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Old 04-03-2006, 02:51 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Location: Washington, D.C.
The Art of Learning

In the short years I have been on this earth, I have been lucky enough to encounter a number of great teachers, both in school and out. These people were great teachers for various reasons, but they all shared one common thread. They taught more than their assigned subject - they taught me how to learn. I have a lot of favorite proverbs and sayings, but only one has been in my life for as long as I can remember:

If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.

Recently, I came across this essay in a friend's blog.


The psychology of learning

I have often observed that students are very inefficient in their work. They frequently use methods of working that are unproductive and slow. Some examples:

*Students do not know how to touch-type. Instead of taking the relatively limited time to learn to do it, they waste many hours per week on slow typing and typing errors.

*Students frequently do not know how to use advanced features in the text editor such as the interface to the version-control system, the interface to the Lisp system, etc. Again instead of taking a short time to learn, they waste much more time.

*Students do not know how to use a debugger. Instead, they waste time debugging programs with trace output.


As it turns out, this practice is not restricted to students, but is also common in the software industry.

But why do people deliberately waste time when there are much more efficient ways of working? This is a very good question. In fact, it is such a good question that I decided to ask a well-known professor of psychology at one of the top universities on the east coast of the USA. What she told me was no doubt a simplification so that a layman like myself could understand it. Despite such simplifications, her explanation both gave me a much better understanding of the phenomenon and some ideas about how compensate for it.

She told me that (with respect to this phenomenon) people can be roughly divided into two categories that she called perfection-oriented and performance-oriented.

The people in the category perfection-oriented have a natural intellectual curiosity. They are constantly searching for better ways of doing things, new methods, new tools. They search for perfection, but they take pleasure in the search itself, knowing perfectly well that perfection can not be accomplished. To the people in this category, failure is a normal part of the strive for perfection. In fact, failure gives a deeper understanding of why a particular path was unsuccessful, making it possible to avoid similar paths in the future.

The people in the category performance-oriented on the contrary, do not at all strive for perfection. Instead they have a need to achieve performance immediately. Such performance leaves no time for intellectual curiosity. Instead, techniques already known to them must be applied to solve problems. To these people, failure is a disaster whose sole feature is to harm instant performance. Similarly, learning represents the possibility of failure and must thus be avoided if possible. To the people in this category, knowledge in other people also represents a threat. As long as everybody around them use tools, techniques, and methods that they themselves know, they can count on outperforming these other people. But when the people around them start learning different, perhaps better, ways, they must defend themselves. Other people having other knowledge might require learning to keep up with performance, and learning, as we pointed out, increases the risk of failure. One possibility for these people is to discredit other people's knowledge. If done well, it would eliminate the need for the extra effort to learn, which would fit very well with their objectives.

This model of learning also explains other surprising behavior that I frequently observe. I have seen novices in software development with knowledge of a single programming language explain to experienced expert developers why their choice of programming language was a particularly bad one. In one case, I talked to a student of computer science who told me why a particular programming language was bad. In fact he told me it was so bad that he had moved to a different university in order to avoid courses that used that particular language. When asked, he admitted he had never written a single program in that language. He simply did not know what he was talking about. And he was willing to fight for it. With respect to programming languages, negative opinions about a language that a person does not know, are usually based on very superficial aspects of it. To people obsessed with performance lack of such in a programming language is a favorite reason to advocate its eradication (even though performance is not a quality of a language, but of a particular implementation).

As the reader has probably already guessed, my surprising observations concern mostly performance-oriented people. The above discussion is obviously a simplification. In particular, a person can be in one category with respect to a particular domain, and in the other with respect to another domain. Thus, I have seen professors in mathematics who were obviously perfection-oriented with respect to mathematics, be firmly in the performance-oriented category with respect to the efficient use of (say) word processors. It is almost a surrealistic experience to see a person in one situation full of intellectual curiosity and wanting to know everything about everything, and in another situation argue why you should not use a particular method that he himself does not know anything about, for reasons that are obviously totally artificial.

