Self-learning and ending industrial learning

There was an age when we needed mass education to get everyone up to speed on some basic things. Civics, some basic sense of rules, laws as well as literacy to be able to perform functions as a citizen, be it to serve in the community, read public notices or just the wisdom to spot a scam. Mass education helps when the parents at home don’t have that education background or ability to inculcate all that into their children. It enable very quick uplift of a generation of people. And of course, we designed credentials, qualifications and all that to go with the mass education to certify the skills and abilities, and to use educational qualities as a means to filter people.

More importantly, those were times when knowledge and information was scarce. And schools became essentially the distribution centers of such products. Teachers were facilitators of this transfer and distribution of both explicit knowledge as well as tacit knowledge about civic behaviour, values and character. This is why the problems and tests in exams are more about what and why; less about the how though there’s attempts at getting students to ‘solve problems’. But the application of knowledge was something taken to be done later in life through work and other contexts, not really at school – unless it is a vocational institute. In any case, most of the problems defined are pretty closed ended – with right answers or model answers.

Today, learning can be done through very different channels. Self-learning through the internet is pretty straight-forward. The core skills that is required in school becomes more about developing wisdom and discernment in the information received; the taxonomy around what constitutes more close-end problems vs open-ended problems where solutions can be more multi-faceted. And because this is the case, we need to reconsider how we value the old school certs and qualifications and find new ways to test and identify the talents in our midst, as well as the fit for various different work.

Gone are the days where we can easily get people to fit into the work and job roles designed within a company. We may have to start finding the right talents to deal with the crucial problems we want to solve and then leave the rest to be outsourced or dealt with by technology. At the same time, the ability to self-learn becomes so much more important. Not only should we start giving employees time to self-learn, we need to invest into structures, environment and coaching that enables that.

Our memory is more like a web and less like a shelf

I had a bad memory and in school I was never quite able to cram for examinations. I found memorisation a complete chore and my mind really strained trying to remember things. Most of the time, the harder I try, the more difficult I find it. Subsequently, whenever I had to remember something, it was important that I found something already in my memory to associate it with so as to bond the materials better to my mind.

It turned out that this exercise from young did two things for me.

One is that it caused me to develop an interest for learning and genuine understanding when confronted with something new. Since I wasn’t able to retain much in my mind, what I did, I kept them for much longer than everyone else. And I had to develop my own reasons and purpose for wanting to put something into my memory since they were usually stored longer term.

Second, it gave me a method that increased my memory capacity as I learnt more. This requires a bit more explanation. When I recall things by associating the new information with something already in my mind, I’m actually causing the web of my knowledge to be denser. When a piece of information stands alone, it is easily forgotten. But when you connect it with other information, it suddenly becomes more memorable.

Take for example you meet a guy and he tells you he is 23 years old, then says nothing further. Your memory of him is reinforced by how he sounded, his clothes, hairstyle and perhaps handshake. But if he also tells you that his Mum is a widow, and he had gone to college in Boston, you might actually take all these pieces of information, form even more associations and once you meet him, you’d be able to recall him better than if he had not shared the additional information.

In other words, we actually have a slightly mistaken analogy for our memories. We tend to think there’s some kind of limited shelf space such that trying to remember more things means we need to forget some old things or remove some of the existing memories from the shelf to accommodate the new.

After years of experience trying to deal with that poor memory of mine, I noticed that our memory are more like webs. When we don’t have much in our memories, it is as though there are many gaps within our web and most materials that comes our way just fly through these gaps rather than getting retained. But as you are able to catch hold of more using what you already have, then you naturally hold on to even more memories that allows you to capture more.

Our understanding and what constitutes deep knowledge from repeated practising creates new contexts for us to absorb further new information and knowledge. This is incredible because it means that our memory capacities are not being consumed but rather expanding. Capturing more and richer information enhances our ability to compress new information and knowledge further, drawing upon what is already in the mind.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. A version of this article on the same idea was published in here a while back.

Action to change ourselves

What is the difference between taking an ineffective action and inaction? I think most people think they are the same and in fact they’d rather take no action to save the costs of the ineffective action.

