Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

The status of practical learners

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In my earlier days in the Blogosphere, one of my comments* was answered with “So, you are a practical learner!”**. Knowing “practical learner” mostly as euphemism for those with some limited practical talent and a complete lack of intellectual accomplishment, I almost choked with the perceived insult and condescension.

*This was too long ago for me to remember the context and details.

**To paraphrase my main take-away. Here too, I do not remember the details, but the actual answer was likely a bit longer, and probably not intended to be insulting.

Since then, I have revised my opinion on practical learning considerably. For one thing, I have over the years increased my proportion of practical learning, e.g. in that I have so often found claims by others to be faulty that I often prefer to do my own informal experimentation/trial-and-error/whatnot (not just my own thinking). For another, practical learning (in the literal sense, which I will use throughout below) plays in well with my opinions on learning in general:

There are, somewhat over-simplified, two types of learners: Those who just gather knowledge provided by others and those who gain an understanding from the knowledge of others and/or create new knowledge of their own. A practical learner can to some degree be either; however, the weakest aside, the latter will likely dominate. Examples include anyone who observed an event and drew conclusions about how this event could be reproduced or avoided, what the positive and negative effects were, how the event could be utilized, … Consider a stone-age man who accidentally hits a piece of flint so that it can be used as a cutting implement, realizes that it is a potential cutting implement, tries to create new cutting implements by hitting other pieces of flint, and refines his technique based on further experiences—a practical learner who has done something most of his peers did not do and which helps the group to be more successful. Or consider a software developer who tries a certain approach to solve a problem, sees an unforeseen complication when the code is run, and modifies his approach thoughtfully* the next time around. I certainly suspect that many of the great inventors and researchers have drawn considerably on an aptitude for practical learning.

*Not to be confused with the “worst practice” of making random changes in the code until it appears to be running as intended.

Contrast this with someone who just mindlessly absorbs the contents of books, who can apply the algorithm of long division (see excursion), who knows in-what-year for a thousand events, who has absorbed but not understood the deep thoughts of others, … (In turn, not to be confused with the mindful reader. Cf. e.g. [1].)

Of course, the border between the practical learner and, e.g., the theorist can be hard to find—is our stone-age man still acting as a practical learner if he takes a thirty-minute break to just think his options through, during which he does not even touch a piece of flint? This, however, is only natural with an eye on how deeper learning works: Deeper learning, with an understanding of the matter involved, always comes from within, from own thought. External influences, be they practical observations, books read, statements heard by others, …, are food for thought—they are not thought it self. The source of this food matters less than what we do with the food. It is true that some sources provide more, more nourishing, or more easily digested food than others, but ultimately it is up to us to do the digesting.

In all fairness, it is likely true that the set of practical learners will contain a comparatively large sub-set of those not-very-bright (including the stereotypical “shop students”), compared to e.g. those who actually learn from e.g. books. However, there is no true reason to believe that the sub-set of the very bright would be smaller, even if those might engage in practical learning in other areas (e.g. experimental physics instead of auto mechanics)—and worth-while thinkers will almost certainly have several sources of food for their thoughts. Moreover, there are plenty of readers, likely an outright majority, who are not all that bright either—they read but do not truly learn. Similarly, many or most college* graduates have not truly learned—they have internalized some (possibly, a very considerable) amount of facts, methods, whatnots, but have failed to gain an understanding, cannot draw own conclusions, are bad at applying what they have internalized, etc.

*School and, increasingly, higher education have a strong tendency to favor the wrong type of learner. Too often, the mindless absorption is rewarded during tests, while understanding brings little or no additional benefit. In some cases, critical thought can be positively harmful to success, e.g. in fields like gender-studies.

Excursion on long-division:
I have never mastered it: In school it was presented as a set of mechanical steps, with no attempt to explain the “why”, which I imitated a few times to create the impression that I knew them. After that, I just winged the divisions that came up on tests (usually as comparatively easy steps within a longer calculation). In adult life, the divisions that I encounter are either so trivial that I can easily do them in my head (say, 231/11=21), so complicated that I would use a calculator* anyway, or from a context where I only need an approximate** value to begin with. In the unlikely event that I really need an algorithm, I understand division, the decimal system, etc. well enough that I could create it—which is far more valuable than memorizing a set of steps.

*I do not need long-division to solve e.g. 2319523/2344 using pen and paper, but a calculator removes an entirely unnecessary risk of an accidental error and is usually faster—be it compared to long-division or to an improvised calculation. This especially as the very few such calculations that are needed tend to carry a legal relevance, e.g. the extraction, for my tax declaration, of the VAT from an amount paid that includes VAT.

**That 2319523/2344 is a little short of 1000 will be enough in many contexts.

Excursion on men vs. women:
While the problem with a lacking understanding (etc.) is quite bad among men, it appears to be considerably worse among women (and is very often combined with the knee-jerk classification of everyone as intelligent who graduated from college). This could turn out to be a major future problem, if the trend of giving women artificial preference in e.g. hiring/promoting and politics is continued.

For an example, consider the relative likelihood of a homeopathic physician* being a man vs. being woman.

*As opposed to an uneducated user who might be forgiven for not seeing through the obvious quackery that homeopathy is. (But women appear to dominate there too.)

Remark on double posts:
Subscribers might have seen two incomplete postings of the above contents. This was caused by my failing to close the “tags” declaration for WordPress within the HTML code.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 9, 2018 at 1:58 pm

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