Knowledge as an obstacle to learning

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With today’s omnipresent media it seems that the average person knows more than ever before in human history. Google searches, wikipedia articles, and countless online news sites make huge amounts of information available. This information bombards the modern person from all directions: TV screens at gas stations and checkout lines, 24 hour news channels, magazines, shared articles on Facebook, DIY websites, and Youtube tutorials. How often do people quote some bit of information that they “know” but they have no idea where the information even came from?

 
I have been wondering about this phenomenon for a while and I have become more and more critical of the whole idea of “knowing.” These days I try really hard not to recite bits of information that I’m not sure about, where the source is forgotten, or at least I put a strong disclaimer on what I spout. For those who are interested there is a field of philosophy that deals with knowledge, how it is acquired, and how it influences belief, certainty, and the concept of truth. This branch of philosophy is called epistemology and is worth some reading. For a basic article see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology

 
Lately, I have been leaning towards the idea that “knowing” or knowledge is one of the major obstacles preventing learning. This phenomenon is easily observed in young children who are the masters of learning. They constantly ask unusual questions and make novel connections when young. This flow of novel thinking is essential to how children learn about the world around them. Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often pruned out and paved over with “knowledge” in the process of socialization. I’m frequently saddened by how adults respond to the often keen and always worthy questions of children. The first possibility and perhaps the most common is for adults to ignore or not notice a child’s question. They might reject the question outright or not take it seriously. If they do provide an answer for the child it often is an answer that shuts off the child’s line of inquiry. Once the child “knows” this answer, often misinformation, they are much less likely to pursue the matter further. They think that they know. Following is an example of this unfortunate stifling of the learning process.

 

I was once visiting the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, an impressive center with diverse animals and plants in well made exhibits. At the enclosure for the desert bighorn sheep I was watching the adult male of the herd repeatedly bashing his head against a large palm tree. From the sizable dent in the tree it was evident that the ram did this on a regular basis. A large group of people stood milling around the exhibit and I could only imagine the pent up stress and boredom of such a creature. Just then, a little girl asked out loud, “Does that hurt it when it hits its head like that?” It seemed to me like a legitimate question rooted in a feeling of empathy for another creature. However, the girls mom seemed to think it was a stupid question and answered quickly without a second thought, “Of course not. Haven’t you seen them bashing heads all day long on TV?”

 

The mother’s answer is based on “knowledge of the the world” that she has acquired over  the years of her life (apparently much of this from watching TV). She may have seen bits of documentaries about bighorn sheep where the males ram into each other during the mating season. Even more likely she saw this behavior in a popular beer commercial that ran during a Superbowl. From this she assumed that since this is normal behavior for them that it probably doesn’t hurt. She also expressed a high degree of certainty about her “knowledge” in her response to her daughter. She did not add any modifiers or maybes. She did not admit her own lack of an answer to the question.

Chances are that bighorn rams have lots of anatomical features that mitigate the potential damage of their intense head-on impacts. Chances are that the male we were watching was not causing too much damage to himself by ramming the palm tree. However, the point is that we will probably never know if he was experiencing pain. More importantly, the girl’s question is totally valid and a perfect entree into a fascinating line of inquiry that could open many doors of learning. Let me create an alternative scenario where an adult did not insultingly answer the question in a way that stifled a potential learning experience:

At the bighorn sheep exhibit the adult male repeatedly bashed his head against the palm tree in the corner. A large dent in the trunk showed that this was a regular behavior. Just then a little girl asked out loud, “Mommy, does that hurt him when he bangs his head like that?” A thoughtful moment passed before the woman answered, “ I’m not sure honey, how could we find that out?” Instantly, more neurons are firing in the girl’s brain, more connections are being made, and she is forced to think creatively. She recalls her own experiences of pain while also searching her memory for examples of other animals experiencing pain. “ I know that some animals can feel pain, remember that injured horse we saw?” The question hangs in the air before she continues, “But how can we know what they are feeling if we can’t talk to them?”

It is easy to imagine all the possible lessons that could stem from the girl’s original question. Maybe this conversation will lead her to become a behavioral biologist or inspire her to study the neuroscience of pain. Unfortunately, all it takes is an unthoughtful and self-assured answer in the wrong tone of voice from an adult to stifle the learning opportunity. This scenario can also happen between adults, in a whole community, or within the microcosm of our own mind. I think we must be careful of this tendency if we truly want to learn. For true learning is a process, a way of seeing and thinking, it is not the mere accumulation of bits of information.

Be always wary of knowledge and answers; seek instead the power of good questions and child-like curiosity.

For more info on the wonderful Arizona Sonora Desert Museum see here: http://www.desertmuseum.org/

Learning how to Learn

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One of the “meta” topics that I’m most interested in is learning. Learning about new subjects and learning new skills is great but learning how to learn is even better. If you know how to learn in a more effective way you can apply this skill to the learning of any new material. This provides flexibility and adaptability that are increasingly important in the modern world. When the future is uncertain and overwhelmingly complex it is hard to know what skills and subject matters are most important to learn. Will it be more useful for me to study small scale food production, wilderness survival, conflict-resolution, or self-defense? Or would I be better off focusing all my energy on the narrow subject matter of a particular career? In unpredictable and rapidly-changing times one thing is certain: being good at learning itself is a major advantage.

A look at human history and prehistory shows that the ability to adapt to new and rapidly changing conditions is one of the hallmarks of our species. It is likely that much of our biological hardware and cultural software arose to deal with the difficulties of an unpredictable environment and novel challenges. There are many debatable things about human evolution and human nature. However, one thing that is apparent is that we are born to learn.

