On Learning

Some years ago I was busy with projects that required a lot of travelling but I also needed to stay up-to-date with latest product features and technologies. When a new operating system was released a colleague asked how I could do that – without having time for attending trainings. Without giving that too much thought, and having my personal test lab in mind, I replied:

I think I always try to solve some problem!

tl;dr – you can skip the rest as this has summed it all up.

About one year ago I ‘promised’ to write about education, based on my experiences as a student and as a lecturer or trainer. I haven’t done so far – as I am not sure if my simplistic theory can be generalized.

There are two very different modes of learning that I enjoy and consider effective:

  1. Trying to solve some arbitrary problem that matters to me (or a client) and starting to explore the space of knowledge from that angle.
  2. Indulging in so-called theory seemingly total unrelated to any practical problem to be solved.

Mode 2 was what I tried to convey in my post about the positive effects of reading theoretical physics textbooks in the morning. The same goes for cryptography.

I neither need advanced theoretical physics when doing calculations for heat pump systems, nor do I need the underlying math and computer science when tweaking digital certificates. When I close the theory books, I am in mode 1.

In the last weeks that mode 1 made me follow a rather steep learning curve with respect to database servers and SQL scripts. I am sure I have made any possible stupid mistake when exploring all the options. I successfully killed performance by too much nested sub-queries and it took me some time to recognize that the referral to the row before is not as straight-forward as in a spreadsheet program. One could argue that a class on database programming might have been more effective here, and I cannot prove otherwise. But most important for me was: I finally achieved what I wanted and it was pure joy all the way. I am a happy dilettante perhaps.

I might read a theoretical book on data structures and algorithms someday and let it merge with my DIY tinkering experience in my subconsciousness – as this how I think those two modes work together.

As for class-room learning and training, or generally learning with or from others, I like those ways best that cater to my two modes:

I believe that highly theoretical subjects are suited best for traditional class-room settings. You cannot google the foundations of some discipline as such foundations are not a collection of facts (each of them to be googled) but a network of interweaving concepts – you have to work with some textbook or learn from somebody who lays out that network before you in a way that allows for grasping the structure – the big picture and the details. This type of initial training also prepares you for future theoretical self-study. I still praise lectures in theoretical physics and math I attended 25 years ago to the skies.

And then there is the lecturer speaking to mode 2: The seasoned expert who talks ‘noted from the field’. The most enjoyable lecture in my degree completed last year was a geothermal energy class – given by a university professor who was also the owner of an engineering consultancy doing such projects. He introduced the theory in passing but he talked about the pitfalls that you would not expect from learning about best practices and standards.

I look back on my formal education(s) with delight as most of the lectures, labs, or projects were appealing to either mode 1 or mode 2. In contrast to most colleagues I loved the math-y theory. In projects on the other hand I had ample freedom to play with stuff – devices, software, technology – and to hone practical skills, fortunately without much supervision. In retrospect, the universities’ most important role with respect to the latter was to provide the infrastructure. By infrastructure I mean expensive equipment – such as the pulsed UV lasers I once played with, or contacts to external ‘clients’ that you would not have had a chance to get in touch otherwise. Two years ago I did the simulations part of a students’ group project, which was ‘ordered’ by the operator of a wind farm. I brought the programming skills to the table – as this was not an IT degree program –  but I was able to apply them to a new context and learn about the details of wind power.

In IT security I have always enjoyed the informal exchange of stories from the trenches with other experienced professionals – this includes participation in related forums. Besides it fosters the community spirit, and there is no need to do content-less ‘networking’ of any other sort. I have just a few days of formal education in IT.

But I believe that your mileage may vary. I applied my preferences to my teaching, that is: explaining theory in – probably too much – depth and then jumping onto any odd question asked by somebody and trying something out immediately. I was literally oscillating between the flipchart and the computer with my virtual machines – I had been compared to a particle in quantum mechanics whose exact location is unknown because of that. I am hardly able to keep to my own agenda even if I had been given any freedom whatsoever to design a lecture or training and to write every slide from scratch. And I look back in horror on delivering trainings (as an employed consultant) based on standardized slides not to be changed. I think I was not the best teacher for students and clients who expected well organized trainings – but I know that experts enjoyed our jam sessions formerly called workshops.

When I embarked on another degree program myself three years ago, I stopped doing any formal teaching myself – before I had given a lecture on Public Key Infrastructure for some years, in a master’s degree program in IT security. Having completed my degree in renewable energy last year I figured that I was done now with any formal learning. So far, I feel that I don’t miss out on anything, and I stay away from related job offerings – even if ‘prestigious’.

