Two Ways to Learn

August 26th, 2010

Flying Boats with Puppets

I’m planning my fall classes, and one of the books I’ve planned for the Wireless World class is James Paul Gee’s book on video games and literacy. I’m curious what my students will think about it. It’s an accessible topic that I think they’ll be eager to discuss; however, the writing style of the book is definitely academic. It’s a style I’m very comfortable reading, but one that students are likely to find dense and confusing.

And yet, I am curious and eager to talk to students about it, because it’s an interesting way to act out the processes in the book. When you start playing a complex video game, you need to learn a new “language,” in a sense. It’s designed to be a little puzzling, because that reminds you to pay attention. Video games are fun because they’re challenging to learn. The same thing, I think, can be true of a piece of writing that uses challenging vocabulary and structure. You can get a sense of accomplishment from it, but only after overcoming the sense of frustration you feel at the early levels.

Consider how we learn to use a new gizmo after we open the box. Some of us will dig for the instruction book and make sure we’ve read every page so we know what we’re supposed to do with it. Others will start pressing buttons. The only other option is a non-option: after poking slightly at one or the other way to learn about it, we’ll give up and the gizmo will sit unused.

Really, these are the simplest ways we can respond to any learning situation. We can try to inherit the knowledge, unearth the knowledge, or abandon the knowledge. So a student is reading a book for class and notices an unfamiliar word that the writer seems to be using a lot. The student can reach for a dictionary and try to inherit the knowledge. This would be the same case if they asked someone else to explain it, or tried to find a simplified summary of the book. The student can also take a guess at the meaning of the word, then read forward with that guess in mind. Each new use of the word either confirms what the student thinks it might mean, or contradicts it, so the student might have to go back and re-read with another guess in mind. Or they can give up.

There are benefits to both kinds of honest attempts. I think sometimes we rely too much on inherited learning. We want to know what the outcome is going to be before we try. Of course, we need both, especially with the range of situations. I wouldn’t want a world where pilots-in-training get no book learning, just the opportunity to try and see what works and what crashes. But I also wouldn’t want a world where nobody learns from experience.

But perhaps we rely too much on inherited learning when trying to develop Buddhist practices. I know people who read a lot of books about meditation and the Buddhist traditions in the world, trying to perfect the concept of Buddhism before they’re willing to test out the teachings for themselves. We need to risk a little, to take some steps that might be failures, in order to really learn.

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