Saturday, May 05, 2007

Learning something new

He we go again. It’s hard to learn something new. It’s hard the first time, whether its swimming or algebra, or object oriented programming.

There are a lot of social and clinical contexts where the difficulty in bootstrapping learning something has unfavorable consequences.

In school systems, even colleges, one finds that math tends to be something people get or don’t get. Unlike many other academic subjects, there are not a lot of separate “facts” to learn. It’s more a process of thinking in abstractions and perfect logic, usually to reach an abstract result with a typical problem. Over a period of time, a student learns that math solves real problems (maybe starting in physics and chemistry, by eventually in modeling things that happen in real political, social and even family life). It forces thinking to become objective. Students with extreme difficulty in, say, algebra, seem not to have gotten past the “physical” world. They don’t perceive that learning it servers their self-interest. On the other hand, students who do well in it have somehow learned to associate critical and abstract thinking with legitimate self-interest. Not everything is social, relationships, and physical. You have to have a space for your own mind. It does seem true that students from homes with better educated or middle class (or above) parents are more likely to learn this. Racial or ethnic disparities in test scores would reflect this cause.

I already covered on this blog, on Dec. 21, the difficulty in learning different styles of programming and work within the broad area of “information technology.” Again, the workplace has demanded a style of thinking that seems to violate one’s sense of control of one’s own results, with the gain of eventual reduction in cost, increase in productivity and maintainability. Part of the trick in learning this is to connect it with self-interest.

One reason that this matters is that it really is important for people to be able to transcend their own belief systems and understand other points of view. It’s important to be able to do this on one’s own. Yet so many social subsystems (especially many religious groups) purport to do all of one’s thinking about social and moral issues for the individual. This intellectual protectionism seems to make the individual productive within the context of that group, but may compromise the ability of the person to “compete” in a larger global sense.

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