If we are innately so good at learning how come we often find learning new things difficult, especially as we get older? Unfortunately, our culture, that all-powerful tool, often dictates to us what is possible and not possible. Recent neuroscience continues to show us the incredible feats of plasticity, connection, and memorization that the brain is capable of. Many popular beliefs and cultural assumptions about the limits of the brain have been totally blown out of the water. “An old dog can’t learn new tricks” is a good example of a cultural meme that is not based on brain science and can influence our capabilities. Luckily, we do not have the brains of dogs, and we are indeed capable of learning new tricks, new languages, and other new skills as we age. The burgeoning field of neuroplasticity continues to find evidence that the brain’s ability to learn and adapt is far greater than previously assumed.

I will be writing several entries about learning since it is one of the great meta-topics under which all of my other interests fall. I will get more into specific techniques for improved learning while delving into particular topics of study and also philosophizing about learning and knowledge in general. I will tie in current research in cognitive science because we are in the golden age of brain research. Everyone with a brain should be interested.

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Science Illustration

DSCN3562 Here is an example of one of my illustrations.

My diversity of interests, unique perspective, and holistic outlook have frequently complicated my search for a clearly defined career in today’s myopic and overspecialized world. I often lamented the fact that I could not pursue the multi-faceted life’s work of the renaissance man, such as Leonardo da Vinci, or the diverse skill base of the 19th century scientists and natural historians, such as Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt.

In my continuing quest to find a way to connect my widespread interests and follow a life path that is in tune with my earliest predilections I have found the field of Science Illustration. In particular I have decided to apply for the Science Illustration graduate certificate program at CSU Monterey Bay. This program used to be at UC Santa Cruz and I heard about it when I was studying anthropology there. However, I somehow thought that it was not really a viable career path. Some type of deeply ingrained and insidious bias against art had me subconsciously convinced that art was not something to major in or seek a career in.

For more about the program that I’m applying for checkout the website here:

http://scienceillustration.org/index.htm

Make sure to check out the gallery with alumni artwork here:

http://scienceillustration.org/gallery/galleryhome.htm

Since I was a kid I have loved drawing and I have loved nature. Drawing was always a personal thing for me and I never really pursued formal instruction. Looking back, part of me wishes I had taken it more seriously, took more classes, or majored in art. However, I know that the path I took, no matter how circuitous, has allowed many experiences that are essential to my personality and outlook today. If I had majored in art in college I might not have gone down the path that taught me so much about sustainability, agriculture, homesteading, primitive skills, and tracking.

One of my inspirations for pursuing science illustration is John Muir Laws. He is the author and illustrator of a field guide to the Sierra Nevada and several other books. He fits the bill for a 19th century Naturalist with keen field observation, countless hours of dirt time, evocative and accurate illustration skills, and a strong science background that is not overly specialized, corporatized, or computerized. Laws is also extremely generous with his knowledge and techniques, often teaching workshops in the San Francisco Bay Area and posting many useful tutorials on his website.

Check out John Muir Law’s excellent website:                                   http://johnmuirlaws.com/

I have sent in my application for the CSUMB program and should hear back in the next month or so. It is a very exciting turning point in my life and I am looking forward to an extremely stimulating and challenging learning experience!

I’ll get a portfolio of my work up soon.

Marley’s Background Essay

Every aspect of a person is a reflection of their experiences. What we have seen, heard, or done makes us who we are.

One of the most important influences on my life is my family history. I was born into a family characterized by a convergence of diverse cultural, racial and class backgrounds. My mother’s parents included the son of an ex-slave who grew up on an Indian reservation and became a labor organizer and the daughter of Jewish immigrants form Lithuania who resisted Czarist pogroms. My father’s parents included the son of coal miners of German and Irish descent who became a labor relations expert and the daughter of a German immigrant milkman who at the age of 50 sailed around the world. When I was six years old my parents were divorced and soon thereafter my father moved to Costa Rica.

Exposure to many cultures within my own family provides me with awareness of and some insight into widely divergent ideas and worldviews. Being raised in such a diverse environment has fostered in me an insatiable curiosity and desire to understand the workings of the world and its inhabitants. This global family also gives me the chance to leave the world of most of my peers behind and experience life in other countries.

Since I was six years old I have had the privilege of spending part of almost every year living with my dad in Gunacaste Costa Rica. Being part of a rural Central American community has not only allowed me to become fluent in the language, but in the culture as well. Life on the farm where my dad lives is at polar opposites from life in San Diego, yet both of these places have been home for me. One is a metropolis with millions of people, criss-crossed by freeways while the other is a village of less than a thousand, surrounded by jungle and farmland. The dramatic shift from one home to the other has punctuated the yearly rhythm of my life and made me adaptable. This ability to adapt to new environments has proven useful in my life, especially in my travels.

Three weeks after graduating high school I began a year that would have unprecedented effects on my life. I decided to postpone my studies for a year to travel and work in Central America and Europe. During this time I lived in several European countries, taught English at a Costa Rican High school, and worked on a dairy farm in Denmark. That year of my life provided me with invaluable experiences as well as a newfound confidence and motivation.

Because of the diversity of my family and my experiences I have a unique way of seeing and responding to the world. I am accustomed to interacting with people from all over the planet and adapting to the culture which they belong to. My curiosity and global perspective thrive in today’s increasingly interconnected world.