November 30, 2003 spout

Learning to Learn, Part II

Tony R. Kuphaldt, an instructor at Bellingham Technical College in Washington recently emailed me that my Learning to Learn piece spoke to him and pointed me to his web site where he provides a wonderful look at his own experiences in self-teaching. In this paper, Tony describes his insights, starting with an amazing look into my own previous field of employ:

Industry training, at least in its popular form, is roughly based on the model of a fire hydrant: sit in front of it, open the valve, and take a big drink. Due to time limitations, trainers present information at a rapid pace, with participants retaining only a fraction of what they see and hear. What knowledge they do gain seldom passes on to co-workers after the training session, and is forgotten almost as rapidly as it is presented, necessitating continual re-training. … [Students] often leave with the impression of the instructor being something of a genius for being able to present so much information so quickly, and instilling within their own minds a sense of inferiority for not grasping all of it at the delivered pace.”
Further, Tony describes the technique I use to really learn something:
What did I do to learn? Simple: I would challenge my existing knowledge of a subject by trying to apply it to real-world conditions and/or thought experiments. If I didn’t know enough about a topic to successfully apply it to a realistic problem, I would research and study until I did. If ever I was completely baffled by a problem, I could determine my own conceptual weaknesses by incrementally simplifying the problem until I could solve it. Whatever complexity I eliminated from the problem that enabled me to solve it was where my understanding was weak. Once I knew what I didn’t know, I not only knew where to focus my study efforts, but I also felt more motivated to study because I could perceive my own needs.”
Tony characterizes his (and my) self-teaching technique as an internal feedback loop, where the student knows what he doesn’t know. This is as opposed to an external feedback loop in an instructional setting, where the instructor knows what the student doesn’t know, but the feedback loop is broken between the student and the instructor.

And as if that weren’t enough, Tony takes his goals on the road, as it were, testing a self-teaching-based curriculum on his students and reporting on his results. I find his work especially interesting not because I feel the need to teach the world to teach themselves; I’m perfectly happy to encourage folks to learn to learn, but to have them choose other techniques. However, I do feel very strongly that the Sells brothers learn to learn. I can’t imagine sending them out into the world without a firm grasp of the ability to teach themselves. I don’t know how to do that, though, unless I start home schooling them. That wouldn’t be out of the question except for this unhealthy addiction I have to a steady income stream…