that are going to be vital in this upcoming economic paradigm shift. I have chosen “open source learning” partly out of necessity , but also because I am convinced the we have more than enough resources openly available to us to circumvent this mostly ineffective, archaic educational system. That is a big thing to claim, but  many others (Dale Stephens, Scott H.Young, Jonathan Haber) have succeeded, and  I am completely willing to “put my money where my mouth is”, and be the guinea pig for this experiment.

This new project of mine is going to take a lot time, effort, and resilience. Unlike my previous attempt at an integral education,  this time there is not an obvious predefined goal to be accomplished. Rather, it is a ever-changing process with many goals that aim towards self-actualization. I am going to make many mistakes and I am probably going to fail many times before I succeed, so I need all the support I can get. If you are interested in mentoring me or want offer a word of advise; if you want to talk about any of the things about which I wrote; if you wanna join me and take a similar path; or even if you just want to tell me how naive, stupid and reckless I am for choosing alternative education, please feel free to contact me and I will get back to you.



10 responses to “Open Source Learning: A Personal Manifesto

  1. chakshuRA July 31, 2015 at 10:23 am

    Very pleased to see a fellow traveler on the same journey as well. Very impressed with your approach and plan. I’ll surely follow this blog with apt attention. Here are some of my thoughts based on my own experience.
    – I rarely find information to bring transformation. Application of model/s is my core goal and having applied something in my daily life either in decision making or analysis of an event or problem solving, I write about it in my blog. This has helped me to solidify the concepts. I haven’t been still able to create usable lattice of mental models (as Charlie Munger puts it) as yet.
    – Most lasting learning has come through mentorship and discussing some learned /studied topics with like-minded people like you
    – sometimes I try to keep my posts very very simple and stupid to make it readable for my audience and I question in doing so if I am lowering my own expectations about my writing / expression. Seems like a bad habit but for now I can see some positive in keeping things simple and stupid.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Luis Francisco Contreras July 31, 2015 at 6:22 pm

      Rohit, thank you for your valuable input.

      – I definitely agree with you that the genuine application of models is perhaps the best tool to help solidify concepts. Lately I’ve been giving more thought to the application of models, and I have found that in my experience applying models is much easier than finding the right conditions and the right model to use in a specific situation. What I mean to say is that even though I am aware that most useful models have the capacity to be fertile, I struggle seeing conditions where a specific model could be used in an ingenious way. I have a feeling this will improve with time and practice, but only time with tell.

      -I have only recently begun to see the true importance of mentorship and discussion to learning. I hope to continue discussing great ideas with people like you so that we may grow together!

      -I will keep that in mind! As you can see, I just started documenting my journey and I am still struggling to find my voice and define my audience!

      By the way, I really enjoyed your blog post on the Markov model. Your words gave me a new perspective on the use of Markov models that I didn’t quite get when I first took Scott Page’s course.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. joanconger July 31, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    Fransisco, your efforts make my heart sing! I’ve been pondering the same questions through these many years of getting first, a second masters, and then, a phd, in human development and organizational design — with the following question always to the fore:

    how to create holistic learning that is
    – sufficiently grounded to not be “woo woo” or “mere relativistic opinion,” and
    – sufficiently open to what Maslow called the attainment of “higher realization” to not be straightjacketed by the narrowly “rational.”

    Once I get out of the tentacles of traditional university expectations (my Human Development and Organization Systems dissertation on Whitehead’s Process Philosophy will be turned in this Fall), I want to start creating an un-University that would self-organize around just the kinds of learning paths and community building that you have identified here. I’m so glad to see I’m not alone in spotting this kind of worldwide need.

    I will be following your posts with great interest — and with heartfelt, wondrous support!

    Liked by 1 person

    • joanconger July 31, 2015 at 5:01 pm

      I would love to continue to exchange ideas. You asked about resources / practices concerning emotional development and mediation — the reading list(s) and list(s) of practices that spring to mind are enormously long.

      One project on my short list-of-things-to-do-after-dissertation is to begin to cobble together a web-guide (what we librarians call a pathfinder) with just such recommendations — on a plethora of similar questions. My personal self-development library has far more than 2000 volumes now, kinda scary, but let me see…

      If I were to recommend only one emotional intelligence book it would be “Road Less Traveled” by M. Scott Peck, treating his religion comments with a grain of salt, taking what you need and leaving the rest, because everything else he says is so absolutely true.

      If I were to recommend only one practice, it would be to show up without fail on your cushion — knowing the following — it’s not _how (well)_ you do, but the fact that you _did_ at all that’s important. Laugh!

      I’m glad you followed me on my own learning journey on . I will keep updates going there. I will also, in the near future and if you’re interested, be looking for people like yourself with whom to have in-depth conversations — about your learning process, needs, and aspirations — so that we can begin to come together as a worldwide “nation” of seekers and active participants in “better” (-ing ourselves and -ment of the world).

      Blessings on your journey, my new friend. May our paths converge many more times in the near future!

      Liked by 1 person

      • joanconger July 31, 2015 at 5:04 pm

        oops, “meditation” not “mediation” — although one could ponder any real difference between the two. Chuckle.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Luis Francisco Contreras July 31, 2015 at 6:50 pm

        Joan, Holistic learning and Maslow’s ideas ideas of “self-actualization” and “higher realization” are ideas that have quickly become very special to me and that I hope to achieve them in this project. I look forward to interacting with experienced people such as yourself so that our interactions may fill the enormous gaps of knowledge and wisdom I currently have.

        Thank you for your tips and recommendations. Fortunately, there is a kindle version of the book (yes!!), so I will read it this weekend and get back to you.

        Best of luck in your dissertation. I will be following your blog and your projects very closely. If there is anything I can do to support your un-University project, please count me in!

        I am very glad our paths crossed and I also look forward to interacting with you in the future (especially the in-depth conversation you mentioned).


  3. Charles Tips July 31, 2015 at 6:31 pm

    Hard to imagine how you could’ve put yourself on a better track, Francisco.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Luis Francisco Contreras July 31, 2015 at 8:30 pm

      Like I’ve said before, many of the ideas and principles in the project I have become aware of because of you. Thank you for reading my post, Charles!


  4. Gretchen Alt-Cooper September 1, 2015 at 8:28 am

    Hello Luis – I came across your post while exploring the MIT Ulab FB page – and although I do not have the university education that all the other people commenting on this article obviously have, I just wanted to share my initial reaction to Bloom’s Taxonomy. I felt, from my life experience, that a better diagram would be of a Mobius Strip rather than a 2 dimensional triangle. I find that, once I have reached the stage of evaluating something, the next step is Knowledge and so I go through the process from the start to the finish again – and again – and again – gaining deeper understanding of my Self in the process

    Liked by 1 person

    • Luis Francisco Contreras September 1, 2015 at 4:14 pm

      Hi Gretchen. I’m glad you’re here!

      What a fascinating idea. For quite some time I have said that that Bloom’s Taxonomy has its limitations. Like all visual representations, it is a graphic metaphor to explain a real life phenomenon and it could use some modifications. I use it because though its incomplete, I find it a useful assessment tool. However, I haven’t come across a Mobius Strip diagram. It sounds intriguing, care to elaborate??


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