Monday, January 31, 2011

The path of knowledge

There was a curious thing my study partner said to me last year “I don't seem to be able to study like I used to when I was a teenager”.

I was on study leave myself at the time, and in a way was feeling the same thing.  I was working through a couple of textbooks – and found my process quite painfully slow.

Make no bones about it – self-study is hard.

But faced with a textbook we're all kind of guilty of trying to race to the finish.  Like knowledge is some kind of timed event.

We're also guilty of applying the worst kind of rose-coloured glasses when it comes to our school.  Few of us remember how bored we were in some classes, and how repetitive it was.

Fortunately I worked as a teacher, which gave me a different perspective.  And looking back, I think we learned a lot slower than we'd thing.

Teaching my class, we'd use a textbook as the basis of a lesson – introduce the topic, expand the ideas (sometimes building on another topic from last week), discuss them with students, maybe do a little bit of experimentation, then write them in a book.

All in all we'd perhaps cover the whole book over the period of a year, perhaps covering 2-4 pages an hour.  It's not the breakneck speed you'd think looking back.

And repetition was part of the key – I'd explain about a principle, we'd do an experiment about the principle, then we'd write the principle down.  So we'd go over the same piece of knowledge about 3 times in different ways so it would “stick”.

This is how we learn.  It's not about just reading new ideas, and going with them.  It's about looking at a new idea, examining your old ideas, and trying to build these new ideas on top/integrating with the old ones.

Something so complex mentally we can only take small bites at a time.  It's like watching a child develop.  When my son was born I thought he'd be crawling in weeks – didn't know what babies were like.

There's a chain of learning that goes on, where they develop new skills which expand what they can do.  They start out being about to do very little, just fragile.  But they develop the ability to move their limbs as they want to, they build up stomach muscles to allow them to sit up, they develop the ability to wriggle their legs, which eventually becomes crawling, which then becomes toddling, then they can walk, then they can run.

That's the sequence, and it takes over a year, and you can't “skip” a bit and just get to the walking – each ability is dependant on building the previous ability.  It's a kind of iterative piece of development.

The fascinating thing about babies as well is watching them develop and learn.  They learn as much from error what's not possible as from their successes.  But they're not afraid.  As adults we're terrified of failure to ridiculous levels, even though it offers us to learn from those mistakes and “do better”.

So what am I saying?  When it comes to education, it's a way of life, not a race, don't feel the need to put your "foot on the gas".  Try and learn just "a thing" a day, and build on it.  It's the way of successful learning.

Oh and don't be afraid to ask questions and try out the knowledge.  If you've got it wrong, it's best to kind of thing out your misconceptions early.

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