Flutterby™! : Learning and Personal Choice

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Learning and Personal Choice

2007-09-18 19:54:25.374925+00 by ebradway 13 comments

Over on this other blog I write for, I ranted about "personal choice". I didn't quite distill my thoughts completely, so I'm bringing it over here:

Human beings seem set apart from the rest of the animal kingdom by two major distinctions: our ability to absorb information from our environment (learning) and our ability to apply that information in making decisions (personal choice).

Where I think I wanted to go with this idea is that humans do these two things naturally and automatically. We are constantly learning and constantly making personal choices. I think it's pretty obvious that making a personal choice is an action. However, learning is rarely thought of as a deliberate action - but we do it anyways.

We end up learning "through osmosis" from our environment. The strongest signals in our environment tend to be from "marketing". So much of the information that feeds our choices comes from these strong signals. What results aren't really "personal choices" but rather "directed choices".

This effect seems to correlate inversely with one's ability to actively learn. If learning is considered something "you do" rather than something that is "done to you", then you are more likely to make real "personal choices" rather than "directed choices".

[ related topics: Interactive Drama Weblogs Nature and environment Consumerism and advertising Marketing Education ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-18 20:09:09.531039+00 by: Dan Lyke

I think that perhaps this is where much of my disgust (and disconnect) with the popular notions of victimhood comes from. If you aren't treating learning as an active process (if not an inherent notion of your identity), then, frankly, not much separates you from the flesh I'm going to consume for dinner.

(Yep, I'm cranky today.)

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-18 21:09:42.92942+00 by: ebradway

This is exactly what's lead me down this path of thinking.

Next up is considering what causes some people to be active learners and others to be passive learners. I will have to chime in support of the general anti-education theme on Flutterby in that the pedagogical methods used by most schools in the US focus on and maybe encourage passive learning.

After that - how does one, as an "educator", encourage active learning?

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-19 03:06:21.872373+00 by: JT

For the most part, I believe my education was passive. The only active learning I remember through high school were either electives or subjects I had a real interest in. I would memorize and regurgitate language and most math and history, and then actively study and experiment in chemistry, physics, and learning basic programming. I even competed in extracurricular activities in sciences and did quite a bit of programming on my own at my home computer which was much more advanced than anything in my text book.

It seemed through high school and beyond, the hardest classes I can remember were the class I used the "memorize, regurgitate, replace" methods to try to eek by from test to test. This seemed to be the most passive learning I can remember, try to retain as much through osmosis as possible, take a test and remember what I was able to remember, then forget it all completely and start the process over during the next week.

I really have little opinion from a teacher's point of view with the exception of teaching a few classes through various police academies, however the only way that I could force people to retain knowledge was to make an attempt to actively involve them in exercises that made them think through problems and come up with their own answers. I do think that only works with certain subjects. I couldn't imagine making "fun" group exercises in algebra for example.

It seems to me that unless you're able to actively involve students or the students have their own drive to learn more about a subject in general or the particular ideas and principles that you're trying to convey, it would be near impossible to force active learning. These variables seem dependent on the subject matter, the teacher's ability, as well as the student's interest and natural ability though, so I'm afraid it's probably not much help.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-19 12:29:44.953165+00 by: meuon

Fun in Algebra: Physics and Chemistry problems that, if you do the math right (or wrong, depending on your frame of reference), cause things to crash, blow up, or explode.

The problem with math classes is they use pure math examples, that to math geeks, are elegant problems of their own. They mean nothing to us who don't get a woody looking at the process of converting complex gibberish into balanced solvable equations for it's own sake.

But then, I never did really memorize all my multiplication tables...

But somehow I have a mental image of JT teaching a class with "active learning":

"Today, we're going to learn how to defuse a bomb. Please note that you are sitting in seats that were soaked in super-glue, and the bombs in front of you, while possibly not lethal, are live and armed. Begin."

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-19 12:48:13.818259+00 by: JT

Nice... I wasn't that bad though. I'd take real situations involving chemical spills, fire, mass evacuations, officer shootings and such, then let the students sit and form a plan of what needed to be done using the events in the real time table to modify the situation. After their period was done and the exercise was over, we'd go over what was actually done in the situation, make comparisons, then determine why things happened the way that they did in the actual situation.