But I beg to differ. How did you know the action you’re about to undertake is an ineffective action? What are the factors driving effectiveness? In taking the action, do you not discover something new? If nothing changed on the situation, did anything change in terms of your knowledge and capabilities?

We tend to think more in terms of how we change a situation rather than change ourselves. But perhaps the change that we need in ourselves is way more pressing than the situation.

Importance of Focus

Getting focus right...

It’s been a while since I last written something on studying; recently I observed how some students take a long time to study. Obviously, many of these people spend substantial amount of time plainly staring at pieces of information, occasionally reading through them with a tiny bit of appreciation and often not quite understanding what they are studying anyways. Computer gaming, and loads of interactive stuff online coupled with consistent television watching has reduced our attention span significantly and impaired our abilities to focus.

So to improve how you study as well as your concentration, you might like to try a few of the following:

Plan Revision & Stick to it
The first step to keeping focusing is having a good, realistic plan. Without a plan, when we decide that we’re going to study, we’ll often just lay out the books and stare at words, possibly read a little and then zone out. When we don’t have a plan that dictates specifically what we are going to study and for how long, we’ll often just drift about the different materials we have, not doing anything eventually. So come up with a proper plan, noting down what topics for what subject you’ll be studying and for how long. Give yourself breaks between topics and when you’re executing your plan, make sure you follow through and only skip the breaks if you believe you can continue. If you find yourself needing more or less time than planned, adjust your plans accordingly. Don’t tire yourself out if you are fast with your studying; reward yourself with a longer play time or break when you finish early.

Find a Good Site
Some people just can’t study at home. I’m not exactly such a person but many people around me are like that. The problem is when there’s people familiar around you, you’d be tempted to eavesdrop their conversation, observe what they are doing – in other words, doing everything else except the task at hand. This happens less (at least at a lower intensity) when it comes to having strangers around you, unless you’re really busybody. Studying outside might be a better option; Starbucks is pretty friendly with studying people, especially the more remote branches, The Coffee Bean is not.

Media White-out
For those who can’t even withstand a bit of distraction will need to try a boycott of media and other attention-seeking stuff. Turn off your TV, radio, computer for a pre-designated time that follows from your study plan. Do not allow yourself to use the computer or those devices even when you’re taking a break. Limit distractions to nuts, snacks, and drinks without digital or analog devices that produces visuals or audio. These people might realise they’ll be better off staying at home and paying their family to get out of the house. Of course, once you’re done with whatever you need to accomplish, you can get back to the stuff you like to do so that they act as a reward for your efforts.

A measure of self-awareness is necessary to help you with this; knowing how your mind gets distracted and what it is easily distracted by will help you attain focus through the elimination of these distractions. It sounds like a pretty simple concept but people usually don’t take steps to help themselves concentrate. Instead, they wait around for their moods to come or the distractions to go away; if you want to make any progress at all, you’ll have to start taking charge of how you waste your time.

Chemistry Notes!

I’m not sure if this is long awaited, but ERPZ finally started a Chemistry Notes Section! I guess everyone would be more grateful if this was up a couple of months back when people are preparing for A Levels. Well, I haven’t found Zhuoyi’s website then and I was unsure about my handwritten notes then. So now, there’s only 2 sets of notes available, one kindly shared by Zhuoyi, which I’ve consolidated and reformatted into a single document. I might soon put up individual links to each set of Zhuoyi’s notes if readers are interested.

The other set is by me; it’s mostly handwritten with typed pages here and there. For those who might be interested, I’ve added a set of handwritten instructions on how you can make use of your Graphic Calculator’s statistics functions to perform calculations for reaction kinetics at the last few page of the document.

Enjoy Learning!

More Economics Notes!

Free Lunch!
Free Lunch!

Just a couple of days back, I was searching for Economics essay questions just for fun and I stumbled upon Fiveless, an initiative by Zhuoyi from RJC 2 years ago when he was doing A Levels. It was a site with a wonderful array of materials for various subjects. Since Zhuoyi actually took A Levels the same time as me, I was kind of disturbed by the fact that I hadn’t stumble upon this site earlier when I was preparing for my exams. But there’s a chance that if that had happened, I wouldn’t have started ERPZ, thinking that someone else has already took up the job.