Thus, what I have observed is not only what one might expect, i.e., some reluctance to learning new tools and methods, but a kind of reaction orders of magnitude stronger than I had expected. I have observed that people ignorant in a particular domain, or not knowing a particular tool or technique, would go to great trouble to explain why knowing this domain, tool, or technique, would be a complete waste of time. Usually these explanations were based on erroneous ideas of what it represented. To make things worse, they were perfectly willing to present their erroneous arguments to the very experts in the field in question.

Similarly, I have heard people argue against a tool that they ignore based on the fact that it can do too much. Too much functionality in a tools is a problem only if unneeded or unwanted functionality somehow makes it harder to use the needed and wanted parts. I have heard people argue about the amount of memory a particular tool requires, whereas the additional memory required might represent a cost equivalent to a few hours of work at most. A favorite idea is to label a particular tool with a name suggesting what it ought to be doing, and then arguing that it is doing more than that. For instance, a text editor that is capable of automatic indentation would be accused of being a ``kitchen-sink'' tool because after all it does much more than allowing the user to just edit text.

Needless to say, these people make complete fools of themselves. But that does not seem to bother them in any way whatsoever.

It is hard to overestimate the strength of this phenomenon. I myself recently discovered a marvelous feature in a programming language that I had purposely avoided for the past 10 years, simply because 10 years ago, a colleague (who did not know the feature) explained to me that it was no good. We were both victims of our own minds. My colleague because he obviously needed to defend that he had made a different choice, and myself because I subconsciously found it very appealing to be able to brush off the feature as useless and thus not having to learn it. It is hard to overestimate the wasted time I have put in during the past 10 years due to considerably lower productivity than I could have had, had I realized at the time what I now know about human psychology.

It is my hope that this explanation of a common phenomenon makes it possible for students to reflect upon their own motivations, and that it ultimately makes all students perfection-oriented.
Now I don't share the writer's background or experience in the software industry, but what he has written resonates deeply with me. I think it is important to strive constantly for improvement, to look inward as often (if not more often) as we look outward to do this, and to stay aware of the processes by which we learn.

A quick search of the TFP for "learning styles" led me to a couple of threads that I think are related. The first is The Art of War. Unsurprisingly, one of the many relevant ideas you'll find there is in the very first post:
Originally Posted by ARTelevision
Good strategy involves, first, ruthless self-assessment.
The second related thread is How do you use your brain? The link to the test in that thread is no good now, but I dug up an active link for that test from the main site. I'm not advocating for this specific test or site or even for taking internet tests as a way of dictating behavior. This is just one of the many ways from which a person can gain a new perspective of himself. The better we understand the tools that hang from our metaphorical toolbelts, the more efficiently we are able to use them. And then there are the tools we use so infrequently that we eventually forget we have them. This is a constant struggle for me. I often make mistakes where find myself thinking, "I should have known better. Did I not learn it well enough when so-and-so event happened to me three years ago? What was I thinking?" And then I inevitably remember someone telling me that you have to learn a thing seven times before you've learned it for life.

Is that true? I'm not really sure. Furthermore, there are a lot of different models of learning and models of different kinds of learning. I'm sure there are a lot of people on the TFP who know a hell of a lot more about this than I do. (I hope they'll chime in.) I just happen to think that efforts to understand the learning process go a long way compared with expending the same efforts on remembering specific things we've learned.

I hope this gives you something to think about. We can always be better.
"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
(Michael Jordan)
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Old 04-03-2006, 04:15 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Will you marry me? :-D

Only kidding -- however, the "art of learning" is one of the topics I'm divinely passionate about. No matter how much I profess to know about it, and guide others to the "right way to learn," the same tools seem to escape me. You've outlined a great set of them above, and there are very valid points.

I think another important thing to analyse when discussing learning styles is motivation. I find that I'm very performance oriented when I'm doing something for myself, and very perfection oriented when other people are going to see the results of my work. Thats why I could write an ugly program that did what I needed, but when I have to turn it in; its perfectly indented with comments every other line and spacing for clarification. Most things (I'd estimate about 90%) I'm very intellectually curious about, and it saddens me to see how "performance-oriented" most of my peers are.

