Monday, July 16, 2012

Learning to learn

I've long been interested in learning to learn -- how people learn -- how excellence and mastery are gained. Somehow I ended up reading the book "Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in high school, for instance. Rereading it more recently I'm surprised I got anything out of it back then. (This reinforces my idea that I used to be smarter.) Two of my other recent favorites are "Talent is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin and "The Art of Learning" by Josh Waitzkin. There are similar ideas in all of these. I love "Talent is Overrated" in particular because of its concrete breakdown of different ways of working toward mastery. It is very clear about what deliberate practice means and involves. It ought to be required reading for college freshmen.

One of the biggest frustrations I encounter with freshmen students in particular is that they don't know how to learn. They feel that doing the homework in a half-assed way in the hour before class ought to be sufficient to get them to real understanding, or that reading the chapter before the test is the best way to study. Deliberate practice is a very new concept for most of them -- but it's an idea that they can apply to sports, learning Arabic, economics, pottery, anything! When I teach again I'd like to bring this idea more explicitly into the classroom. I am very conscious that math is not the real thing I'm teaching in freshman precalc or calc. If I can teach students how to approach problems, then I have succeeded. That statement has many levels.

Freshmen come in with these attitudes for many reasons. The two reasons I see as most relevant are the ridiculous waste of time that high school is for many students and current US attitudes toward learning. High school math seems to spin its wheels for years. Students with a good head start due to good education or high socioeconomic class come into high school ready to zoom through calculus on a superficial level. Students with a poor start come in to high school ready to fail to learn how to add fractions year after year after year.

Our attitudes toward education and learning, too, lead us to believe that downloading information into our brains is the primary activity taking place in learning. Consider what some leading politicians are suggesting with regard to education: that brick-and-mortar campuses will be rendered irrelevant by the ability to download a calculus video from iTunes U. We already have these wonderful sources of information and exercises called books -- they're like videos but written down -- and yet I have met few students who have learned calculus from a book alone! Yet students do believe that skimming a book or watching a video is what learning is. The internal work needed is somehow omitted from our cultural discussions of learning.

So go read about learning and how we do it. It's useful in every endeavor!

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