In any case, I wrote to Zhuoyi to inform him that I would like to consolidate the materials he has so nicely done up and make them available on ERPZ; he kindly agreed and I’m glad to push out the first set of materials that resulted from this ‘collaboration’. It’s a set of 40-page economics notes, summaries and cheat sheets. I’ve updated some of the statistics Zhuoyi has compiled in the notes, altered the formatting slightly to give a more consistent look, added content pages (that are frankly pretty much for the sake of cosmetics) and added very minimal of economics content. I hope I can find time to fill in the gaps because I’m aware that the notes lack content on some topics required in A Levels, but for now, it’s already pretty impressive. The link is also available under Economics Section.

All credit goes to Zhuoyi who’ve made such a great set of notes and generously shared them online under the Creative Commons Remix License. Anyone interested in building upon the work I’ve continued can leave a comment to request for a editable document version of the file from me.

Holding Ideas

All at the same time...
All at the same time...

Some students struggle with social sciences and humanities like Economics, Geography and History because they think they can’t hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and not take a side. Economist are somewhat famous for being able to do that and often criticized for being that way. As a matter of fact, humans are remarkably capable of doing that; we overrate our consistency of thought and the need for ideas that don’t contradict. When we demand scientific proofs for certain claims yet openly express faith in certain religious claims, we’re adopting contradictory frameworks of proof.

The reason why these subjects require that we hold contradictory ideas or for us to withhold judgment of these ideas is the lack of a proper quantitative approach to evaluating them. We might be able to come up with pros and cons but we are unable to assign a positive figure to denote the value and significance of the pro and a corresponding negative figure for a con and then evaluate them in an accounting matrix that will tell you which is better and how much better. Any attempts at that will be subjective and arbitrary anyways. As a result, it is important that students of these subjects hold on to them without judging but maintain the ability to dissect and analyse these ideas, zoom into certain features and investigate different aspects of it when necessary. More importantly, we’ll have to master our language and internalize the nuances of the typical jargons used in the field to discuss these observations we make.

As humans, we will definitely have preferences for some explanation over others as well as some outcomes over others and this is a reason behind all the disputes that social scientist usually have with each other, including high profile ones by economists. And worst, unlike sciences where there are experiments everyone can agree on to check their ideas and theories to discover ‘the truth’, the search for truths in social sciences have often ended in vain because of the dynamic nature of the field. Scientists might not agree before a discovery is confirmed (Linus Pauling, a super-Nobel laureate with 3 Nobel prizes famously believed that DNA’s structure should be a Triple Helix) but once it is confirmed, we find little delusional souls continuing with their false beliefs unless they are ignorant of the confirmation. Economics had its share of control experiments that happened in the world, often by chance. Unfortunately, they can never be repeated perfectly and their results are never agreed upon by experts in the field.

This is not to say that the subjects offer little value to the world; in fact the dynamic nature of these fields mean that there is always questions to answer and things to explore readily. And that is why we need more people to be able to hold different ideas at the same time and have different opinions on the same issue under different sort of circumstances and be able to see the world this way.

To Read, or Not

It sometimes appear to me amazing how highly people think of textbooks and course books. It makes me feel like writing one; perhaps one that teaches people when they should be using their textbooks. A textbook is basically course material that is used to teach you on a subject and when you have learnt about the stuff, there’s little need to do a wholesale revisit, unless you’re confident you’ve forgotten everything.

Why should you torture yourself by relearning everything you learnt and frustrating yourself with some minor definition deviations your memory have insisted upon and trying to ‘re-memorize’ the ‘right definition’? And more importantly, if you can learn the subject or whatever you’re trying to learn without a textbook, why bother to get one?

A textbook has a couple of main uses, some of which concerns the students and others are mainly preoccupations of teachers and textbook writers. The functions students are usually concerned about are explanation and representations while those teachers are interested is includes those, and in addition, the standardization function. It’s not difficult to see why this is so, students are hoping to learn something from the textbook; the explanations helps them understand and possibly provide them a means of explaining the concepts to themselves and others while the representation gives students a means of expressing the ideas and concept on paper (ie allowing them to take exams).