It seems that my intellectual curiousity is a motivation that others actually stimulate in me. If no one knows the answer, I want to be the one that shows them the answer -- so I am immediately motivated to do it. I learn all of the different and most efficient ways to do it, so that I can better explain it to others.

And I think from this you can draw a very important correlation: the best TEACHERS are perfection-oriented. By being performance-oriented, teachers frustrate any student who has done the assignment in their "own" way. These are the teachers you'll find marking someone off just because they did it a "different way." Its not the way that the instructor has perfected, so it must be incorrect. Perfection-oriented instructors, on the other hand, will praise such a student simply because they've come up with an innovative solution (or a more effecient one) that they hadn't previously seen. And if there's anything we need right now, its innovation.

That's all I thought of off the cuff, but I'm sure I'll revisit this thread.. soon.
"I'm typing on a computer of science, which is being sent by science wires to a little science server where you can access it. I'm not typing on a computer of philosophy or religion or whatever other thing you think can be used to understand the universe because they're a poor substitute in the role of understanding the universe which exists independent from ourselves." - Willravel

Last edited by Jinn; 04-03-2006 at 04:18 PM..
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Old 04-03-2006, 04:32 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Location: Manhattan, NY
There are many people who will not ever bother to RTFM (Read The Fucking Manual) including myself. The Windows Icons Menus Pulldown user interfaces ushered in the Keep It Simple Stupid methodology. We have become a group of instant gratification society. If performance isn't up to snuff within the first 5 minutes of using a product, it's cast off for the one that is.

The product that is the most dumbed down is the one that wins.

I made a career out of just reading manuals and applying what was within those manuals.

As far as learning for myself, it's unfortunately trial and error with some wisdom of others who blazed the trail before me tossed into the mix.

But from my favorite book in the whole world:
If Life Is A Game These Are The Rules

Rules 2-5 are I am constantly moving through them over and over.

Rule Two - You will be presented with lessons. Life is a constant learning experience, which every day provides opportunities for you to learn more. These lessons specific to you, and learning them 'is the key to discovering and fulfilling the meaning and relevance of your own life'.

Rule Three - There are no mistakes, only lessons. Your development towards wisdom is a process of experimentation, trial and error, so it's inevitable things will not always go to plan or turn out how you'd want. Compassion is the remedy for harsh judgement - of ourselves and others. Forgiveness is not only divine - it's also 'the act of erasing an emotional debt'. Behaving ethically, with integrity, and with humour - especially the ability to laugh at yourself and your own mishaps - are central to the perspective that 'mistakes' are simply lessons we must learn.

Rule Four - The lesson is repeated until learned. Lessons repeat until learned. What manifest as problems and challenges, irritations and frustrations are more lessons - they will repeat until you see them as such and learn from them. Your own awareness and your ability to change are requisites of executing this rule. Also fundamental is the acceptance that you are not a victim of fate or circumstance - 'causality' must be acknowledged; that is to say: things happen to you because of how you are and what you do. To blame anyone or anything else for your misfortunes is an escape and a denial; you yourself are responsible for you, and what happens to you. Patience is required - change doesn't happen overnight, so give change time to happen.

Rule Five - Learning does not end. While you are alive there are always lessons to be learned. Surrender to the 'rhythm of life', don't struggle against it. Commit to the process of constant learning and change - be humble enough to always acknowledge your own weaknesses, and be flexible enough to adapt from what you may be accustomed to, because rigidity will deny you the freedom of new possibilities.
I don't care if you are black, white, purple, green, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, hippie, cop, bum, admin, user, English, Irish, French, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, indian, cowboy, tall, short, fat, skinny, emo, punk, mod, rocker, straight, gay, lesbian, jock, nerd, geek, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Independent, driver, pedestrian, or bicyclist, either you're an asshole or you're not.
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Old 04-03-2006, 08:42 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Location: The Cosmos
Indeed, in fact I would say the "art of learning" is the only thing I'll really be taking away from all these years of school, the other stuff just doesn't really last and the ironic thing is there are none, or 1 or 2 at the most classes actually devoted to this subject. I suppose it must be pretty hard to teach though.
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Old 04-03-2006, 09:34 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Never mind.

