Higher Returns and Discounts in Learning

Monday, December 18, 2017

Statistician John Cook observes that, regarding a complicated subject, having either a concrete problem some of that knowledge applies to, or a preexisting interest which overlaps it in some way, can help one approach it without feeling overwhelmed:

There are many things I've tried and failed to learn via a frontal assault. For example, I've tried several times to learn algebraic geometry by simply reading a book on the subject. But I find all the abstract machinery mind-numbing and difficult to absorb, just as [Tyler] Cowen described his first exposure to Chinese history. If I'm ever to learn much algebraic geometry, it will start with an indirect entry point, such as a concrete problem I need to solve.
Sure. You probably could get your car onto the highway some other way, but why not use an on-ramp? (Image via Wikipedia)
I had a similar experience with learning my editing software of choice. Emacs has a steep learning curve. I had known about it and its legendary powers for years, but it was always frustrating to try to use it for anything. Only after I learned that Emacs could also very easily solve a collection of personal organization problems I wanted to get out of the way, did I have enough incentive to get over that hump.

I also observed a similar phenomenon with one of my brothers back when we were in middle school: He'd always lagged a bit in his reading skills -- until our mutual interest in Dungeons and Dragons caused him to start reading the rule books voraciously. His reading scores improved dramatically after a year of that. In both cases, we found a return on the knowledge that caused us to overlook, or be willing to pay, the price of admission.

This is a powerful lesson that is the opposite of much of what has been going on in our schools for generations now. Fortunately, it is applicable throughout our lives, and we can begin using this tool now. Learning anything comes at a price. Having a problem to solve can help us grasp on a gut level that there is a future payout, motivating us. Having an overlap with preexisting knowledge indicates, also on a gut level, an area where the price is lower, and it is easier to get started.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

I found this to be true with teaching: If you want something to stick, you find a way to tie it to things the students already know. You explain momentum by discussing football tactics; you explain ballistics by having them shoot basketballs; you explain geology using candy (and then get your wrist slapped by the university because of insensitivity to nut allergies, but I digress).

If you just hand them a bunch of information, it's probably too much--they get overwhelmed and tune out. If you tie that same information to something they know about already, it connects much faster, and tends to stick better.

Unfortunately, there's a starting point in all fields of study, and that starting point requires memorization. There are some things (like vocabulary, basic mathematical functions, and the like) which can't be broken down; you just have to learn them. That's where interest in the subject comes in, I've found: Once you show them something is interesting, students are more willing to put forward the effort to do these less-fun tasks.

Jennifer Snow said...

I, similarly, didn't learn how to shuffle cards properly until I started playing Magic: The Gathering. I didn't learn to type competently until I started doing a lot of online gaming and chatting.

Theoretical stuff is usually quite easy for me to learn just by reading, but any physical skill I have to have a VERY, VERY strong motivation to learn it. No amount of dull repetition for "practice" will get me to improve. And I don't think there's a single one I've ever progressed past merely competent.

Gus Van Horn said...

Dinwar and Jenn,

Not only should learning be fun whenever possible, I believe there's an entire book on the subject of play being integral to much innovation.


Dinwar said...

I'm not a fan of using "fun" in such discussions--it's an extremely imprecise word, and one that is almost entirely subjective. What I mean is, what is considered "fun" will vary by individual based on their past experiences, innate interest, psychology, and a host of other factors. See Errant Signal's discussion of this topic on YouTube for a more in-depth look at the topic. He's a video game reviewer, so he's approaching the topic from that standpoint, but I think that re-enforces my point: if there are deep problems with using the term "fun" with regard to a purely entertainment activity, it's probably not useful in education!

Learning should be engaging. The students should be fully involved with the material. There is an element of entertainment to this, at least at the early stages (the USA carries it WAY too far!), but after that other concepts ideally should take hold. No one would say that reading "Night" (the book about the Nazi concentration camps) is fun, but it was certainly engaging and thought-provoking. Few would say that hiking along the shore of a frozen lake, through streams and up cliffs in sub-zero temperatures, is fun, but the lessons we learned were well worth the mild frost bite.

Part of it is the teacher's responsibility--as I said, there's an element of entertainment to education, and the teacher should present the information in ways that engage the students. But as a culture we've swung far, far, FAR too far in that direction. The notion that the student has to contribute as well is gone from our educational institutions. My wife teaches high school juniors and seniors, and has noted that many view any required effort on their part as almost an attack against them. But when you've had 10 or 11 years of teachers and administrators doing all the effort of making the material engaging, that's all you know. I feel sorry for those kids when they reach college...

Gus Van Horn said...


Fair enough: The term "fun" will vary widely according to the individual.

That said, I find you comment about entertainment and effort at engaging students interesting, and because it might exemplify your complaint about the imprecision of a word like, "fun." My impression is that public education is big on "themes" around which teaching multiple subjects is centered. Any integration between subjects can only be coincidental in such a setup, and so that aspect of education isn't really served by the theme. This makes for a superficial and ultimately unsatisfying way to "engage" the students because it neither teaches students a proper way to put their knowledge together nor challenges them to do so. In the end, I can see many students being bored out of their minds in school and, understandably disengaged.