The teachers would love textbooks for those two facts since they relieve them somewhat of their teaching responsibilities but more importantly, it helps them standardize what their students learn and cope with queries that they might have. This is especially important for more contentious issues in the subject that has yet to be resolved by experts and the syllabus prescribes some default stand on the matter for time being.

As a student, one should see the textbook more as a guide than an authority and use it accordingly. Going through it once and understanding the concepts one seeks to master is basically all that the textbook should offer. A slow learner might revisit it a couple of times to grasp a concept or to master the explanations fully; and occasionally one could browse through it as a reference for the way they represent certain information (in the form of diagrams, charts and such) but it is difficult to gain anything more than that on repeated revisits to the textbook.

The ideal usage of a textbook is to synthesize the stuff from different sources together with it on your notes and chucking them aside when you’re doing your revision – rely just on your personal notes (those that aggregate information from your readings of textbooks, your prescribed readings and lecture notes). Of course, this advice is more for students who revise consistently and are wholly familiar with the content which they’re sitting an exam for.

Practical Intelligence

Not Acting Smart
Not Acting Smart

I got to know about this book through a friend who was exploring topics that ranged from manipulating personality test results to acting smart in front of employers. It’s a great boon that this is not the kind of book that teaches you to act smart. Karl Albrecht writes realistically about how we can go about making ourselves more intelligent in practical situations. There are many ideas in the book I’ve thought about previously but failed to put into concrete concepts as he did. I must say Karl did a wonderful job.

Like most of the other books on thinking, Karl discusses the make-up of the brains, the way different lobes on the brain controls different stuff and how they work together in concert and then he draws some meaningful speculation on the way we think. There are many speculations which are largely unproven in neuro-sciences but are well known in the field of psychology. Never mind the actual theories, Karl shows us how they might be useful for aiding us discover our mind’s potential. He firms up the concept of ‘Affirmative Thinking’, which I think is a very important idea in our lives. We’ve cease to be gatekeepers of our mind in this media age, often pushed around, influenced by the people who are in turn controlled by others around as well as prevailing culture and fads. To accept that we are often being bombarded by thoughts and ideas of others and we often take them as if they’re our own is the first step to controlling our thinking and helping us steer ourselves towards healthy thinking and mental habits.

Karl recommends simple methods to help us regain control of our minds and direct our attention so that we can tap on our mental habits, thinking preferences and styles to aid us with daily thinking, problem-solving and just plain existing in our complex world. I’m interested in the implication of Karl’s ideas on education and learning. He has another book I’m looking forward to read, Social Intelligence, which he actually wrote before this book.

An angsty letter

This letter was written in early 2008 as an expression of late teenage angst at my high school. Most details have been forgotten and the context is no longer very clear to me. It reflects some of my earlier writings that were expository but driven largely by my intellectual passion in education.

It has been quite a while since something bothered me to the degree this issue of how lousy your department is did. The last time was perhaps when I was in high school, when the rather incompetent humanities department head pioneered some rather disturbing means of assessment (Major Research Papers, as they were known) – that has since been resolved after it was replaced by some more experimentally disastrous modes of assessments, for which I was not subjected to (and therefore I see no issue with that). I shall, in this little letter, outline the faults with your department and offer my suggestions to ‘correct’ these problems.

I begin with the course materials for they are at the forefront of ‘educating’ your students. If anything else, it is the only thing that comes directly in contact with the learners of your subject. The design of your lecture notes have been kindly standardized, which presents organizational ease students would gladly appreciate, but no additional readings are provided (though I would think some students also appreciates this) and it is declared that whatever students need are within the notes issued. Further readings or exploration is discouraged implicitly this way. All notes are arranged in rather logical order that introduces concepts and definitions but it appears that more emphasis is placed on memorizing the definitions than understanding the concepts (this will be elaborated in the pedagogy segment later). Diagrams are poorly annotated and large chunks of text that follows diagram are in prose but ‘bulleted’, making it confusing for student as to whether to take the entire chunk of text as a ‘point’ in the theory or mere elaborations. Blanks are often placed in wrong positions because teachers edit their lecture presentations after sending notes for printing. I therefore suggest that all blanks be scrapped so that lectures can proceed quickly and that more spaces are provided between chunks of text for notes to be written. All conceptual points should be summarized and written in good English (read: good English, not just easily misunderstood English). All diagrams should be well annotated and unnecessary repetition of diagrams removed.

