Learn By Doing, Not Watching

Decades ago the famous “gondola kitten” experiment demonstrated that one must actively explore if one is to learn. One littermate in the set-up was free to explore its environment while another hung passively suspended in a contraption that moved in parallel with the exploring kitten. The gondola passenger saw everything the exploring kitten did but could not initiate any action. The mobile kitten discovered the world for itself while the passive kitten was presented a fait accompli-world in the same way that screen images are passively delivered to us. The passive kitten learned nothing. Since this classic experiment we have come to appreciate how crucial self-directed exploration is to understanding the world.

This holds true for humans as well as kittens. In an update of the gondola kitten experiment, researchers recently videotaped an American child’s Chinese-speaking nanny so that a second child saw and heard exactly what the first one did. The second child learned no Chinese whatsoever, whereas the first child picked up quite a lot. (more)

This supports my suggestion to Chase Your Reading; you more learn to figure things out by trying yourself to figure things out, and less by passively listening while writers figure things out in front of you.

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  • Francisco Boni Neto

    “The study found that when the subjects controlled their own observations, they exhibited more coordination between the hippocampus and other parts of the brain involved in learning and posted a 23 percent improvement in their ability to remember objects. “The bottom line is, if you’re not the one who’s controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well,” says lead researcher Joel Voss, now a neuroscientist at Northwestern University.

    In 2009, scientists from the University of Louisville and MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences conducted a study of 48 children between the ages of 3 and 6. The kids were presented with a toy that could squeak, play notes, and reflect images, among other things. For one set of children, a researcher demonstrated a single attribute and then let them play with the toy. Another set of students was given no information about the toy. This group played longer and discovered an average of six attributes of the toy; the group that was told what to do discovered only about four. A similar study at UC Berkeley demonstrated that kids given no instruction were much more likely to come up with novel solutions to a problem. “The science is brand-new, but it’s not as if people didn’t have this intuition before,” says coauthor Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.

    Gopnik’s research is informed in part by advances in artificial intelligence. If you program a robot’s every movement, she says, it can’t adapt to anything unexpected. But when scientists build machines that are programmed to try a variety of motions and learn from mistakes, the robots become far more adaptable and skilled. The same principle applies to children, she says.” http://www.wired.com/2013/10/free-thinkers/

  • Searching is primarily a far-mode process; chasing near-mode. (Katja’s response to the original essay brings this out.)

    The relationship is close enough that I wonder whether far-mode didn’t evolve in the service of search. (Rather than in the service of social hypocrisy.)

    I think Robin slights search (Andy McKenzie said the same in response), but I tend to chalk that up to Robin’s contrarian style. However, I question the generalization that folks would do better to chase more. It seems to me that an Internet-style of reading is developing which is pure chase, and it is intellectually detrimental. On the other hand, education would benefit from much more chase. (Does Robin know this has been a long-standing issue in educational reform, from “progressive education” to the Montessori method?) The worst form of misguided searching, in my experience, is the college lecture.

  • brendan_r

    Yup, and ironically how best to learn is best figured out by trying to learn.

    Unfortunately, the less you know about a subject the more it’s worth learning about, and yet the harder it is to find a motivating project to “do”. Where you’re already expert projects are easy to dream up.

    I’d like suggestions about how to overcome this problem.

    Two things that have helped me are:

    1) kindle + evernote + anki. intensively highlight anything i read, import the highlights to evernote (which is searchable), and then select the best for anki flash cards. also, anytime a current project even tangentially relates to a book i’ve read i review the relevant kindle evernotes carefully. “watching” is fun and easy. this discipline makes it a bit more productive at low cost.

    2) when life hands me a project touching a subject I aspire to learn more deeply I overstudy the project. if i could be done in 1 week I take 3. the motivational tailwind of a project – that you’ll be submitting for feedback and reward in the nearterm – is a rare opportunity to immerse yourself energetically yet patiently in that thing you’ve been unproductively reading about in bits and pieces for a decade.

    (You know that idea about how learning gets easier the more you know? Partly that must be because it’s impossible to “do” in subjects you know nothing about. All you can do is observe. You need a minimum level of background before you can start doing the learning-efficient stuff like arguing, writing, making, designing, etc.)

