12 April 2007

On some advice on learning

I'd really like some feedback on this reply I gave to a correspondent a few minutes ago. We had exchanged emails a few months ago as he sought a study strategy for a technology course he was doing. His message this time suggested that my advice had been helpful on that occasion. Now he has moved on to a different part of the course, with a higher science and maths content, and once again he felt he was floundering. Was he just "bad at" this stuff?
"You have stumbled on something which many people (including some researchers) believe to be the case; that some people are "naturals" for maths and others aren't, (See http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/multiple.htm ) and some people handle technical stuff better or worse than "artistic" stuff (http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/converge.htm)

However, it is not as clear-cut as may at first appear, and although I can't "prove" it, I suspect that this is partly a matter of how abstract ideas appear to be. In the old days of photography before everything went automatic and even digital, we were recommended to "bracket" our exposures. Work out the recommended exposure, take a shot at that setting, and then also take one with the lens one stop more open and one stop more closed. All of us have levels of abstraction with which we are comfortable (and maths tends to be very abstract). On the whole storytellers (very concrete) are not great analytical philosophers or mathematicians (very abstract) and vice versa (OK, Sartre was one exception...). But we can still engage effectively with other levels on either side of our comfort zone.

The problem is that maths etc. tends to be taught at one level (and possibly tested at a slightly more concrete level). If you can't work with the level at which it is being taught, move down (not academically but concretely) and ask yourself to generate examples of how all this works out in practice; or move up, and look for the underlying patterns, of which the stuff you have been taught is just one instance.

Now, frankly, this specific advice may be total rubbish! But it still works! Because it is not the specific exercise, but as you say, your engagement with the material which makes the magic happen. I'm just saying, don't take it at face value as your teacher or the text book presented it; you can manipulate it and manage it as you will--and at the most basic level, you will find yourself remembering it, and being able to apply it.
I'll say no more!

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