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.