In summary, I believe in a combination of pure, hard theory, not to be watered down, and not necessarily to be made more playful – combined with learning most intuitively and in an unguided fashion from other masters of the field and from your own experiments. This is playful no matter how often you bang your head against the wall when trying to solve a puzzle.

Physics book from 1895

A physics book written in 1895, a farewell present by former colleagues in IT – one the greatest gifts I ever got. My subconsciousness demands this is the best way to illustrate this post. I have written a German post on this book which will most likely never be translated as the essence of this post are quotes showing the peculiar use of the German language which strikes the modern reader quite odd.

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18 thoughts on “On Learning

  1. Did a similar exercise in problem soving with LDAP last summer. Perhaps not the most efficient, but better suited to do some troubleshooting later when things go wrong.
    It appears to me that in high school, we don’t learn to solve problems, but we are thaught ways of solving them without even having created an interest in the problems themselves. We memorized procedures, applied them to pre-packaged problems, and internalized nothing. Moreover, in my country the first 2 or 3 years in higher education are still more of the same teaching. About 99% of what I do is based on grammar school or self study.
    When teaching, I have a similar problem as you, trying to answer any question. I hate slides. These days I hate teaching citrix: slides + prefab procedures for prefab solutions. Worse, I’m not allowed to teach red-hat anymore, since I don’t have any certificates from them, only a GIAC and 20 years experience. So now I teach Debian to a different audience.

    • I conjecture that this ‘pre-packaged’ education has even become worse despite seemingly modern approaches as doing ‘projects’ and less classical lecturing. For Europe, I blame partly on the introduction of bachelors’ and master’s degrees which – at least in my country – meant splitting existing programs arbitrarily and watering them down, in order to allow students to change their ‘major’.
      Students now think in terms of nice, canned modules they can tick off from their lists. Contrary to all the talk about ‘interdisciplinary’ research holistic thinking is not encouraged, as universities have goals and numbers to meet – one of them being the number of graduates they produced.

      Yes – I am also baffled by certification crazyness. I am now only working for customers now who don’t at all care about that (both in IT and renewable energy – I even don’t tell clients that I have done another master’s degree in sustainable energy as I even don’t want to be hired by clients for who formal credentials are so important). More than 15 years ago I had given IT trainings to unemployed people who should be re-trained as IT technicians, and I also developed part of the curriculum. At that time I had just started to work as a freelance IT consultant without any formal qualification or any experience it either IT consulting or IT training which I did not even try to hide.
      Today, I would totally fail formal qualification as for the very same job I would need to have a train-the-trainer education, X hours of training in similar fields (I guess my experience in teaching physics students would not cut it), and a training in diversity and gender whatever 😉

  2. I would very much enjoy an unorganized, informal IT lesson from you. I would probably not understand much, given my absolute lack of expertise and experience with encryption and the unraveling of it, but who knows? I’ve always been very experimentally inclined

    • In any case, I did create awesome flipchart art – basically covering a single flipchart with layers and layers of stuff of increasing complexity. Some people actualy asked me to sign it like a piece of art 🙂

  3. I don’t know why your post here didn’t show up in my email, but I’m kind of glad that it didn’t. Yesterday, before posting on WordPress, I sat down and wrote something about my thoughts on education. I think I needed to do that as part of the mental preparation for the next phase of my working/learning life. I have been working out those details about what to do about graduate school and writing. I’ve come to see a few things, too. One, the only reason to go back to school is for the theoretical training. Everything else I can do on my own, and probably should do alone to avoid the complications of other people overlaying their expectations on my projects. Two, I picked the most difficult theory to do in relationship to philosophy and literature, and I didn’t have time to cover everything to become an independent learner after the undergrad years were finished. I get some things, but some of it is too hard to do alone without more training. I spoke to my mentor about this, and he agreed that I was not missing anything–it’s hard theory. I have to go back for more help. So, the mini essay I wrote for me concludes some of the same as you, and I am finally feeling at peace with how to proceed.

