Friday, May 21, 2010

The Old School

"We cannot learn from doing anything right. We already know how to do it."
-- Systems Thinking guru Russell Ackoff

My recent attempts to belatedly learn something about technology, through the McGuffin of my amateur radio license, have led me to some pondering that, well, at least gets me onto the verbal and theoretical footing I'm more comfortable with. Slightly ironic, considering the subject du jour.

What happened is, one day my honey and I stopped at a used bookstore (and yes, my supposed book-buying fast is still in effect, so not truly wise), where I picked up a copy of Basic Physics: A Self-Teaching Guide, by Karl F. Kuhn. I had read reviews of this very book on Amazon, where the top review (by a reviewer I definitely voted "helpful") described it thusly:

"Dr Kuhn has made a somewhat different approach to the usual methods of teaching physics.
1) Mathematically (formulas!)
2) Conceptually (no mathematics, just ideas, more like 'popular science')...He has sought a pedagogically stronger middle ground (balancing act) between these two methods ... especially in the minds of those who can't do mathematics very well but communicate well, or do mathematics very well and not the communicating thing very well."

That made me think this would be a good text for me, and that's definitely going to be relevant later on.

I started slowly, and much to my surprise, kind of halfway understood the concepts. However, at one point, I had to go back a few pages and re-read the formula for acceleration with gravity. When I did this, I felt a completely disproportionate sense of discouragement, as if it proved I was never going to learn this stuff, and it was probably hopeless. Basically, because I hadn't instantly memorized something I was previously unfamiliar with. Fortunately, I recognized this thought as insane, and then asked: where on earth would I get an idea like that?

Well, how about my entire educational experience?

So, in today's edition of "Anarchivist solves the world's problems," we're going to look at aspects of the American public educational system, at least as it exists in much of "middle America." (That is: what goes on in those private schools or charter schools or what have you, I'm not in a position to judge).

1. Much of our educational system rewards us for what comes easily to us, and doesn't support our learning what doesn't.

The current educational system skews us heavily toward the things we have a "knack," or a natural aptitude, for. That steers us into studying what comes easily, staying within a comfort zone, and doesn't reward us for taking chances, or attempting things that are more difficult.

If you have the knack for something, a natural aptitude, it's like having an ear for music. You know what sounds right and what doesn't. You can start picking a subject up pretty easily, and it's easier to integrate the new material with what you already know -- clearly a boon for learning.

If you don't have the knack for something, the introductory material will already stymie you. Most learning builds on information. If you didn't understand the concept on the first day, the second day is only going to get harder, because the lack of understanding is cumulative. And in too much of the modern American educational system, there's no time: the material is generally presented en mass to a group of students with diverse knacks, abilities, and levels of previous learning. Something is scrawled on the blackboard, and students either "get it" in the beginning or they don't, but either way, the teacher has to move on. Except in rare and lucky cases, if students don't "get it" immediately, they're screwed, because they're never going to have any leisure time to catch up.

Because of this tendency to immediately fall behind, I think too many of us assume that if we can't do something right immediately, we're doomed to fail at it. We don't believe we can apply ourselves and learn, and we don't learn the value of doing so. We give up too quickly. And we label ourselves by possibly insignificant experiences (maybe we just had teachers who mumbled on the first day!) as if we know something essential, and flawed, about ourselves.

2. Teachers of a particular subject are generally people who have a knack for that subject: it came easily to them (relatively), and they won't relate to the problems of students who don't have the knack.

Now, as I get into discussing teachers, I'm not saying it's easy for people to acquire substantial knowledge in their fields. Even people with a natural aptitude have to study and apply themselves to really master their subjects. But if they already have the knack, it's significantly easier than if they don't.

For students who don't have any knack at all for a particular subject, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the material is mainly being taught by people who excelled in their subjects, or had a natural interest. By and large, Math is taught by people who get math, and English is taught by people who get English. But the knack itself can't be taught -- it has nothing to do with teaching or learning. And it tends to be difficult for people who have the knack to communicate their subject to people who don't.

That's why my memory of math classes consists of someone rattling off some verbal information, writing a formula on the blackboard, and then saying, "You see how I got that, right?" They might as well have speaking Sanskrit for all I got out of it, and today, if they did, I'd have more of a fighting chance that at least something would sound halfway familiar.

I don't blame them, because when I briefly taught English composition and literature, I had no advice to give to students who had a hard time with the basics. I was lucky to grow up in a house full of books, heavily motivated to learn to read; I had older sisters who helped me out whenever I had a question; and I had a natural aptitude. I don't know how I learned to spell, or why I easily picked up how to use grammar and sentence structure. That kind of thing just came naturally to me, and fell into place.

3. All of this creates an artificial divide between people who have the knack and those who don't.

Or to put it another way, between people with a knack for one thing and people with a knack for something else. The classes we took, especially the crucial introductory ones, contained a mixture of people with different aptitudes. So some of the students would get it and excel, others wouldn't and would fail, while everyone watched. I think these experiences led, again, too many of us to divide ourselves up into people who get math and ones who don't, ones who are good with words and ones who aren't. And that kind of self-defeating self-definition is a terrible attitude for learning. Once you say "I just can't do math," you feel doomed to failure, so the motivation to try to learn is hard to come by.

The distinction is really between people who'll get it more or less easily. The fact that you did or not grasp a particular subject or concept immediately doesn't say anything essential about who you are, or how intelligent you are.

Now, the idea of an animosity between groups on the basis of this difference is clearly absurd, and yet it's all too common. I've met my share of academics who were privately disdainful of blue-collar work (where people are sometimes crazy-smart in technical subjects), and more than my share of people who are prejudiced against the book-learned.

Much more might be learned by combining disciplines, and by individuals learning outside what comes easily to them.

Because I more or less randomly decided to get a ham radio license, it forced me to learn something about subjects that I've always been interested in, but was discouraged from pursuing. I very much do not have a knack for gadgets, or for the kind of practical scientific knowledge that most of the radio folks take for granted. But because I wanted to, and began to apply myself, I now find myself in the club meetings with a roomful of people who can be handed some specs and discuss the technical ins and outs of different antennas. For my entire previous life, something like this would have seemed impossible; unthinkable, even. On the one hand, I feel like a poser, but on the other, like I'm overcoming a divide that was put between us at an early age, which now seems foolish and, more than anything else, wasteful.

Obviously, there are motivated individuals who overcome the obstacles and become well-rounded, and thank goodness! And it's certainly possible to meet individuals with different interests and skills, from different walks of life, in various ways. But when one considers our disciplines, the realms where those interests and skills are used, it's often as if they exist in completely separate, parallel worlds. However, the electric company and the poetry reading both exist in the same world: one which has grown increasingly complex, full of almost unfathomable interconnections. Trying to make sense of it, and really solving its problems (as opposed to, say, blogging) will almost certainly require skills from all across the spectrum. The kind of artificially induced segmentation that I experienced, and which I still see all over in society, is totally counterproductive.

So, new law: no more beating myself up for how long it takes to learn things. अच्छा!


Filmi Girl said...


As further testimony to your thesis, through my entire school career up to and including graduate school, I hated writing. Loathed it. I hated writing essays, stories, poems, and everything else because it was hard for me.

I also hated analyzing stories in English classes.

It wasn't until I started blogging that I realized that writing could be fun but that it did take practice.

Anarchivist said...

And I'm so glad you did come over to my side of the fence, where the writers lurk! Yay!