Learning to learn

Do you remember when facts and knowledge were valuable? Maybe I am remembering a society that never existed, which is quite likely, but I always thought that pathological liers were prohibited from significant stakes in society. Looking at politics, this is clearly not the case.

I am coming towards the end of my PhD, and have been writing for months straight now. I am certainly in a rut. The other day, during some routine procrastination, I realised that I haven’t put enough thought into the process of learning. Maybe if I had spent some time figuring out how I learn best, I would have saved myself a lot of time over the years. I do appreciate the irony of only thinking about how to learn mere moments before finishing with formal education, but as they say, the best time to plant a tree is ten years ago and the second-best time is now.

The first thing I did when I realised I should focus on the process of learning is head on over to Google Scholar and searched for research on learning. However, prior to that, I wrote down my opinions on learning, and my thoughts were essentially this.

“The only thing I know that works is committing time to the thing I am trying to learn. Very rarely do I set out to learn something and understand the key principles from the start.”

Learning to code is a good recent example, I have been learning for the last five years, and I am only now understanding key principles that if I had understood them from the start, I would be a much better coder by now. I looked at the key principles, read them and tried to understand them, but I had no domain experience at that time so the ideas didn’t become organised in my mind in a manner that could be useful.

Whilst researching how people learn, one of the most repeated ideas I came across is the idea that the difference between novices and experts is how the information is organised within one’s brain. Novices can remember facts, but experts have ideas organised in such a way that they can relate ideas to other ideas and see patterns where a novice cannot.

Broadly, two things define an expert from what I have learnt, A large body of knowledge within the subject, and crucially, the knowledge is organised around important concepts.

As far As I can tell, time is the most important factor in all of this, and whenever we decide to embark on the discovery of knowledge, we should prime ourselves to understand that it will take a lot of effort to get to where we want to be. Often, I find myself getting frustrated as I don’t pick things up quickly, but the hubris of thinking like this should be more embarrassing than the failure to grasp perceived simple concepts. Why should I be able to learn things quickly? At all other times, the acquisition of knowledge has taken years. What I should do when this situation occurs is reflect on the long-term impact of learning, but this is often hard to do once you’re already annoyed.

The thing I have learnt about learning is that I should try and be mindful whilst engaging in it to try and understand concepts a bit more before moving on, but ultimately know that it is just about putting in effort over a long enough time.

I wish I could make an article saying here are the three tricks experts use to learn things fast. But there are no shortcuts, and there is no single best way to tackle a problem; otherwise, all schools around the world we are exactly the same.

For me personally, I have added some notes to my daily to-do list that remind me to focus on the process more than the outcome. Hopefully, this will stop me from wandering so much.

The best way to become better than someone at something is to have spent more time doing that particular thing than your adversary — that is the secret.

Here are some further reading if you’re interested in the topic.

A book on learning

Points I got from this book:

  1. Pre-existing knowledge: ‘the most general sense, the contemporary view of learning is that people construct new knowledge and understandings based on what they already know and believe’; ‘Research on expertise in areas such as chess,history, science, and mathematics demonstrate that experts’ abilities to think and solve problems depend strongly on a rich body of knowledge about subject matter
  2. Active learning: ‘To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must:(a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.’; ‘But knowledge of a large set of disconnected facts is not sufficient’

And here is a technical post about how memory is formed.

Are there any educators out there that have anything to say on the topic, or anyone that has developed a strategy to learning and progression? Please share your advice.

New distractions – Week 43

I have had a new distraction come into my life this week, and it is watching sailing videos on YouTube. To give some context, I have only been sailing once, and that was when I was a child. I have come to accept the fact that I am a fantasist; I often fantasise about living a life of leisure, no alarm, and no responsibility for anyone other than myself, and a life-long adventure.

This is why I have been living vicariously through people on YouTube who travel around the world doing whatever they feel like. The only barrier to entry for this fantastical life is money; either a means to make it whilst on your travels, or a sufficiently stocked investment portfolio that you can live of the dividends indefinitely. Usually, you reach both of the aforementioned states by the time you’re at retirement age; I am making a conscious effort to achieve both of these ASAP.

This month marks the one year anniversary since I started investing. I am well aware we are In one of the biggest bull markets in history, but this year, my portfolio returned me +15%. For those of you that don’t invest my money grew by 15%. By my calculations, based on the amount of money I have been investing, I can retire in 45 years! I was only putting in less than half than I could afford because I was scared. Since finding out how long it is going to take me to retire, I have redoubled my efforts. Anyway, that’s enough rambling for one week, if you want to understand my philosophy towards money, go here, here and here as gained all my knowledge from them, I also read this book.

I have spent a considerable amount of time this week trying to perfect a few graphs using a Python sub-package called matplotlib. It results in similar looking graphs to excel, but it is far more customisable and therefore, far more inconvenient. However, I have resolved to learn how to program, so I shall persevere no matter how perverse. After many lines of code, I achieved what I could have done in Excel in under twenty clicks. However, once the code is there, each following graph only takes seconds to produce, so at some point in the future, there will be a crossover point where this long-winded method of producing graphs will come good: I hope.

