Ming the Mechanic - Tag:
learning

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Saturday, September 27, 2014day link 

 You must be an expert by now
picture My wife and I don't always see eye to eye on what it takes to learn something. I will quite readily accept that it might take years of hard work to acquire a particular skill. She will tend to think that an activity better start paying off right away, or it isn't really worth it. We both have some kind of point. Hers being in part that learning might as well be fun and rewarding from the beginning, and there's nothing noble about suffering through a process that won't provide a result before much later.

Learning is an important subject to me. I'd love to see better learning methods become available all around. I'm convinced that many things could be learned many times faster and much more thoroughly, if somebody would manage to understand how we learn, and would construct an approach that provided the required input and feedback. Instead, we're usually required to listen to somebody talking and look at some examples of the subject matter, and we're supposed to just learn from that. We do, but usually very slowly.

Until we have this learning robot that I can plug into, which will provide me instant feedback and just the right amount of repetition and variation, and which teaches the core structure of the matter, not all the random blahblah around it, it will take time.

People who've mastered a skill or a subject will know very well what kind of very substantial effort it took to get there. You're not playing classical violin in front of an audience unless you've practiced for years, hours and hours every day. You wouldn't be a stage magician with your own show if you hadn't practiced for thousands of hours to manipulate cards or coins until you do it so well that people don't see what you actually do. You won't be a Ph.D. unless you've digested a mountain of research in your particular field and you know pretty much everything that anybody else has said about it.

People who aren't in the process of mastering anything, or who haven't already done so, would tend to be very unaware of what it takes, and might even be quite likely to ridicule the work. Which is why it often happens out of sight.

My wife and I take dancing classes and enjoy going out dancing. But it is also an arena where our differences show up. In most partner dances, it is quite well known that the leaders and the followers have a quite different journey and different learning curve. The followers mostly focus on relaxing and not trying to anticipate what the leader will do. The leader on the other hand must know what to do, must know the sequence of steps and how to lead them and when to do them. Which obviously he can't do well from day one.

I hate the uncomfortable feeling of being a klutz who doesn't know what to do in a beginner class. Particularly if it seems to be easier for other people. And I'm really not fast at getting something new at first. My approach to keeping up will often be to put in an extra effort, study up on it in my own time, take the beginner class two or three times if I can.

I had started this dance that my wife wasn't yet doing at the time, West Coast Swing. I loved it right away, and decided to do what it took to learn it, even though it is considered quite difficult. So, I put in some extra effort, went to weekend workshops in a addition to the regular classes, watched videos, etc.

And now, here's the thing, that wouldn't go on for more than a few months before my wife would start making remarks like "You must be an expert by now, with all those classes you're taking". Or, when I'm signing up for another weekend class next month: "Do you really need to be an expert?".

If I wanted to be an expert and really master something, I should be practicing it for some hours every day. Not some hours every second weekend.

Many well-meaning people will be very interested when a friend or family member starts to learn something new. "You should give us a show!", "When are you going to perform?" two weeks after somebody starts learning to dance or play the violin.

There are surely activities that might be worth watching even when done by beginners. Most are not.

Some people (Malcolm Gladwell) say that you need to practice something for 10,000 hours to master it. That number is completely arbitrary and probably unfounded, but it gives the idea. That's something like 40 hours per week for 5 years. And doing that mindlessly, repeating the same actions over and over, surely wouldn't do it either.

Many people think they're not gifted or not able to learn, because they tried something a couple of times and they didn't succeed. You know, they tried making a drawing and it wasn't good. They obviously have no clue what it would take to succeed. Probably to a certain degree it is the fault of a general anti-mastery atmosphere. Or, we could say, a need for instant gratification. We celebrate people who've mastered fantastic skills, but we usually render the required work completely invisible, leaving the illusion that the mastery somehow was easy or didn't take much time.

Some people show up for the audition in American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance after having practiced for hours per day for years, and they do great. The show makes it look like they do what they do in a few days. Obviously the illusion fools enough people that some people will show up to the same auditions never having practiced anything, thinking they have a chance, and the only chance they get is to look like complete idiots in front of millions of people.

So, if you should be an expert by now, you should obviously have started years ago and have worked on it every day. It takes a lot of practice. And not just repetition of stuff one is trying to do, or that one is repeating in the wrong way. It takes attentive exploration of all aspects of what one is trying to learn. Getting to understand deeply why one has difficulty with some particular part, and how one can overcome it. And then moving on to some other part.

Most people who're really passionate about something, or who are trying to master something, will have a great need to talk about it or think about it. And, there again, unless they're surrounded by people who're passionate about the same thing or learning the same thing, they'll probably find that others have a very limited patience for this. We're used to the TV format. Sure, we'd like to see your audition, and a couple of snapshots of you practicing, and a few soundbites of you talking about your challenges, and then we'd like to see your performance, preferably flawless. But that's of course not really what has been going on. Again, they'd have been working on it for years, every day.

I'm writing in a blog here. Blogs could be a format for talking about what one really is working on, and others might be interested if they're on the same path. But not if they aren't. If you have a somewhat general blog, like this one, and you suddenly get passionate about something specific, and you start writing about that all the time, you would probably lose most of the audience. For example, I was really into aquaponics a couple of years ago. That meant that I spent hours every day doing research, trying to solve problems, or constructing things in the garage or in my greenhouse. I have written about that in other places. I could very well have written several posts here every day, but I didn't, because it would be much too much for most people. Right now I'm passionate about dance, and I could write about that every day. I don't, or I only do it in my private notes.

