12 January 2023

Repeating to Learn


Repeating to Learn

Topic by Ana

Short essay by Lawrence

We are partially to understand the topic in the context of academic education, although this topic is relevant in all aspects of life which require us to learn things.

Of immediate concern for us is how to understand “repeating” and “what” are we learning? It was made clear that by repeating we do not mean rote learning but rather involving ourselves in such activities as revising, finding different sources of the information (or knowledge) we are trying to learn and so on. Indeed this is a key issue in philosophy and epistemology.

To illustrate the problem of rote learning we can use the example of trying to find out what the news is. We can buy a copy of a newspaper and read the same copy every half hour. This, I am sure we all agree, is not the idea of repeated learning. But we can try to be sophisticated, and buy a copy of the same newspaper every hour or so.

The advantage of buying the same newspaper every hour is that later editions of the paper might have new information regarding the story we are following. But in this time and age this exercise might be costly and very time consuming. But a big drawback with this method is that any editorial bias or even honest mistake might also be repeated in all editions. In the age of on-line news, this might cost very little but still time consuming.

A better alternative would certainly be to have access to different newspapers so the information about a story is delivered to us by different journalists and editorial policies. The advantage here is that we might have a good idea of what the key facts of the story are and we are better placed to mitigate any editorial bias or honest mistakes. This is certainly an expensive exercise and one that requires some time to achieve.

But is this good enough? It all depends on what we want to know and how much information we want. If we really want to obtain solid information we need to learn how to question and interrogate the information in the newspapers. In other words if we do not know how newspapers gather their news and redact their information we might still be prone to errors and bias. For example most newspapers today use the same agencies or sources for breaking news.

Why is this relevant for us? In today's world of the internet, search engines, social media and online groups we have easy access to information but this implies that we also have easy access to misleading information, false information, and simply honestly mistaken information. Ironically, these issues and problems are well documented in the scientific method where the quest is always to remove bias and false information: should this be our objective as well?

In an education context we trust that teachers and those who prepare syllabuses for students to learn, know what they are doing, are giving student real information they need and information presented in a manner they can learn. In reality, if people did not trust the education system life as we know it will cease to function. But as philosophers or learned people it will do us no harm if we approached the subject with a good pinch of Cartesian scepticism.

So what kind of repeating should we engage ourselves with? If we take learing a language as an example and our objective is to learn vocabulary we can do better than just reading the words in a dictionary. Although this is a start we really need to learn vocabulary in different contexts and not just that a word has some defition. This is why many students of English dispare with prepositions and phrasal verbs.

But it is not totally the student's fault, the system has only exposed them to a handful of said vocabulary; this is true even if we make an allowance that to inlude all the prepositions and phrasal verbs in all possible contexts is physically impossile. This takes us back to the issue that knowing what to learn is not as important as knowing how to learn in the first place. If we do not know the meaning of say a phrasal very, at leas we know how to find the meaning.

So far knowing how to learn has been a matter of rote learning and memory recall: remember that list irregular verbs or the various anotations in trigonometry? Regarding this matter of rote learning and memory learning, the Princeton University prepared a nice short documents for undergraduates prepciselly how to learn:

How People Learn: Common Beliefs Vs. Research (https://mcgraw.princeton.edu/undergraduates/resources/resource-library/how-people-learn)

One of the key points of the article is what they call “Desirable difficulties”; my interpretation of this term is basically “engaging difficulties we encounter when learning”. These would be problems that we are engaged and motivated to find the answer and not difficulties that are beyond our immediate skills to solve such difficulties. Today aeronautic engineers think of flying they do not strive to build better wings to strap to our arms and back, but rather to design a more efficent flying machine that is reliable when going against the forces of gravity.

It is clear that students, and people in general, learn better when they are motivated to do something and achieve a goal. But we should distinguish between “I want achieve something” and “I've been told to do this or that.” If I just want to integrate in a group or with my peers and I am required to know, for example, what the news is, all I have to do is read a newspaper. But if I want to be knowledgeable about world events and geopolitics I'd better know about how editorial copy is prepared, the provinance of news information and where to find information. But how can we get what has to be learnt with what I want to learn?

I would argue that today a process of learning must involve three factors: why learn something; How to learn; and what to learn.

Best and take care




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PhiloMadrid meeting on Skype 6:30pm Sunday 15th January: Repeating to Learn

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