I was teaching them how to be incident commanders, which is normally a very dry and boring text-book course. At the end of the courses, I didn't like seeing 70-80% retention as the average on the mandated test. After involving people and teaching principles during exercises, I liked seeing their averages go up to 90%.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-19 13:21:19.786838+00 by: Dan Lyke

If the problem is how we approach and absorb information from our environment, then I propose that we can see an immediate symptom in the answer to the question "why do we go to school?"

Most people will say "to learn". That's the problem. At best we go to school communicate ways of learning, for the most part we go so that society can inculcate mechanisms of socialization into us, but as a way of learning, sitting in a classroom in a format that expects a one way flow of information from teacher to student is a lousy way to learn. In fact, setting up that expectation makes learning less likely to happen.

At best we get regurgitation.

As JT and Meuon point out, drills and lab classes are the next best thing to actually having to perform in the real world, and when they're presented with lots of interaction they're a way for people to figure out the right ways to respond to a situation, not just the "textbook" ways. Heck, in my field I still hear crap like "best practices", which means "we think we're not smart enough to figure out a better way to do this".

I think learning styles also vary dramatically, but the environments that work for me are collaborative attempts to find solutions to problems that are as close to real world as possible without killing anyone. I didn't "get" linear algebra when it was presented as ways to manipulate tables of numbers, I got it when I found it a better tool to manipulate 3d information, or to find correlations in gene expressions. One of the things that turned me off from school was that when I took some of the 3d questions I had to my math professor, he couldn't make the connection between the problems I was solving and the subject he was teaching, to him the subject was everything.

To me, the problem was everything, the subject was just a tool, and that's a pattern I saw over and over in my grade school and college experiences. There was a lot of emphasis on exploring abstract operations that could end up being tools, very little on applying the tools, and when I asked questions that involved mapping the abstract operations to real world solutions I found a distinct lack of ability to do that.

Come to think of it, I think that lack of mapping ability cuts to the heart of the scorn I've expressed for higher education, and probably to the same giggling that Meuon and I have done over PhDs who "don't get it".

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-19 14:10:30.665228+00 by: ebradway

Ron Turcotte and I had a heated debate about "abstractions". Math is solipsistic. You start off with a basic idea like 1 + 1 = 2 and abstract that to 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 x 3 = 3. Then you abstract that to a + a = 2a. Then you take that to a ? b = x. Then you consider a + a = ? in different bases. etc. etc. The mapping is entirely internal. What comes out of this are concepts that map to reality but require high levels of abstraction before the mapped structures emerge.

Learning styles are well documented and understood. I've had training in the Kolb Inventory of Learning Styles. However, early educators tend not to put much faith in pedagogical theory. I think that's because young people are especially strong receptors for passive learning. So the teachers think they are doing a good job because the kids are learning.

The basic idea with higher education is that the students should have reached a point where they can learn on a more abstract level. The format and content of lectures and the type of assignments (focusing more on research and writing) emphasize this. However, the academic environment encourages greater and greater abstraction and specialization. This is especially obvious in Math where people who are capable of managing abstractions to the degree that they can actually get a PhD (for some new idea in a very specific area abstraction) generally think and learn very different from the rest of the world. Math PhDs are inherently poor candidates to teach math (except to other math PhDs or those who think like themselves).

I'm currently taking a class in Database Systems. Databases, by and large, are firmly rooted in SQL. However, what you and I tend to think of as SQL is what, in academia, is referred to as an "Anglicized Relational Calculus". There is, underlying SQL a more formal, mathematical "Relational Calculus" and that overlays a "Relational Algebra". These have very formal descriptive forms that draw from mathematical set theory. What is key here is that SQL is provably the fastest, most efficient way to store and retrieve sets of information. But you only get that if you can abstract away from "SELECT * FROM table WHERE..."

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-19 15:03:23.034616+00 by: Dan Lyke

Hmmm... I would have said "Databases as they're practiced today are firmly rooted in relational algebra, and SQL is one concrete expression of that." Keeping our thinking within that abstract notion of relational structure has done some tremendous things for database application, but there are quite a few situations now where we need a better description language, because the practical implementation of databases has far outstripped the relational structure.

