Monthly Archives: September 2008

The only way to learn is to accumulate “flying hours”

Pilots – including student pilots – accumulate “flying hours”. They are evaluated according to the number of hours they have spent flying a plane, among other things of course.

In the same way, students should accumulate “problem-solving hours”. They should be evaluated according to the number of problem exercises they have actually solved, using the concepts they learned in class. (For language-related subjects, an equivalent might be the number of books they have read and enjoyed.)

I am convinced that this accumulation of experience in problem-solving (or reading literary works) is the key to learning. This is how new ideas become part of one’s storehouse of knowledge, skills and conceptual tools.

To see why it is not enough to simply read and understand, consider the process of learning how to swim or to ride a bicycle. Learning the theory is the first step. It is an important step, but it is not enough. You can play and replay the process in your mind again and again, until you know it by heart. You can even go through the motions a thousand times, imagining yourself in the water or on a bike and making all the necessary movements. But you will never learn until you actually jump in the water or ride a bicycle. And when you do, then you will realize that you haven’t really learned anything yet. Yes, you know about it. Yes, you can imagine everything in your mind. But the knowledge is not yet a part of you.

And the only way to make it a part of you is to practice – to actually jump into the water, ride a bike, solve the problem exercises, read literature, and accumulate “flying hours”.

By the way, this shouldn’t lead students to underestimate the value of theory – the necessary study of ideas and concepts before plunging into practice. This should be especially obvious in the case of student pilots learning to fly airplanes. But it is important in other areas of learning as well.

Let’s go back to swimming. This is actually a perfect example. When I was in grade school, I attended formal swimming lessons at the Bernardo Park swimming pool in Quezon City. The summer classes were run by a trainer who, I’m sorry to say, I remember only as “Sir Luna”. He was assisted by “Sir Roger”. Sir Luna was the father of Grace Luna, who eventually became a national swimming chamption. We used to see Grace, as a 5-year old, do the laps at the swimming pool, as his father watched.

The first thing we learned from Sir Luna was swimming theory. We went through the individual motions of breathing, paddling with the hand, and the stamdard “flutter-kick”. We went through each motion thousands of times. Then we went through breathing and paddling, breathing and kicking, and paddling and kicking – two combined motions at a time. Then we tried all the three combined motions together. All this time, Sir Luna watched and made sure we went through the right theoretical motions – the proper form. Thus, we learned swimming properly – from theory.

Those who disdained theory simply jumped into the water and learned the amateur way. They invariably picked up what we called “langoy-aso” (“dog paddle”). The sad thing is that, once your muscles pick it up, this inefficient and ugly style will probably stay with you the rest of your life, unless you were willing to spend double or triple the effort to unlearn it, so your muscles can learn from scratch the more efficient “breast stroke” or “Australian crawl”.

I used to be heavily involved in software development. When you work with software, you learn to become multi-lingual, and learning a new language becomes second nature. I had three rules in learning a computer language: 1) learn the theory, 2) do a lot of practice, and 3) use it in a major project. Those who did not learn theories of software engineering and system design relied on GOTOs, wrote spaghetti code, and picked up bad programming habits that were hard to break. They often ended up poor programmers who wrote buggy code.

I have subsequently added a fourth rule: 4) teach others. Yes, teaching is one of the best ways to learn. The lecturer who solves problems on the blackboard learns more about the subject than the students watching passively behind.

I can see now that these learning rules, properly adapted, will work in other learning situations as well.

The problem with lectures

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the only way lectures make sense is if the material can’t be found in journals, books or videos yet, or if the speaker is so compelling that s/he inspires and challenges the audience in a way that can’t be done by a written piece, or perhaps if one simply wanted to see and hear a great author in person.

But for most subjects, I think students would learn best if they simply read the source materials – going through each page according to their own pace and level, rereading the portions that are not yet clear, jumping to other portions to clarify certain words or ideas, and reworking the concepts in their mind until these concepts become familiar and their very own.

In contrast, you can’t rewind lecturers. Well, maybe you can ask them – once or twice – to repeat a sentence or go over a concept once more, or answer a particularly nagging question in your mind. But if there are 30 (60?) of you in the class, each one asking for clarification about different portions of the lecture, it obviously won’t work.

It would even be better if the lecturer simply kept quiet and asked the students to read the chapter or specific pages covered by the lecture, and simply made him/herself available for clarificatory questions.

In fact, given the current level of video technology, it would now make sense to simply record each lecture beforehand and give students a CD copy each to view, absorb and study at their own pace and leisure. Over time, these recorded lectures can be edited, improved, supplemented with graphics and visual aids, and updated, so that they keep getting better with time. Then, too, the best lectures can be made available to thousands, not just one class.

There is one problem with reading (or viewing lectures, even if you could rewind them). If you’re stuck with an unanswered question in your mind, particularly if the answer is essential to understanding the rest of the material, then you reach a dead-end. If you can’t find the answer yourself through further reading, you are unable to move forward.

The best way out is then to ask someone else. This, I think, is the teacher’s role – to respond to students’ questions and to guide them through difficult portions of the subject. By interacting with students, studying their questions, and analyzing their mistakes in written exercises, the teacher can focus on the obstacles that prevent or delay the students’ understanding, clear these obstacles away, and set students off on their own to a successful learning experience. Along the way, students will pick up learning skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

The teacher’s other role – unfortunately, few teachers fulfill this role – is to inspire and motivate their students, to nurture and enhance further the student’s innate love for learning.

I have been talking about lectures. Obviously, laboratory, shop or field work is necessary to complement the students’ book learning. More on that later.