If you don't already have it, it would be a good idea to seek out a forum where your passion and your learning actually is welcome, also at great length. That's maybe really obvious to some who already have it, but not to others who didn't know where to look. You'd want to communicate with people who're on a similar level of involvement with the subject, or who would like to be. People immediately around you are not likely to follow you, so you might have to go out of the way to find the others. And if what you're into is something really specialized, it is quite possible that you won't find anybody else in the world who's deeply into that. Don't let that stop you. Later on, when you've succeeded, everybody will show up to congratulate you, including those who didn't really have the patience for you working so much on it, or who even tried to talk you out of it.
[ / | 2014-09-27 00:04 | 377 comments | PermaLink ]  More >


Monday, June 4, 2007day link 

 What is there to learn?
picture Learning is an interesting subject. How do we know we're learning something? How do we know what to learn? How do know when we've learned it? But, maybe more basic, how do we even manage to pay attention to what is there to learn? How do we notice what we're presented with?

Say you're reading a book, or you're listening to a presentation, or you have a conversation. How good are you at actually remembering even a small fraction of what was said? I know I'm pretty bad at it. Even if I've read a book and enjoyed it, can I say more than a handful of sentences about what it said?
"I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia." --Woody Allen
Even if you took 3 weeks to read "War and Peace", how much more can you really say?

Part of the problem is that books and talks are just a lot of words. They're strung together into sentences, and we might think we understand them, but what are we taking with us?

I've been listening to various memory improvement courses recently. I didn't really mean to, but I just happened to run into them, as I was downloading some other stuff. And another subject I'm interested in is metaphor - how meaning sometimes is transferred much more effectively with a story or a metaphor than with a lot of words that try to teach or persuade.

As to memory, one good piece of advice is that to remember stuff we need to have a framework to put it in. The more you already have a grid of things you know, the better you can put new things into it. An average student in history class might just hear a bunch of seemingly random dates and names and places. But a historian would have a grid in their mind that already connects a lot of dates and names and places together in a coherent framework, and the new information would be many times more meaningful, and he'd be much more likely to remember it, because he has hooks to attach it to. Learning is a lot less likely if there's nothing to relate it to.

As to stories and metaphors, they're very compact ways of storing information. We have an instinctive way of understanding and remembering things that fit together as a story. We know how stories roughly are supposed to work. Like a fairy tale. There might be a protagonist who has some kind of objective, and he runs into various obstacles, and he overcomes them, just barely. We understand that deeply and non-verbally. If we watch a movie, we somehow know if it is satisfying, if the story evolves right, or if something is missing. And we'd be able to re-tell that story without too much trouble, if it is coherent. And even if we didn't remember it all right away, we could piece it together.

That "a picture is worth a thousand words" is a related phenomenon. If we can see how something fits together, we can store it in a much more compact and transportable form in our minds than if we had to remember lists of otherwise disjointed words and sentences.

We have a lot of different kinds of perceptions. We see, we hear, we feel stuff. The very best types of learning connect several or all of these together. We've heard something, and we can talk about it, but we also see it, and we can show it. We've experienced it, and we feel it, and we can make somebody else experience it. And the words are really only a small portion of this, and possibly the least coherent. And yet we often mistakenly assume that if the words have been transferred, the speech delivered, the book read, that this constitutes communication and learning.

So, if you don't control the mode of presentation, what can you at least do to better receive and organize what you were presented with?

- you can take notes
- you can draw a mind map
- you can try to summarize it
- you can discuss the subject
- you can go over it several times
- you can experience it in several different formats, if available: text, audio, video, slides, etc.

An old piece of advice for speakers is: "First you tell them what you're going to tell them, then you tell it to them, and then you tell them what you just told them". Another angle on that is that a really good presentation will tell you the same thing in various formats, and various chunk sizes. There will be a summary, a conclusion, an exploration of the details. There will be visual aids. There will be the presenter's non-verbal queues, like tone of voice and body language. There will maybe be some kind of personal experience, like an exercise. And if it works out really well, all of those are saying the same thing, and supporting each other. They form a self-consistent whole. That's coherence, or congruence. Most presenters don't succeed perfectly in all of that. But even if they don't, you might be able to fill in some of the missing pieces yourself.

- before reading a book, you could look through the table of contents, and page through it, getting an idea of what it is about.
- while reading it, you can make your own notes or drawings of what you're picking up.
- you can find your own examples or counter-examples
- you can find analogies or metaphors. "That is just like ..."
- you can translate it into another medium.
- you can try if you can summarize what the point is.

Any kind of presentation or text will have some kind of structure to it. It might or might not be a good structure, and it might or might not be helpful, but normally there's something there. And there will always be different types of elements. Are we presented with facts, beliefs, opinions, examples, intentions, attempts to persuade, filler material, etc., and which is which? It might be easy to miss if one doesn't somehow evaluate and organize the materials along the way. There might have been just 3 crucial points that the speaker or writer wanted to convey, but if you didn't notice which they were in between all the other stuff, somebody might be wasting their time a little bit.

I'm certainly no master in this. Rather, I notice that way too many things I potentially am very interested in are passing right through my head without sticking to anything, and that's a bit of a waste.
[ / | 2007-06-04 13:46 | 16 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

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