"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Monday, June 14, 2010

How do experienced learners learn?

Experienced people aren't necessarily smarter. Those of us who spend time around younger people know those minds are much faster and more creative than ours. The peak age for creativity in mathematics is 23-25. After that, it's all downhill for most mathematicians.

So what's the point of having experience, if your brains don't work so good no more? You spend less time observing, thinking about, considering, weighing all the stuff that's Just Not Going To Work. Every breakthrough requires the rejection of tons of unworkable alternatives. Experience teaches us to recognize those more quickly, saving time.

There's a brief Scientific American piece here describing an effort to quantify this in geology, by using eye-tracking technology to see what experienced geologists look at. By definition, that also means skipping over the stuff that's not worth looking at. The hope is that this will permit young people to become experts without experience.

Of course, there's a trap here. Many important possibilities are overlooked by older experts because of the It's Never Been Done syndrome or We Don't Do That or Everybody Knows That..., all symptoms of inherited and unexamined assumptions. Often younger people in a field leap ahead by going back and re-examining those brain-dead assumptions.

So it will be interesting to see just how useful and effective this attempt to describe and record the result of experience in a particular field will be.

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