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.



  1. Posted October 21, 2008 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    Hi Obet,

    Concidering that you are a mature student returning to education at a relatively late age, I am rather surprised by your approach to theory. From this posting and your (later) remarks on the blog it seems that you believe in the primacy of theory over practice -and yet one would have thought that, from practical experience in life, you would have developed a more nuanced understanding of the relationship.

    On the other hand, I must admit that I personally believe that the relationship between theory and practice is poorly understood generally -and is perhaps so complex that it may well deserve to be a study in its own right. In fact, it is my belief that “technical universities” sbould not act as upgraded polytechnics -but actually be involved with scientific study of the relationship between scientific theories and their implementation in terms of practical technologies. It is also my belief that the obscure mathematician Goedel might then prove to be a much more important figure than hes ever been realised until now. If I have understood Hofstadter correctly in his book “Goedel Escher Bach” then it would seem that any system when interpreted is likely to become incomplete or inconsistant. If this is true -then the whole western concept of Platonic idealism (being an accurate reflection of some objective reality) would appear to be completely undermined. Concidering the current crisis sphere in the world’s major colonising superpower -it might be a suitable time to re-examine the theoretical basis which has lead to the current situation.

    I guess that one could also question the underlying assumptions in each of your “examples” given. The idea of “Problem solving hours” is indeed an excellent suggestion -but it may well be opposed to the primacy of theory over practice.

    “Flying hours” are presumably a useful chance to put theory into practice -but unfortunately aircraft also crash which suggests a “fault” in the perfect relationship between theory and practice. Luckily, such accidents are then followed by investigation and accident reports -which (in some cases) may lead to improvements in iether the theory or practice of flying (and sometimes both). By believing in the primacy of theory over practice-it seems to me that you are conveniently ignoring the situations where faulty theory itself leads to (potential) disaster. In my view, one needs to be much more aware of how theory and practice dialogue with each other.

    In fact, it seems to me that your earlier and later comments on swimming contradict each other. In the first case it was the implementation of theory that appears to be the key to success -while in the second case it seems there is more of a suggestion that the practical experience transcended the theoretical. In this context, I’m also curious about what happened to Grace Luna after she became an adult. Many (but not all) child prodegies turn out to have been simply pushed by ambitious family members -and this leads to a crisis later (for both the individual and their relationship with the family). So how effective was the swim training effective in developing a love for, and a valuable understanding of, swimming in Grace -and how much was it merely a clever but empty training imposed from outside?

    Coincidentally, I too have spent a lifetime in “software development” -but from less of a practical side than you. As a result I am rather interested in your remarks -which in some ways are perhaps based on assumptions that I would (from experience) query. Your remarks again seem to be based on very Platonic assumptions: That theory takes precedence over practice -and that (in terms of computer programming) “content” takes precedence over “form” (or “style”). I suspect that this comes from the theory of “algorithms” -the idea that a computer programme is merely the expression of some abstract (pre-existing) Platonic form, so that “programming” simply represents a (linguistic, logical or mathematical?) translation of the abstract concept into the required form. Like “flying hours” -such an approach is very good for practical situations: One does not want one’s pilot, or programmer perhaps, to be too creative in mundane situations -although one might wish themn to very creative when the normal theory (or practice) breaks down.

    My own approach to programming (visual art) is more “literary” (or perhaps “painterly”). I do not have a definate idea of the performance of the finished programme -and the process of writing the programme, including the structure of the language used, actually contributes much to the end result. True, I stumble about in the dark a lot -get lost (and frustrated) somnetimes -but I still have the feeling that this getting lost is an important part of the creative process -because it undermines my belief in the assumptions that I previously had.

    In conclusion -it seems that in your case “progress” comes from asserting a theory over a practical situation -whereas in my case it seems that “progress” comes from “unlearning” (some of) my previous assumptions.

    Unfortunately, the commercialisation of knowledge seems to be increasingly killing all forms of (non-professional and non-commercial) discussion that is not based on financial profit. The universities seem to increasingly become not only the repositories of knowledge but also the guardians and commercial exploiters of their self-generated “knowledge” systems. I believe that dangerous social consequences are starting to becoming visible -and perhaps even underly the current global political, social, cultural and economic crisis we now seem to be experiencing.

    Theory is very useful when it is correct (and applied correctly) -but can be a disaster if it is wrong (or applied wrongly). The problem is: How can one tell when the theory is correct -and when it is going to cause a disaster? Especially when the system is itself the main judge of its own performance -or when only a small group of (academic) specialists are allowed to formulate, evaluate and propagate their own theories (at the cost of all others)? In a tautological system each part justifies the other parts -but the whole system can still be highly disfunctional. I believe this is why our current academic, political and economic systems are liable to sudden collapse.

    So who (or what) can guard us from the our guardians -and who (or what) can protect us from the failure of our own theories?

    How does our theory deal with evidence that suggests it might not be so universally valid as we had supposed?

  2. Roberto Verzola
    Posted October 22, 2008 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    To Trevor,

    Thinking in absolute terms, like “primacy of theory over practice”, is very often a trap that leads to endless debates. And whoever thinks in such terms should also be careful about ascribing to others the same black-and-white thinking.

    In my experience, in specific cases, it is important to learn theory first to avoid picking up bad habits that might be hard to correct later on.

    Swimming is a nice example, as I have seen many who learned swimming without the benefit of theory end up with the “dog paddle”, which appears to be “natural” because most beginners pick it up naturally, though it is inefficient.

    I’ve have myself picked up some bad habits as a programmer, because I started programming without bothering with theory. Later, as I learned more about the theory of programming, I had to unlearn many of these habits.

    It is curious that you should express surprise at my way of interpreting my own experience.

One Trackback

  1. […] Well, not everything. For one thing, you cannot learn swimming from lectures. You have to stay in the water and perform a lot of exercises. When I was learning how to swim, the coach stayed out of the water, watching us and making suggestions. We students stayed in the water, learning how to swim. I’ve also written about this in another blog, here. […]

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