Last edited by Gilda; 04-03-2006 at 10:33 PM.. Reason: Stupid nonsense.
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Old 04-04-2006, 03:39 AM   #6 (permalink)
I'm not sure which group I'm in or what I want my students to be in. I taught for 2 years full-time and have taught courses 3 or 4 times a year for the last 4 years.

The goal is supposed to be jamming enough information into my students in a short time to pass the cert exam. But I really want both performance and perfection from my students. It's important to me that as much as possible they can do both, know when to do it, and why one may be better then the other. This is more valuable then being able to repeat the curriculum word for word. Or memorizing enough practice questions to pick the most likely multiple guess answer.

Under the gun to diagnose and fix a problem you must be performance oriented. Identify the problem and fix it or at least restore connectivity/functionality as soon as possible. But how you get better at that is definitely perfection oriented in my experience. Finding out what others have done before, would have done, and why what you did made a difference. Knowing how and where to find answers is important. As fast as technology changes there's no way you can work for a long period of time in my industry without constantly learning and finding out what's new that coming and what may be changing for economy, efficency, or just out of obsolecence.

The students that I've seen do the best are the ones that are most flexible and have a natural ability or interest in the subject. They know someone is waiting and they don't care what wrong it just needs to be fixed. And if everything is running smoothly they are willing to tweak performance or watch and become very familiar with normal so that when things change it's immediately obvious to them. The very hard working students tend to be too perfection oriented. They have to be able to do it every single way possible and know why which is nearly impossible. And the majority that only do enough to get by are too performance oriented. Once it's good enough they don't care how or why or what they could do different.

I'm not the best teacher and I don't create the best test takers. But I strive to give my students the best view of what they will see and do and give them enough knowledge and skill to accomplish their jobs well with as little stress as possible.
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Old 04-05-2006, 12:45 AM   #7 (permalink)
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Location: Victoria
I don't have a lot of time at the moment to really get into the subject, but I do want to post an anecdote concerning the subject of learning.

In my first year of university, I took notes. Pages of notes. Books of notes. Surely, with notes such as mine, I must know the information in my classes quite well. And sure enough, I did. I did well on my tests and was pleased (relatively) with myself.

After my first year of university, I took some time off to earn money and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Within a month of working, I had forgotten everything I had "learned." I couldn't remember much, if anything, from my pages and pages of notes.

I figured out that what I had been doing in my first year of university was simply regurgitating information. I wrote down what the professors lectured about, memorized it and spat it back out come test time.

Skip forward two years to my second year of university (present). I rarely take notes. I sit and listen to what the professors are saying and ask questions. Then I think about the answer I'm given and ask more questions. And more questions. I've become involved in my learning. I think about what is being lectured instead of simply writing down what is being lectured. This has helped me immensely.

I find now that I'm applying what I've learned in class to my life outside of class, too. It's not simply material I have to learn to pass a class in order to get a piece of paper. School seems more worthwhile now, because I'm taking something away that's useful. A degree is useful in proving that I've attended school, but it does not prove that I've learned anything.

It's hard sometimes to be this involved in class, but I keep pushing myself. I'm happier now with school than I've ever been. The secret was to become involved in my learning. I think this is something that more people in general need to do.

I never let school interfere with my education.
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Old 04-05-2006, 07:13 AM   #8 (permalink)
I change
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Location: USA
I focus on the fact that it is the natural state of human beings to learn at an astoundingly rapid rate. This is evidenced by the stellar learning curve of humans from infancy through most of childhood.