As my one-year report is due soon, I have been running around trying to organise equipment I need to collect data, so that I can have a horrible time right before the deadline writing about all of the data I have collected. In between me running around like a headless chicken, I have been writing my report and watching sailing videos.

Because of this looming deadline, I have dropped a lot of my hobbies, so that I can stress about my report for more hours per day. I find it hard to think and do anything else when I have deadlines, which is part of why I want to live a fantastical life of leisure. Why won’t people just let me do what I want and pay me unconditionally is that too much to ask?

I am very much looking forward to getting this report behind me and going back to being content with life; I expect you will see my mood towards my PhD decline at a fast rate for at least the next six weeks. Then it will bounce back up to baseline after that, and hold steady for a few years, then a significant period of depression when I have to hand in the final piece of work.

You reap what you sow – week 37 as a PhD student

The sweet, gentle, torture of having a week off of lab work; where instead, I try and write my literature review.

Writing is still my weakness. I am perfectly adept at filling a page with words that are vaguely related to the subject I am trying to write about. I still feel as if the thing I am trying to say is entirely lost from the piece; also, the section doesn’t flow well. I am confident I can fix the flow of it, but I am not sure I can figure out what I am trying to say.

One of the underlying issues is that with scientific, academic writing you need to have evidence for all the points you make for obvious reasons. However, I struggle with integrating the points I am trying to make into a coherent argument where all the points work together to make a piece. What I have just described is the source of my frustration this week; well, most of it anyway.

The other source of frustration is that it is proving a lot slower to get samples delivered than I thought it would be; I was expecting to make one phone call, and the samples would be on their way as this is what happened the previous time. Alas, this is not the case, this supplier is not so fast as the bureaucratic processes that were in place with the previous supplier are not developed. Therefore, I have to play the waiting game, and this creates some anxiety as I fell as if nothing happens soon my supervisor will be on my case.

Now that the happy stuff is out the way…

It was quite a nice week; on Tuesday we harvested all the rocket plants we planted two-weeks prior. It was backbreaking work again and the rest of the day was a write off once we got home. Although it was a nice change of pace, I will not be too worried if it doesn’t happen again.

For the rest of the week I was sat at home writing, and although I found it frustrating working from home has its charms. It is quiet, and I can manage my time how I want. This was the main draw of a PhD to me: the autonomy. It is nice to make lunch in my kitchen and nip out for a quick run whenever I reach a sticking point. It felt a lot like the earlier months of my PhD, And I hope that I have many more weeks like it. I expect next week will be the same.

Because I had been doing an awful lot of lab work in the previous month my reading has fallen behind, and next week I intend to finish A brief history of time by Stephen Hawking; I started it over a month ago, and it is a relatively short book. I was enjoying it, and as it was my second time of reading I was understanding the concepts a bit better than the first time.

One concept that fascinates me and I still don’t fully understand it time — I even wrote a post about it. For those of you who have never read any physics books you might think time is an easy concept, but in the eyes of relativity and the physical universe, it is very strange.

If anyone has any book recommendation, I would be glad to receive them as I need to get back on my reading train! Preferably non-fiction.


Descriptivism versus prescriptivism

Having relatively recently taken my learning of the English language seriously, I have come across the idea of descriptive versus prescriptive language.

I have always thought that as long as the intended message is sent, received and understood, the way in which this is achieved is irrelevant.

What is Prescriptive language? This is where the rules are predefined, and then we use and enforce the rules. Whenever anyone misspells a word or uses incorrect grammar, they are publicly shamed for the greater good.

Descriptive language Is where the powers that be listen to how language is being used and the rules change based on – as far as I can tell – popularity. This is why the word ‘hangry’ is now in the dictionary. The word ‘hangry’ is the joining of hungry and angry used to explain the negative emotion that ensues when you are hungry.

Prescriptivists, such as teachers and editors are hangry for ‘correct’ usage of the language.

As someone who has had my fair share of constructive comments on my manuscripts, I have become increasingly aware that, in academia at least, grammar and punctuation seem to be as important as the message. Which is why I have been forced to learn the rules. There are a lot of rules. Many of which I forget almost immediately after reading them.

I think that the ‘rules’ are much more important when you’re fresh to a topic. If you have context for the situation being described you often ignore any incongruous statements and arrive at the correct endpoint regardless.

Pls kp rdng ths pst.

I Imagine art would be a lot worse off if the prescriptivists had their way, think of how many new-fangled words Shakespeare invented. English has more than twice as many words as any of its closest rivals, although it absolutely dwarfed by Arabic which has twenty times as many words as English. Does have a greater choice of words make a language better? Presumably, we could be more efficient if we had fewer words.

I have come to appreciate the prescriptive approach to language as a technical exercise, being ‘correct’ is always fun. Especially when you’re getting roasted in a comment section and need an easy win.

Overall, both systems need to exist, and both systems do exist. One system deals with enforcing the rules and therefore societal cohesion through the language; the other tries to understand how the language is actually being used.

I am happy there are both grammar Nazi’s enforcing the rules and artists breaking them, it makes for interesting reading.

Still, I need to improve my understanding of the core principles that make up the language lest I make a faux pas in social situations. These days I am much more likely to be speaking with prescriptivists than descriptivists, especially at academic functions.

If I don’t do nothing, I may just understand all the rules at some point.