Lecture time are often wasted on administrative matters that demonstrates deep distrust in the student’s desire to learn. To attend a lessons in a premier institution is to expect no time wasted on unnecessary disciplinary remarks made by teachers and that both students and lecturers are on time. There is really no need to mark attendance for lectures or waste time waiting for students who are late. To miss out a part of the lecture should be the punishment in itself – there’s no need to humiliate these students by starting the lecture late on purpose and then claim these late comers responsible for the fast pace of the lecture or worst, the incomplete-ness of the lecture. Incessant nagging about student performance during lectures are not at all appreciated and seen solely as an avenue at which the lecturer lets out his/her steam on the students, achieving practically no effect on the grades or effectiveness of lectures (often even undermining that, as well as respect for the lecturers). There is thus no need for attendance marking during lectures, or the wait for late-comers, or any ‘disciplining sessions’ – lecture time should be left purely for lecture on the subject

Technicalities with course materials and the ways lectures are carried out aside, the pedagogy of teachers reveal a profound misunderstanding in the cognitive abilities of the students as well as the processes by which one acquires academic knowledge of a subject. A social science, or any rather scientific subject, should be taught with the hope that students understand theories and concepts, as well as the implications of them. Next step would be the application of these concepts on the real world, the ability to draw evidence, real world examples to support theoretical concepts and possibly critique the inadequacies of theory. Ideally, we should be producing students capable of explaining the theories and giving examples in his/her own words.

Unfortunately, your department focused all energies on teaching ‘answers’ of potential examination questions to students since day one. There is no appreciation for the knowledge to be acquired, no consideration given to the way concepts are used in the real world (whether it is the predictive or the explanatory value) and absolutely no respect was paid to the history of the subject. Authorities of the subject are rarely introduced – I strongly believe that understanding the settings at which certain theories surrounding particular phenomena are discovered would aid one’s critique of the theory as one would then understand the timing and circumstances for which the concept served a valid explanation for some phenomena. Such ‘assessment-oriented’ approach would be seen as an indication of laziness in part of your department (if not ignorance), perhaps only interested in the results of the students rather than how interested students are in your subject. What could illustrate your distorted ideology towards teaching more than one of the lecturer’s exclamation during one of the paper review sessions: “Please, I urge you to memorize all definitions, the exact wording of each and every definition as given in your lecture notes. Do not use any definitions you picked from elsewhere or constructed yourselves because their wording are often wrong or difficult to interpret and this frustrates the markers. That means they have to waste more time on your paper and you’ll probably be given lower marks for that.”

It is perhaps why I come to realize how some of my peers who were initially curious about the subject were practically put off by it, possibly till this very day. I have no idea if this was your department’s intention but I was lucky my initial passion for the subject (built from the numerous outside readings and a steady supply of magazines on the subject) was never watered down by your horrible approach to teaching. That I went on to pursue tertiary education on this subject could only be attributed to the fact that you and your fellow colleagues have failed to practice the flawed pedagogy to its extreme for you all are still human. Of course, you might try to refute my claims by highlighting the numerous students pursuing further studies on this subject who are from our institution. That I do not deny, for it is the innate allure of the subject and perhaps the demand for knowledge in this field that have drawn this intellects towards the subject. In raising this point as a rebuttal, your department should thank God your screwed approach was not consistently applied (plausibly due to a few rebel lecturers who truly believed in the subject and loved that exploration).

I have, in the course of my education in the institution, approached tutors of the subject (ie. your colleagues) regarding some of the matters I have pointed out above but they all appeared to shrug at them. Replies offered ranged from ‘instructions by the department’ and ‘every tutor in our institution is doing it this way’ to ‘that has been the case all along and we have no problem with it’ and ‘you are a special case, I don’t think other students would think this way’. My friends have suggested I return to teach at my alma mater and clean up the mess I observed in my school days. I hope that this letter will just do that without having me to compromise my future.