    Also, I think your statement, “But I believe that your mileage may vary.” is so true. I jump into the theory when I work with adults. My husband does the same, or so he is discovering. He is currently training staff to do something that he has never stopped problem solving on, but no one else cares to understand. We both now know the amazing disconnect when people stare at you with their eyes glazed over. I was lucky to have taught preschool children years ago, and learned from them a little on how to proceed with information break-down. It was a lot of hands-on work structured into their learning. The more abstract-thinking four year olds proceeded to self teach themselves how to read, occasionally asking for guidance when needed. I swear I did nothing to push them into it. It showed me that it is indeed true that everyone’s mileage varies.

    • More interesting coincidences!! 😀
      I also wrote this mainly for myself – I didn’t share it on any social media as I felt it was too self-indulgent. Probably I did it for cross-checking again if I am still fine with my no-more-teaching decision as I had done some formal teaching nearly at anytime in my career, at least as a side-project.
      Yes, I know that amazing disconnect – proabably it shows that I never had any education on education. As many scientists / ‘experts’ I just started doing it as it was part of the job at the university. I guess we all know professors who are stellar researchers but not the best teachers so just doing it to communicate your research or because you have to is maybe not the best starting point. When I started working in IT as a freelancer I also gave trainings on computer basics to umenployed people (who wanted to transition from some other field into IT), and I also designed part of the curriculum. I found this one of the toughest audiences I ever had.

      • I’m glad you posted it on the blog. I felt that it confirmed my own conclusions, which was nice, as I have mostly kept these thoughts to myself.

        When I was teaching I went in to it without any training on teaching. I was flying by the seat of my pants. There were places I could be put–like a private preschool, or a teaching assistant–that didn’t compromise government regulations about certification.

        I think the most difficult training/workshops I’ve done have been comparable to your computer basics classes. Maybe the difficulty is in trying to gauge exactly how much people know. With three and four year olds, the answer is pretty close to ‘nothing.’ I maybe did the university seminar assignments okay, in that I knew what people could do if they had gotten into the advanced classes. A more generalized audience is tough, when their skills can range and there’s no parameters for anticipating them.

        • Interesting that you mention ‘certification’! I think I would not be permitted to do that type of training today anymore – I have checked out the website of the organization I delivered these trainings for… and nowadays you need to prove you a certificate as a trainer, covering X hours, and some more courses, psychology 101 etc.

          The question is though if such courses can give you the social skills as I feel ‘certification’ (like all sorts of ‘quality management’) is often ‘for the sake of having that sheet of paper’. Among my unemployed students there were a few self-taught experts who wanted to turn their former hobby into a career. They definitely would not have needed the course – but they needed that paper that gave proof that they knew… what they had known already before being enrolled in the program.

          • Sometimes I feel at conflict with the certificate-granting demands of employers and HR departments; I am so frustrated by the barriers they create. Young people spend too much time going to school doing things that employers and on-the-job work should teach them to do. There is a fairly large disconnect that’s happening in the work place right now, between workers and employers.

            There’s also a huge argument going on in Canada right now about the way foreign workers are abused in the work place, largely because business owners can avoid being accountable to staff because they have the power to threaten deportation. The grounds for hiring people out of country is usually based on arguments that local workers don’t have the skills for the work, or they don’t want to work at low-wage jobs because Canadians expect a higher standard of living. The entire debate highlights what is generally a trend among businesses here of passing off their responsibility in work place training. It combines with an expectation, too, among young people that they don’t need to spend time in the trenches doing work that teaches them skills. Instead, they can stay clean by sticking to their books. But even for the people who would otherwise choose not to go to school, there remains an emphasis on using educational institutions and certifications to avoid employer investment.

  4. In my current job I’ve been doing a lot of learning about database structures and, the past few months, into Linq queries, which has left me in a perpetually annoyed state. I really should stop and take a couple weeks to learn properly the background of what I’m doing, but then, that’s a lot of investment to what should be a far stretch from what I want to do. (And worse, the introductory matter I find suggests there’d still be a pretty big gap between what I want to do and what more class prep would ready me for.)

    It’s an irritating blend where I’ve got a good problem I want to have a solution for, but there doesn’t seem to be an efficient way to build a path from first principles to that solution.

    • Thanks – I can totally relate! I think one of the reasons I gave that lecture (though it was quite stressful to do that in parallel to the other projects) was that I wanted to be forced to reserve a time slot for digging deeper and learn some of the mathematical background myself.
      But very often you just need to solve something as quickly as possible, using some 80/20 ‘good enough’ approach.

