Monday, June 15, 2009

Learning to Learn

As a child I didn't care for most kids my age, generally finding adults to be more interesting. As a teenager I realized that not all adults were interesting either. Some adults always had new stories and ideas to share and liked listening as well. Others adults were set in their ways, only repeating the same concepts over and over. In retrospect, I was measuring their open-mindedness. On average it seemed like older adults were more likely to be close-minded, but that wasn't always the case. I knew interesting people in their 50s and boring people in their 20s.

I eventually concluded that the capacity for learning was what made people interesting to me. Adults stopped being interesting when they stopped learning. Most high school kids hadn't learned how to learn. And many adults stopped learning after they left college. This also explained why I got along best with college students and professors, even as a 13 year old. College is the environment that most demands an open mind. As a teenager, I resolved that I would never stop learning, lest I become that same kind of close-minded adult.

Lately I've been reevaluating my for learning. I've been at my current job for close to a year, doing research into helping computers understand natural language. The median degree among my coworkers is a Masters of Science, and there are a number of PhDs working for the company as well. Having an advanced degree generally means you understand your subject matter well, but it has no correlation with your ability to teach the subject to others. Some PhDs are great teachers and some aren't.

In this work situation, there's a lot of opportunities for teaching and learning, and generally it's more challenging than learning in school. Even in college I typically understood things without much effort. I got excellent grades in hard courses while putting in half the study time or less of others. But at work, learning new concepts often takes much more effort than I'm used to. There are a few possible explanations:
  • It's me: My capacity for learning has decreased
  • It's them: Some people aren't very good instructors
  • It's the subject: Research is harder to understand
I spent a lot of time thinking about this and I think the issue is the subject. Learning in school is very different from a work environment. In school, the information is well understood and presented in pre-digested manner. The instructors are paid professionals. Schools are supposed to be ideal learning environments, and while I have issues with the modern schooling system, it generally meets the objective of disseminating information.

Contrast this with learning in research environment. Innovation skill matter more than communication for researchers. And because the very topic is being researched, even the person explaining can have a weaker grasp on the overall concepts being explained. So learning in this situation can involve more than just figuring out what someone is saying. You must also determine what they tried to say and sometimes even what they should have said.

I'm convinced that I need to better learn how to learn. School is good for spoon-feeding information to masses of children, but it won't teach you the art of learning. A good university gives you the opportunity but it's still no guarantee. Learning is more than just obtaining information. It requires synthesizing new concepts from data and extracting data from concepts. A good curriculum draws clear lines between concepts and data, but most people do not. And that's why learning is difficult.

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