16 December 2016

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: How we learn

Dear friends,

As you know this coming Sunday will be our last meeting for the year. We
will resume our meetings on the 8th January. So happy holidays and happy
new year.

Our topic for Sunday is: How we learn

How we learn depends very much on what we want to learn. Indeed when we
say we know something we imply that we have learnt something. Today, the
idea that we have innate knowledge and somehow this surfaces to our
consciousness is something that we read about in past literature and not
something that will happen to us.

As a caveat, just because what we know has to be learnt it does not mean
that the learning process must be a conscious one. Indeed, most of our
waking day we are in a constant learning process of the things around
us; real time awareness of changes in our environment, movement and
behaviour of the people around us. All these things are happening to us
now and we have to act or react now to them. In other words, there is a
huge load of learning we do every day that we just don't know how it is
done in our brain. Indeed, as I tell my students of English, if you need
to remember what the grammar is to a question someone is asking you,
then you probably don't know what the answer is.

Sometimes, the learning process might itself defeat our will to learn:
teachers might be boring and experience too painful.

A way round this is to have a purpose for learning: knowing what we want
to learn can give us a perspective to deal with setbacks such as a
painful experience. But the learning process is only a means to an end,
thus like in matters of love, passion and curiosity are a powerful
motivators to learn things.

Of course, learning a new computer program or crossing the road are not
usually associated with the passion we have for a loved one. But without
a functional interest in the task at hand we stand to fail more than we
stand to achieve what is required. One might not be enthusiastic about
crossing the road, but failure to know how to cross might lead to a
tragedy. Those of us who had the opportunity to travel abroad know very
well how important these basic city skills are; each city on Earth has
its own conventions and rules on how to cross the road and we'd better
learn these local skills when we arrive at a new city.

From our part "how we learn" requires a mental state of need, interest
or simple curiosity. These are basic motivating forces in us that can
also help us overcome certain setbacks. One of those important setbacks
in the learning process are mistakes. It is well documented today that
mistakes are very effective and efficient at helping us learn. And their
effectiveness lies in the fact that we know that what we think we know
is not true, thus making it easier to look for the right knowledge. The
down side is that mistakes can be costly.

And of course, this is why the leaning process in life is usually done
under supervision and within a controlled environment. Which explains
the relevance of that English saying: he who teaches himself has a fool
for a master. It is not that we are unable to acquire the knowledge to
do something, but rather that we run a higher risk of making more
serious mistakes with serious consequences. Or at the very least we
might get involved with the irrelevant as much as the relevant.

In a philosophical context, how we learn requires such mental tools as
asking questions, language comprehension and meaning, logical validity
and so on. But the process of learning also happens in the context of
society. What motivates me to learn something might not be something
society wants me to know, for good or bad reasons. A despot might not
want us to learn the truth about the economy, and the health and safety
committee certainly does not want us to experiment with strange pieces
of metals that glow in the dark.

In philosophy the methodology is just a tool for an end, in the context
of society the tool is sometimes the end. In philosophy (and by
implication science) a given methodology might not be adequate to
demonstrate something (eg formal logic) so we look for an alternative
(eg inductive logic). And sometime different methodologies might lead to
the same end; verbal description of an experiment and a mathematical
formaula. However, in many case in society it is the methodology that
matters: if I need to go from station A to station B on the Metro, what
matters is that I have a valid ticket; it will not do just to give the
money to the ticket collector or leave it in the machine. Again, it will
not help a child pass his or her English exam if they were told to
memorise the list of irregular verbs if the child comes to the
conclusion that since not all irregular verbs are born equal he/she
might as well learn the most frequent ones and leave the rest to appear
first in some text.

How we learn, however, is sufficiently vague to be interpreted how each
of us learns, or how human beings learn, or what methodology makes us
learn and so on. But when we ask this question, How we learn (How do we
learn?) we do not ask this in a vacuum. The topic is not set independent
of the rest of our lives. The trial and method process precisely depends
on previous attempts to achieve something. Thus not all learning
methodologies are useful for everyone; and what we want to learn
determines how we learn it. For example, learning how to cross the road
does not require a lot of practice, once we know the drill that's it. On
the other hand, a pilot who flies planes across the Atlantic probably
spends as much time practicing flying in a simulator as much as they do
actual flying. As a consequence more people in the US and Europe die
from crossing the road than flying across the Atlantic.

To conclude, whilst practice makes perfect, sometime we do need to apply
what we know in real life; and although mistakes are very efficient way
of leaning, we really need to avoid them as much as possible; and it's
well demonstrated that interest and motivation are the best driving
forces in our lives, but sometimes we also have to do the boring bits.
Finally, curiosity is what makes human beings human, but thankfully
Einstein was not curious enough to test out his E=MC2 theory on his
mother's kitchen table using some radioactive material that glows at night.

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813
philomadrid@gmail.com <mailto:philomadrid@gmail.com>
Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com.es/
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Open Tertulia in English every
Thursdays at Triskel in c/San Vicente Ferrer 3.
Time: from 19:30 to 21h

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting at 6:30pm: How we learn

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