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Learning How To Learn

“To understand is to invent.” – Jean Piaget

The latest Accretionary Wedge topic is Back To School. Anne Jefferson, professor of hydrogeology and one of the blogging pair at Highly Allochthonous, has a set of questions for students, professors, those outside academia and science fans. The following are specific questions addressed in this post:

If you are a current or future student … What sort of experiences do you want to get out of school and how do you think school can or should help you prepare for a career?

If you are a professor … What do you wish your students would ask? What do you think they should know, regardless of whether it is formally taught and assessed?

If you are outside academia … What needs do you see for the rising generation of geoscientists? What skills and concepts are essential? Are there skillsets that we aren’t doing a good job of imparting on students? If you could go to a group of undergraduate geosciences majors and give them advice, what would you tell them? What would you tell their professors?

If you are a geology enthusiast but not professional … What do you wish you could get in additional formal and informal education?

For anyone … If you could go back to any point in your education and do it over, what would you do differently? Why?

At various points in my life, I have been all of the above – student, teacher, worker and geology/science fanatic – and like to think I still am. Whether you are a researcher or an applied scientist, you can never stop learning and that includes studying various things about your science, teaching it in different ways, working on it and loving the hell out of it. All of this comes from and gives back to one simple but crucial tool – not just learning but learning how to learn.

What does this mean? In my opinion, the meaning of a university has been corrupted to the point where the majority of students learn to a certain extent the works of others who did the research and, having achieved a very expensive pass from the gatekeepers, go off into the world to make it. This is unacceptable and look at where it’s landed us on education rankings and economically. I believe that every single university student should leave college not just with information but with the abilities to, over the course of their lifetimes, teach themselves a million times as much information in the absence of a teacher and to find a teacher again should the need arise. Learning how to learn is getting and growing the toolset with which to take any concept, old or new, apart and to put it back together the same or as something completely new and/or different. In other words, knowing scientific results is important, but how to arrive at those and new states of knowledge is most critical.

Geoscientists will nod and smile at this quote, “The person who feels smug in an orderly world has never looked down a volcano.” The world, life, what we know about it, everything we take as givens change and will change (look at the economy and what we have been taught to value, for instance). Anyone can regurgitate, few can rebuild or build anew. Be the latter.

How does one learn how to learn? These are a few tips that still work for me.

1) Find a good mentor. In most universities, this is a professor or research scientist looking for a lab or research assistant. Talk to them, tail them, observe them in the field, lab and classroom, have them give you reading assignments, discuss this literature with them and ask them how they do their work. How do they question the existing knowledge to build upon it? What steps do they take to test their new, groundbreaking ideas? You will find that these mentors love the attention, are positively heartened to share their passion with you and will lead you to other mentors when it is time for you to move on. And when I say “move on,” I mean it. Just because your mentor was an invertebrate paleontologist doesn’t mean poking at crinoids is what you have to do for the rest of your life. This brings me to the next tip.

2) Study and work at different things. This goes for students as well as those years into academia and industry. Not only does it keep you from a career rut / dead end but trains your brain to address different kinds of problems with different modes of thought or any given problem using a different approach. My graduate studies included structural geology, high-performance computing, 3D visualization and borehole geophysics. In my career so far, I have worked at seismic data interpretation, operating a virtual reality center, hydrocarbon reservoir characterization, blast analysis, 3D web services and, lately, seismic inversion. All through school, we’re taught “Find one thing and get really good at it.” I’ve also been asked in the past if I hadn’t yet found my groove. Well, consider today’s unemployment rate and our inability to get people back into the workforce, and then ask where most of those people are who found one thing and got really good at it. And, in my industry today, niches are starting to kill careers. Everything I have studied and worked at, including history and selling diodes at Radio Shack, has come through for me.

This doesn’t mean you should not be good at something. In fact, my response to Agile’s Wherefore art thou, Expert? was “I think the answer is to be excellent at one or two things, good at many and generally scientifically adept, not mediocre, at lots.” This will open doors for you and help you create them where they do not yet exist.

3) Just pick it up and learn it if you have to. I know this is easier said than done, but I force myself to do this on an almost daily basis, because it makes me think about how. Give yourself assignments that make you question your sanity (like me with seismic velocity modeling soon *shiver*). Even outside science: automotive engines are scarier to me than emergency rooms, snakes and cemeteries are to most others. Yet, if I have to, I will pick up that Chilton auto repair manual and try to fix my car.

Ultimately, learning how to learn is about picking up the thing, breaking it a couple of times, asking those more knowledgeable than you to give you ideas, working at it and figuring it out. It’s also about teachers, mentors and society in general giving you the room in which to do that, and I really wish this is what universities will return to.

Innovation is not just creating new concepts, but also expanding your brain just a little everyday to use existing and new ideas to your and others’ advantage. To understand is to make progress and life just a little less scary. Learn how to learn.

6 comments… add one

  • Matt Hall September 28, 2011, 9:08 PM

    Great post, I will be showing it — and perhaps many more of these Wedges — to my students. I love your second tip, and this idea that we’re all little parcels of individual experience. Some people just seem to be more willing to recognize and capitalize on the validity of their chequered pasts than others. And more enthusiastic about jumping into their chequered futures too. Cheers!

    • Maitri September 28, 2011, 11:53 PM

      The thing about my varied past is that I chose to study or work at these things. I was this close to going on to a structural geology PhD, but opted to study computational sciences because I thought it would make me better-rounded in an industry career. Same with moving from geology into geophysics – seismic interpretation when you don’t understand the seismic data is bogus. Always, the field of study doesn’t dictate my questions; instead, my questions dictate what I study. It’s how it should be.

  • Anne Jefferson September 29, 2011, 9:36 AM

    Thanks for this great post, Maitri. I think you’ve talked about a very valuable thing, and one that students might not hear often enough. I remember my childhood cello teacher telling me that it was the goal of music teachers that their students no longer need a music teacher, and it’s something I talk about with my graduate students, but we probably ought to be telling undergraduates this too. Like Matt, I’ll be sharing your post (and others in the carnival) with my students, thanks for sharing your wisdom and perspective.

  • Brian Romans September 29, 2011, 12:10 PM

    This is a great perspective.

  • Clay October 5, 2011, 8:17 AM

    Great, Great post.

    My heart warmed at the Chilton’s comment (I’m more partial to Haynes myself).

    Tonight’s lecture in my grad level geology is on hydrogeology. Then I have to memorize the epochs (as a MechE with zero undergrad geology background) for next week’s test…

    • Maitri October 5, 2011, 9:43 AM

      All of us geologists had to memorize it at some point. You, sir, have a leg up because you work in the industry.

      Ok, in the Cenozoic era, you have the Tertiary (third) and Quaternary (fourth) periods. Take the Quaternary first, since we live in it: We live in the Holocene and you’re familiar with the Pleistocene before it.

      The Tertiary is split into the Paleogene (old) and Neogene (new). Again, take the Neogene first as we drill into it lots in the Gulf of Mexico: Miocene and Pliocene. Next, the Paleogene: Paleocene, Eocene and Oligocene. Those three are the only ones you have to memorize because you’ve heard the rest.

      Now, Paleocene Eocene Oligocene
      Miocene Pliocene
      Pleistocene Holocene

      In other words, Put Eggs On My Plate Please Homer

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