Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Skills vs. Knowledge

The best way to learn something is to have it clearly explained to you.

The thing that's driving me nuts lately is that so much of what's good about life is inaccessible to you if you believe the things about learning that my students do. In particular, I think you're at a real disadvantage in life if you believe that the best way to learn something is to have it explained to you.  More and more I see this as something that I need to address in class, every day.

The stakes are awfully high here.  Because if you believe that explanations are the key to learning, then the following are natural things to conclude:

  • Learning usually requires a teacher or a tutor
  • Learning usually stops after school because teachers and tutors are hard to come by
  • Learning is easy, but hard to retain.
A word about the last of these. If you think that explanations are the key to learning, then when you go on TED and listen to some guy talk about some tech thinger revolution paradigm whatever, and you understand the words when he speaks them, then you've learned something. That was easy. And then later you forget what he said, because learning is cheap and retention is hard.

That's the worst misconception of all. Because what's really true is that
  • Learning is hard, but it lasts a really long time
  • But learning doesn't require a teacher or a tutor
  • And learning is something that should be part of your entire life
Why is it that almost everybody I meet, ever, thinks that learning is easy, but hard to retain? I think that it has to do with the experience of learning something in our everyday lives.

Say that I want to buy a bag of chips. I don't know how much money to bring with me. I find someone who knows how much chips cost. I ask him how much they cost, I understand his response ("$1.99") and I go to the store. That's information that I soon forget a day or two after I go to the store.

That's quick. That's clean. That's easy. And that's the way that most of us think about how we gain more content knowledge on a daily basis. 

But people also know that not everything is like that. For instance, you can't learn to ride a bike, play violin or build a boat via someone's explanation. For these things, explanations won't work. You have to learn how to do X by doing X. 

But the common perception is that there's a difference between the way that we learn skills and content. Yeah, of course you need to practice shooting a basketball to get better at free throws. But that's because shooting a basketball is a skill.  Knowing who built the Panama Canal is knowledge, and for that you need a good explanation. Like a podcast, or a video, or a smart friend, or a teacher, or a book. 

It's the whole dichotomy between skills and knowledge that needs to be torn down. Because it's this flimsy dichotomy that supports the idea that explanations are the key to learning. And it's that misconception about learning that keeps my students from realizing the potential for learning to change their lives.

Look: not all skills are learned by doing or practicing them. If I know how to cook really well, and you give me a short explanation of how to make a carrot cake, I'll probably be able to pull off the carrot cake recipe without much practice. And not all knowledge is learned via explanation. No matter how clearly you explain some fact about Lie Algebras to me it won't make sense to me, because I know nothing about it.

The real difference isn't between skills and knowledge. It's about easy things and hard things. You want to learn something easy? Explanations are fast and efficient. 

But you want to learn something hard? I'm talking about the sort of things that you don't already know how to do, like juggling fire, like speaking a new language, like learning Algebra, writing poetry -- you know, the cool things. You need to practice these things. A lot. 

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