Learning Is Better. (Sometimes)

You can acquire new information and skills in one of two ways. You can be taught or you can learn. Learning is active, being taught is passive. Which is better? Not an easy question and the answer, regardless of your choice, will not apply to every situation.

The principal advantage of teaching is that it uses organized material. Most of the problems have been identified and the material includes methods to avoid those. The core is known and always included. Exceptions and special cases may be left as an exercise for the student. There is a guide who can encourage, lead and motivate.

Learning on the other hand is much more random. In the beginning, the fundamental is not isolated from the special cases and the trivia and the red herrings. The material you need may not be available or may not appear in the right order. There is no guide to draw you back from dead ends. There may be no one who motivates or encourages.

Sometimes you have no choice. You must learn.

It has always been that way. Learning and especially learning from experience is difficult. As the saying goes, “Experience is the best teacher and for the price it damned well better be.”

In quantum physics, the fundamental idea was well developed by Einstein, Pauli, Dirac, Bohr, Plank, Schroedinger and Heisenberg by 1921 or so. But it was 1926 before Max Born came up with matrix mechanics, the mathematical interpretation of the probability density function ψ*ψ in the Schroedinger Equation. Once seen, it explained and formalized the field.

(Aside: Max was also the grandfather of actress and Grammy award winner Olivia Newton-John.)

The point is that when you are learning, you tolerate gaps and work continuously and creatively to remove the dark areas.

When taught, we don’t do that. If you can’t see the answer, look it up in the back of the book. You forget things you have been taught. Not so many of the things you have learned are lost.

Teaching is better when you know what the needed skill is. Learning is better in other cases. Here is a way to think about which should apply.

Teaching is like regression analysis. Some people think of that as trend analysis. The principal limit in regression is that it has meaning only within the known data. No matter how persistent the trend appears, it is not necessarily going to continue into the future nor be present in the distant past.

Like regression, teaching has limits. You cannot teach the unknown.

People must discover that if you want something outside of the known data, regression is not much better than guessing and teaching is impossible. Some people know that and are willing to try a different approach.

Charles Franklin Kettering was an early 20th century electrical engineer, inventor and businessman. He was one of the founders of the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company. You know it better as auto parts giant DELCO. Kettering invented many things we now take for granted including the electric starter motor, freon based air conditioners, and usable, colored automobile paint. His advancements in diesel motors revolutionized rail and heavy equipment. A bright guy by any standard.

He was more than bright. Smart does not solve all problems. Sometimes there is something above that. I don’t know what it is called, but it is there.

An example.

At least once he assigned a chemical engineering problem to a mechanical engineer. An associate asked why he chose a mechanical engineer instead of a chemical engineer. His reply, “Because he doesn’t know that what I asked for can’t be done. A chemical engineer would know that.”

Guess what. What he wanted could be done.

Learning happens outside the data set. No one can teach you how to do the things that cannot be done, or even the things that have not yet been done. Learning frequently joins information from several bodies of knowledge and explores previously unnoticed paths. Sometimes you must invent a new tool, like Max Born did.

You will know when it has happened. Usually the comment takes the form, “I can see why it works, but what I can’t understand is why anyone thought it would.”

Once you are past the fundamentals, try to let people learn. Teach only as a mentor. Clear up conflicting information, ask questions more than answer them, provide resources and the opportunity to fail.

When people are learning, they will be right in new ways. Ones you could not anticipate. When people are learning, they will be sometimes wrong in new ways and that is good too. You don’t advance much if you are right all the time.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario. don.s@protectorsgroup.com

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