Monday, March 14, 2016

How to Learn: GPS verus Map mentality.

A GPS is extremely convenient:
  • you can just get in the car, without any prior preparation
  • you get turn-by-turn instructions
  • if you lose your way, it recalculates an optimal path
  • there is no need to shuffle through print outs or maps, when you feel lost
One could approach a new class or subject with a "modular" GPS mentality. Simply focus on the task at hand. Don't think too much about what roads you took in the past, or need to take in the future. Let the instructor (or the GPS) take charge of all that.

Your job as the student (or driver) is to follow instructions as best as you can. If you follow them correctly, you will reach your destination, which in this context might involve earning a good grade. If you make a mistake, you can rely on the GPS or teacher to help you get back on.

While convenient and effective (if the only goal is a good grade), such an approach misses insights that might be available with a more struggle-prone Map mentality.

When you approach a new subject with a Map mentality, you expend effort to get a feel for the lay of the land; how are the important highways oriented? Are you headed north, south, east or west?

There is more contextual learning and reflection; an awareness of how newly learned material fits in with all that you have learned before. New knowledge is weaved into the fabric of prior concepts - leading to a richer latticework of connected ideas.

Of course, this dichotomy between GPS and Map mentalities is completely contrived -- there is no reason why you can't have them both. However, the convenience and apparent sufficiency of the GPS approach, often discourages a time-constrained student from looking at the Map or the big-picture.

In my opinion, such big-picture awareness is crucial for long-term education, as embodied in a quote I am fond of: "education is what remains, after all the details learned are forgotten!"

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