Something happens during the extended termination of childhood that effects a steady process of leveling regarding the rate at which new material is learned. The most evident reason for this appears to be the stupefying level of socialization and acculturation that takes place in human societies.

I suggest the most effective way to reverse the dulling effects of extreme socialization and acculturation and to restore much of our natural ability to learn is to observe, question, and work toward limiting the stultifying influence of external forces upon one’s consciousness. This is best executed by the judicious application of strategy toward the goal of eliminating the high degree of enforced stupidity required by our social and cultural contexts.


Nice thread, Supple Cow.

create evolution
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Old 08-03-2008, 02:24 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Location: Washington, D.C.
I recently came across an e-book that coined a useful term: holistic learning. It's an excellent method of learning, and as I read quickly through the 27-page PDF I realized that a lot of the academic success I have enjoyed has come from a system of learning very similar to this. You can download the file here.

● Holistic learning is the opposite of rote memorization. Instead of learning through force,
your goal is to create webs of information that link together.
● Your goal when learning anything is to create a construct or an underlying understanding.
● Constructs are formed from models, chunks of understanding that aren't completely
accurate but can be used to solve problems.
● You create webs of information, constructs and models by visceralizing, metaphor and
● Holistic learning works with highly conceptual information where there is an underlying
system. It doesn't work well with arbitrary information or skills.
My favorite section is the one on metaphors, since I have always been hopelessly dependent on metaphors in forming my understanding of the world. The author uses a good one to describe how helpful it is to view things as part of a network of information:

If I showed you a pile of bricks and removed one of them, would you be able to tell me where
it goes. Possibly if the pile was ten or twenty bricks. But what about a hundred? A thousand? A million
bricks? Would you still know where the missing brick should go?

Now if I showed you a brick building and removed one of the bricks, could you tell me where it is
supposed to go? Probably immediately. Even if the building consisted of over a million bricks, a quick scan
would show where the hole in the building lay and where the missing brick could be found.
You don’t need every brick to maintain the structural integrity of a house. You don’t need every piece
of information to maintain the integrity of your understanding. When you have a construct, you can solve
difficult problems even when there is a lot of missing information. You simply look at your construct, see
where the holes point to and fill them in.

Most people incorrectly assume you can’t answer questions you haven’t been taught how to answer.
This guy has the right idea. I was almost surprised to learn at the end that the author is very young, but that shouldn't surprise anyone anymore! Wisdom comes with experience and there are some who live more in their early years than many people live in their whole lives. (Randy Pausch seemed to have lived 3-4 average lifetimes worth.)
"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
(Michael Jordan)
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Old 08-03-2008, 03:19 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Location: on the back, bitch
It took me 47 years to learn how to learn.
When I went back to school, I was mortified because I bought into the notion that I could no longer learn something entirely new. It didn't help that I was not a reader-I can't learn things through words, only through actions.
It is through the actions that the "web" started to build; by having several classes per semester, I could have a better understanding by applying one lesson to another, one class to another. Hence, I acquired more of the underlying understanding. I related each lesson to another to better use what was being taught.
While I went to school I work part time there in the Financial offices and noticed an enormous dropout rate. My theory about that is that there were many who just did not know how to apply what they were being taught to anything else in life; conversations with a few of these students verified that. Also interestingly enough, students closer to my own age "stuck it out" more. We graduated. Perhaps those that feel education doesn't pertain to life need to learn how to learn.
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Old 08-03-2008, 05:01 PM   #11 (permalink)
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Location: Manhattan, NY
Thanks for the update, and yes, the more webs you have the more you can even ingest and digest.

I'm finding that as some people are getting older, they shift from one to the other. Possibly complaceny? Possibly "settling" I'm not quite sure.
I don't care if you are black, white, purple, green, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, hippie, cop, bum, admin, user, English, Irish, French, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, indian, cowboy, tall, short, fat, skinny, emo, punk, mod, rocker, straight, gay, lesbian, jock, nerd, geek, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Independent, driver, pedestrian, or bicyclist, either you're an asshole or you're not.
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