Learning for the Sake of It

March 20, 2007

One spends so much time learning for the sake of it, only to die, not taking learning with us. So what’s the point? Why do we learn things that do not add to our material needs? Why are we not totally bottom-line oriented like animals? (I am out on a limb here – I am not sure if my definition of learning does not encompass all sentient beings).

I guess there are two types of learning: (a) Learning for a purpose, and (b) learning out of curiosity. One might easily re-classify that as learning for conscious reasons versus learning for uncontrollable ones. The former usually plays out in colleges and schools, the latter in the theater of life. I am going to argue that the only real learning is that which comes from curiosity. Formal learning in the classroom is only useful if it kindles curiosity.

You are going to object vociferously and say that learning to add numbers is certainly real learning. You may not do it out of curiosity, but still, you did learn something that can be used to carry out several other tasks. But did you stoke your curiosity when learning this to ask deeper questions about the task of addition, such as – “What is number?” – “How can I do this faster?” and so on. If you did not, you did not really understand what you learnt, and hence, it was not real learning.

Now you will say to me, can you please define “real learning”? Sure, here it is. Definition: Real learning is that which helps you learn more. You learn more when you get curious about various phenomena. So if you took that math class, hated it, and did not ever want to do math any more, did you really learn anything? Do you think you will remember and use the math you managed to pass your exams with? I doubt it. Real learning is empty in itself, its just the trigger to seek more. False learning, seemingly full of content and purpose, is sound and fury signifying nothing, for it leads nowhere.

Real learning is innately visceral. Imagine the toddler sticking his fingers into a power socket, and receiving a (non-fatal) shock. Did he learn from his curiosity? Sure? Did he “know” that he learnt something? I would argue yes. Has it ever deterred toddlers from exercising their curiosity? Hardly. Mistakes are just the feedback mechanism in true learning. Taking responsibility for one’s mistakes is meta-learning!

Surprise is an incredibly powerful learning mechanism. I find that sometimes students vocalize the surprise when that eureka moment occurs in class. Such moments only happen when the student approaches learning with curiosity. Curiosity sets you up for an expected result, and then delivers another. Its the contrast that burns the idea deep into your brain. And it works in reverse too. Not knowing what to expect makes you curious, and motivates learning. Learning comes from an exploration of the unexpected.

Learning by curiosity can only be done in your own personal style. Formal learning is done in the teacher’s way, and can only suit you up to a point. Therefore, the only thing a good teacher needs to do is to kindle curiosity in the subject, provide some perspective, and then let the student loose to explore at will.

There are two polarized classroom styles, Lecture or Socratic. The latter, where the teacher gets the student to learn by asking questions formalizes curiosity. the lecture method works too, but places the burden of curiosity on the student. Which one is preferred depends deeply on one’s view of where the responsibility for learning lies, with the teacher or the student? Why not mix them up, and get the best of both worlds?

Our educational system is becoming more and more an arena of formal learning, and not one that fosters curiosity. Students are taking their curiosity to the internet, and leaving it behind in their dorm rooms before coming to class. We are multiplying the number of degrees and certifications, but not training people to think and question. Students are punching the clock of boredom in an insane rush to get a piece of paper that entitles them to search for a better job or salary. We are measuring learning with the grading system, and not with our imagination. Who is better off – the student who diligently jumped through all the hoops and got an A, or the student who got so involved with some aspect of the class, that he spent hours tinkering with the ideas, but did not then finish his homework, only to get a B? I think the evidence of real learning is whether the student can do independent research based on what he/she learnt, because you can never do that unless you are curious. Thats why I like to assign end term class presentations, and they always turn out great, especially in substance and not in form.

Most of all, if a student worries too much about the bottom-line of the class, to his career and job, or the grade, then its just meaningless learning for a purpose, and is not real learning. No student should come to class until its out of curiosity, just for the sake of it. So I say to you, come to class only if you have no real reason to do so!

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One Thing at a Time

March 1, 2007

Successful academics (in terms of quality and quantity of output) fall into two categories, those that work on one thing at a time, and those that are seasoned multi-taskers. Many academics are neither – many check out from active research after burn out. Then there are some that are simply awesome, and are able to keep churning out great work with little effort, in seemingly no time at all.

After a decade of casual observation, totally uninformed by any framework whatsoever, I believe that the “one-thingers” do, by and large, generate higher quality work. This seems somewhat obvious I suppose. Sadly though, I remain in the set of struggling “multi-taskers” who on average, do well on quantity, but may produce less seminal work. Given that there is a wide range of styles, my polarized classification is surely dissatisfactory. But like any taxonomy, it supports analysis.

Doing one thing at a time is a luxury, but an important one (I am in the camp that sort of feels that most luxuries are frivolous, and am told frequently by my spouse that I am wrong many times over on this; usually I am wrong only slightly!). So when I use the words Important Luxury, it is not to be taken lightly. Doing one thing at a time is a societal plus. I used to get up every morning and make a longish to-do list, planning to get more than one research project worked on, along with a plethora of little admin things. I am now experimenting with just doing one research related activity all morning, nothing else. Only when this is done do I stop and make a list for the rest of the day, when I plan no tasks that really need quiet and focus. So far, this has been working like a charm. There are two reasons for this. One, it keeps me away from debilitating and fruitless administrative chores and detail, which one can easily lapse into in the multi-tasking mode, and then suddenly find that the day is gone, and nothing really valuable was done. Two, by not making The List, there is nothing in my mind calling me to rush through my research writing, which needs complete absorption in a timeless manner. I feel already that the quality of work has been much better, and the satisfaction from it at a different level altogether.

Less is more. Multi-tasking actually causes me to pollute the environment with a lot of rushed output that the world can do well without. Hence, doing one thing at a time directly helps in filtering out bad work in two ways. One, it calls up the needed patience to greatly improve rough work. I call this “sculpting time”. Two, having time to look carefully at irredeemably low quality work brings forth the resolve to euthanize it. Lets call this “killing time”. Never mind what happens, its all good.

In the end, its a zen approach. Devote exclusive time to one single thing, and be immersed in it. Be one with it. Thus, it is never painful – all time is well spent. The undivided mind works miracles, and academic work demands it. There is no other way. Singularity wins.