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The Building Blocks of AI Skill Mastery: Learning from Euclid

Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.
Carl von Clausewitz

Research by MIT and Harvard found that only 5.5% of students who enrolled in their massive open online courses (MOOCs) demonstrated significant learning gains after completing the course.


We're not getting online learning right, are we?

Perhaps, the answers lie in the past. Way in the past.

Euclid's approach of basic skill mastery, layered complexity, and plenty of engaging examples could show us the way forward.


The latest AI developments seemingly open up a world of endless possibility, yet few seem sure of what that world might entail. Employees are understandably intrigued, sometimes even threatened, by the specter of an AI-driven business environment. The fascination of uncertainty surrounds us.

At Novela, our mission is to empower businesses to thrive in the AI age. More specifically, we want to equip individuals with the knowledge and skills they need to work more effectively with technology. By so doing, we being clarity where there was uncertainty. See our digital marketing simulations for early examples of our pedagogy in action.

Let's head back to the teeming streets of Alexandria in the 4th century BC, where scholars from across the ancient world meet to discuss ideas.

Euclid laid the groundwork for geometry over two millennia ago with his influential work, "Elements." You might remember it from high school, perhaps even with residual rancor, although Euclid did write the text for the instruction of adults.

His unique pedagogical approach, which emphasizes learning fundamentals and building a strong foundation, has long-lasting implications for various fields of knowledge, including search marketing.

This might just be the secret to thriving in the AI age.

Euclid's Pedagogy: Foundations for Flexible Thinkers

Ok, a discussion of ancient geometry textbooks might not seem the most glamorous topic. Let's jazz it up with an analogy: Euclid's approach to teaching is similar to constructing with LEGO bricks. Each piece connects to another, ultimately forming a cohesive whole.

DALL-E thinks that scene would have played out like this:

He believed in starting with simple, fundamental concepts and gradually building up to more complex ideas.

In each of the 13 books of the "Elements", readers will find:

  • Definitions: These are the fundamental terms or concepts that form the basis of a subject. Definitions are used to establish the basic building blocks of geometry, such as points, lines, and angles.

  • Axioms (or Postulates): Axioms are self-evident truths or principles that are accepted without proof. They serve as the starting points for building more complex ideas through logical reasoning. In geometry, Euclid's axioms include statements like, "a straight line can be drawn between any two points."

  • Common Notions: Common notions are general principles that apply across multiple subjects and are also accepted without proof. They provide a shared understanding that enables logical reasoning within a specific domain. For example, Euclid's common notions include statements like, "things equal to the same thing are equal to one another."

  • Propositions (or Theorems): Propositions are statements that can be proven or derived from the previously established definitions, axioms, and common notions. They represent the more advanced concepts and relationships that emerge through logical reasoning. In "Elements," Euclid presents numerous geometric propositions, such as "the angles in a triangle always add up to 180 degrees."

  • Proofs: Proofs are the logical demonstrations that show how a proposition follows from the established definitions, axioms, and common notions. They provide a rigorous and structured approach to validating new ideas and ensuring the accuracy and consistency of the knowledge being built.

In 1847, Oliver Byrne created a beautiful and mildly obsessive visual version of the "Elements" that brings this approach to teaching to life:

This methodology enables learners to develop a versatile and adaptable mental framework that can be applied to new challenges. By mastering the basics and understanding the interrelation between concepts, learners become agile thinkers who can navigate various situations. Like a LEGO builder, they can synthesize the same set of bricks into an entirely new whole, time and again.

A study conducted by Kieran Egan from Simon Fraser University, titled "The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding," highlights the benefits of a comprehensive, systematic approach to learning, such as Euclid's. Egan explains that this kind of structured learning helps students develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter, making it easier for them to transfer their knowledge and skills to new and unfamiliar situations.

Current approaches to online learning often lack this critical emphasis on foundational principles. Many courses offer a patchwork of information, with little regard for the underlying connections between concepts. I receive frequent requests from students for explanations of key ideas and frameworks that are mentioned in their online course. Often, they resort to Googling definitions to understand the video content.

Applying Euclid's Pedagogy to Search Marketing

Just as Euclid structured his teaching around definitions, axioms, common notions, and propositions, search marketing professionals can benefit from a similar approach. I certainly hope so anyway, because it has taken me ages to put this all together:

We can think of the basic principles of search marketing as the "definitions," such as keywords, user intent, and search engine algorithms.

The "axioms" are the established best practices, like keyword optimization and creating valuable content.

"Common notions" represent the shared understanding of the importance of user experience and the evolving nature of search algorithms.

Next, "propositions" are the unique strategies and tactics that marketers develop based on their understanding of the fundamental concepts and axioms. These are then tested and the findings may serve as "proofs".

By learning search marketing in this manner, professionals can build a strong foundation in the subject matter, enabling them to adapt and innovate in the face of new challenges and opportunities.

The Benefits of Euclid's Pedagogy in Modern Learning

Current approaches to online learning often prioritize superficial understanding, neglecting the importance of mastering fundamentals. Here are just some of the challenges we need to adress:

  1. Lack of structure and organization: A study conducted by the University of California, Irvine found that 40% of students who enrolled in online courses had difficulty understanding the course structure and content organization (Chen, Bastedo, & Howard, 2018).

  2. Insufficient interaction and engagement: Research by the Community College Research Center found that only 5% of the course content in online courses involved interactive learning activities (Jaggars & Xu, 2016).

  3. Limited personalization and adaptability: A study by the University of Central Florida found that 70% of students felt that online courses did not adapt to their learning needs and preferences (Dahlstrom, Brooks, & Bichsel, 2014).

  4. Inadequate feedback and assessment: A report by the Online Learning Consortium found that only 51% of online learners felt they received timely feedback from their instructors (Shea & Bidjerano, 2014).

  5. Inefficient knowledge transfer: Research by MIT and Harvard found that only 5.5% of students who enrolled in their massive open online courses (MOOCs) demonstrated significant learning gains after completing the course (Reich & Ruipérez-Valiente, 2019).

  6. Low retention and completion rates: According to a study by Harvard and MIT, the average completion rate for MOOCs is around 13% (Ho et al., 2015).

  7. Limited emphasis on active learning: A meta-analysis of 225 studies conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that students in online courses that incorporated active learning strategies had better learning outcomes compared to those in traditional lecture-based courses (Freeman et al., 2014).

However, numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of Euclid's pedagogy, which emphasizes a strong foundation and layered complexity.

For example, research has shown that:

  1. Mastery learning, which focuses on building a strong foundation before moving on to more advanced topics, leads to better long-term retention and understanding of the material (Kulik, Kulik, & Bangert-Drowns, 1990).

  2. A focus on fundamentals and problem-solving skills contributes to improved critical thinking and transferability of skills to new contexts (Willingham, 2007).

  3. Learning through progressive complexity helps students develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter and fosters a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006).

  4. Teaching that emphasizes the connections between concepts has been shown to improve learners' ability to apply their knowledge in novel situations (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000).

  5. An approach that emphasizes fundamentals and building on prior knowledge leads to more effective learning and better overall outcomes (Hattie, 2009).

  6. Learning through examples (a key part of Euclid's teaching) helps students to develop problem-solving skills and a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts. (Chi, M. T., Bassok, M., Lewis, M. W., Reimann, P., & Glaser, R. 1989)

In other words, it's time the digital world caught up with Euclid. At times of uncertainty, we require a solid base of foundational knowledge to help us adapt to AI.

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