Abstraction can be a great tool, but at some point it becomes intellectual masturbation, when people start confusing the language with the process, rather than as a metaphor for the process. This happens in in the hard sciences, not just postmodern literary critique.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-19 16:30:36.623386+00 by: Nancy

All I know is that I deal with a lot of dumbasses every day. It seems people are either active learners or they're not. Maybe that's stating the obvious.

The case that comes most strongly to mind is the bankruptcy debtor who, when reporting to me on his requirement to watch an instructional video, told me that he turned the sound down and then just waited for the completion code to show up at the end.

It bothered me so much; not that he abused the system or that the system would allow such abuse (although that does concern me) but that he willingly passed up an opportunity to learn. That was just about unthinkable to me! When I asked him why, he told me he didn't need to see the video since it wasn't his fault he had to file bankruptcy. [sigh] I couldn't help telling him that he might have watched it anyway, because you don't know when you might learn something.

He just had absolutely zero interest in learning - at least not about bankruptcy. Maybe if it'd been a nascar video he'd have watched. But the bankruptcy had, in my opinion at least, been a major event in his life, yet he -- arrghh! I can't even go on.

I see SO many people who have no inclination to learn and no desire for personal accountability. Hmm... and they're mostly filing bankruptcy. Go figure.

The upside is, I go home every day feeling smarter and richer. And, as an aside, my favorite button reads "I'll try being nicer if you'll try being smarter." Does that make me as mean as my clients are dumb? hehheh

E - sorry for the rant off topic!!!

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-19 21:40:22.502363+00 by: spc476

I have some sympathy with the bankrupt man though. There's a CCIE (or is he a CCNE? It's the one that can command thousands of dollars for just showing up on site) I consult with occasionally. He's a very nice guy and normally I don't mind talking to him but there have been times when I'm looking at a broken network connection at a customer site at 10:00 pm and all I want to do is get out of there and get something to eat and the last thing I want is an hour long lecture (or longer) about the care and feeding of Cisco routers. I just want the @#$@ circuit up so I can split.

I suspect the bankrupt man has similar thoughts.

And I too, wonder if abstraction scales.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-20 14:07:59.694922+00 by: Dan Lyke

Since he won't link to it himself: a cool little rant on learning styles over at The Boston Diaries.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-20 14:30:45.75739+00 by: Dan Lyke

Nancy, I think your example is probably the poster child for my "...from the flesh I'm going to consume for dinner" comment, and the reason I'm utterly appalled that there's going to be a bailout for real estate idiocy.

And a good portion of the reason that I wasn't up in arms over the recent tightening of bankruptcy laws.

#Comment Re: made: 2007-09-20 16:46:55.785966+00 by: Nancy

ah, the tightening of bankruptcy laws. You mean when the laws were changed to be more in favor of the creditor than the debtor? Even when the creditor is charging usury interest rates and soliciting on college campuses? Certainly our society needs some serious education about using credit. The new laws haven't slowed down filings; at least not in our office. The 'means test' that the general public believes prohibits some people from filing actually prohibits no one. If you make more than the median income in your region, there is a flag raised of possible 'presumption of abuse.' But you can still file and your case can still be confirmed. It will likely get looked at harder, that's true. A great many of the people I see filing bankruptcy have either 1) overwhelming medical debt or 2) have been trying to get their heads above water by taking out personal loans at check-into-cash type places. Which tends to only snowball and make the problem worse. And then there are the credit card abusers, I'll give ya that.

I'm all in favor of letting darwin's law prevail, however there is a legal provision in this country to file bankruptcy and I am torn as to how accountable the creditors should be held when I think their solicitation practices are immoral. Oh! Legislating morality! yikes

I think there are quite a few parallels (and we actually seeing more overlaps) between bankruptcy filing and the folks who have mortgage loans that they should never have had. My gut feeling is that if you got yourself into the mess, whether it be an ARM you can't handle or didn't even realize you had(!) or personal loans or credit card debt you can't pay off because of the interest being accrued, well...you should get yourself out of the mess. For some people, bankruptcy is the only way they can get out in their lifetime.

It does still burn me, though, that because the big creditors (citibank types) have the power (money) they can influence legislation in their favor. Guess I just need to get over it.

But don't fool yourself. The bottom line is the recent bankruptcy law change (Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 which took effect Oct 17, 05) would have been MUCH more aptly named "Bankruptcy Creditor Protection Act of 2005."