  • Carmen Caelestis

    This is applied to every area of life: Love & Relationships, Career, etc. I’d rather explore and fail then sit idle on the sidelines, at least I lived.

  • D_Malik

    You’re disregarding costs. The baby who saw the video probably wasn’t concentrating as hard on the language, so he was either distracted (i.e. learning about something else) or more rested (i.e. he’ll learn more later – babies get tired).

    Likewise with “chase your reading”. Obviously chasing 1 book gives you more learning than passively reading 1 book, but what about passively reading 5 books in the same time it takes to chase 1 book? For many fields learning by watching (a large amount) is far more efficient than learning by doing (a small amount, in the same time).

    • IMASBA

      “You’re disregarding costs. The baby who saw the video probably wasn’t concentrating as hard on the language, so he was either distracted or more rested”

      This is just you moving the goalposts, redefining the meaning of “learning” in such a way that learning would only “really” be learning if you chose to learn and are at optimal concentration levels, that way nobody ever has to feel bad about learning more slowly because they can claim they “weren’t even trying”. Comforting, yes, but at the end of the day Robin was merely observing that doing teaches you more than watching does and he was right about that.

      • Autolykos

        Nah, I think this is a valid objection. The limiting factor of how much you can learn (or do, in general) is usually not time, but energy. And actively doing stuff uses up more than passively watching or reading.
        Now, you should still try to learn as much actively as your energy allows – but if you can’t go on, passive reading/watching is still better than nothing.
        OTOH, I’d like to see a test: “Sustainable” passive learning compared against “sprints” of active learning and short naps. I often did the latter for exams and it seemed to work reasonably well, but I don’t have a proper control, and some mix of both may be more efficient.

      • IMASBA

        If you have so much time where you can passively read but don’t have energy then you would be better off using that time to build up (mental) stamina through exercise and more sleep (at least if your goal is to learn more).

      • Autolykos

        Not sure if that works for everyone. I am making sure to get enough sleep and exercise for at least ten hours a week, and still often feel too groggy to do anything productive after work.

        And I don’t have trouble concentrating, in general. I just find that my energy consistently runs out before my time does.

      • I think the applicable psychological concept is decision fatigue (aka ego depletion). ( See http://disputedissues.blogspot.com/2011/12/decision-fatigue-its-implications-for.html and first two links )

    • In my experience I read books faster while chasing than while searching.

      • Of course; chasing is a form of skimming.

        What fraction of your reading time do you actually spend in each? Do you think your proportion is optimal, or do you still hope to chase more?

  • Beware of advice on intellectual style: it is usually (always) self-justificatory. I suppose that caution must apply to the following, too:

    Searching is the primary form of reading because writers harbor the ambition for their audiences to grasp their perspective.

    If (and only if) searching is intrinsically motivated, it is far more efficient than chasing in abstract subjects, where most of what we understand comes from education rather than life experience.

    In this, adult humans are different from infants and other animals in that in our observational learning, we test hypotheses preconsciously. The preconscious hypotheses are generated due to our immersion in the work (due in part to its imperssiveness), our wish to ‘associate’ with the author, but motivated search isn’t passive, although it looks that way.

    Example. Do you learn more in law school or in a few years of law practice? Those who don’t learn the law in school never learn it. ( See http://disputedissues.blogspot.com/2010/07/bar-exam-ritual-good-or-bad-for-legal.html )

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  • Paul Morris

    I believe this greatly oversimplifies learning. We learn all sorts of things, with some things relying more on procedural knowledge, some relying more on declarative, some more on observational, and many things being the result of a complicated mish-mash of modes. If you’re lost in a strange city, you’re much better off observing the directions on a map, or asking for them, then you are just trying to find your way on your own. People don’t learn to tie shoes by trial and error.

  • Pingback: Learning: A Mish-Mashing of Modes | The Language Fix()

  • christinalorence

    Writing a book review need a long time research on that book and have to write each and every concept in that. The book review writing service will helps the students book reviews in cheapest price.

  • Roland

    P Halmos teaching method? He would give his students a list of theorems and say: prove these and you have learned the material.