  5. An interesting post Elke. As I thought about what you had written I began to think about what sort of learning I do now. I am a University Professor and it is my job to teach other folks, so reflecting on my own style and history of learning was a bit weird for me. It was easy for me to think back … way back … to a time, even before graduate school, and remember what learning was like for me. And, I recall that it wasn’t overly satisfying, or particularly fun. I mean, learning was about trying to figure out how to come to some end-point of or solution. I was, I suppose, pretty good at this. Once I became a professor-type-person I think that kind of learning stopped, very quickly. I became a conduit. How dull. Sure, I was learning little bits and pieces to fill in the spaces in my lectures. But the sort of learning I had done in the early part of my career had stopped. But, you know, since living on the Farm, I have learned quite a bit. Not theoretical physics … but how to do ‘regular’ stuff. And, the feeling I get form this sort of learning is like that which you described above, ” … pure joy all the way.” I suppose this is practical learning, electrical, plumbing, and mechanical know-how. Anyway, I think that the general lesson which is to be learned here is that we are, after all, ‘sapiens,’ and, as such, are wise. We are thinking creatures and finding solutions to problems is something that I think we appreciate as a species. We all enjoy learning … all sorts of learning, via all sorts of modalities … it’s that simple? D

    • Thanks for that interesting, ‘contemplative’ reply!
      I can relate to that on many levels. Developing the heat pump also required to learn about many different things – how to build a cistern, electrical, plumbing… probably similar to your learning. I like that down-to-earth-renaissance approach, and I enjoy learning new things in ‘stealth mode’, not being required to be an authority with respect to every detail … as in our case such knowledge is often a nice ‘add-on’ but not expected by the client.
      Probably it is also the joy of being rewarded just with the result but not having to take an exam or being scrutinized in any other formal way. Being successful as per the metrics (grades or later in your career some other number administrators use to ‘measure performance’) does not mean you enjoy that part or the underlying philosophy. Not sure if this can be compared to being a professor but I have found that having become an ‘established expert’ it gets more of a burden if you have to prove again and again that you are worth it and that you meet expectations. And universities’ internal systems for measuring performance have become similar to corporate once, don’t they? (concluding form anecdotes from people in academia).
      It seems to be an interesting paradox (;-)) – if you are ‘officially rewarded’ for something you originally only did out of curiosity it becomes less joyful. I believe if you still have fun as a student or in some other metrics-obsessed environment you need to be able to shield yourself from those requirements and ‘pretend’ you only learn for yourself.

      • Absolutely … your response shows that you know exactly what I was talking about. You hit a sore point however, when you wrote, in your penultimate paragraph, “And universities’ internal systems for measuring performance have become similar to corporate ones, haven’t they?” I could write a book about my feelings concerning the new movement toward assessment and rubrics … ugh …. just the words make me ill! Thanks for being on the same wavelength. D

  6. Yup. Funny, as I read this I found myself saying, “me too” quite a lot and I suspect you will find quite a few who also agree. Effective learning requires a variety of activities and experiences. In so doing we get the chance to explore topics from various perspectives and, in so doing, to integrate what we encounter with what we already have. There are two things I would add. First, lectures are only effective for a while. Some can listen effectively longer than others. I am on the short end of that spectrum and I suspect that you may be at the other end and able to endure longer sessions than can I. With that in mind, video is great as those of us with limited tolerance can go through at our own pace. Second is the whole issue of quality of lectures. Far too many are given without thought to organization and, as such, are incredibly disjoint and hard to follow. Some are better this than others.
    I have often heard people argue about which is better: theory first than practice or the reverse. My opinion is that in the end it does not really matter as long as you provide good quality activities fro both and allow the students to proceed through both paths in a way that works for them. This is, of course, very hard to do in a large institution but for self-directed learners or maybe grad students it is quite doable.

    • Thanks, Maurice for you expert’s comment 🙂
      What I noticed is that can follow lectures for a long time as long as I take hand-written notes. I read an article some time ago with results from psychological research that seems to confirm my findings: Even if I never look at the notes again the process of taking them somehow seems to make you more alert so that you remember the material easier. That article said that it only works with long-hand writing – taking notes on a laptop does not have the same effect.
      But I agree that several hours in a row are tough – that lecture I gave was organized in big blocks of 6-8 hours each… to my advantage as an external lecturer… but it was probably too exhausting for students. Probably 6 hours are easier to digest if it is 2 hours each given by 3 different lecturers.

      • Waaaaay back when I was an undergrad student I always took my notes from physics classes, ran over to the library and immediately rewrite them. For me–as for you–the act of creating the notes was the real learning activity.

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