Learning in public

As mentioned in the last post, what follows is something I wrote over a year ago. I decided not to publish it then because … I don’t know, I guess because the subject made me uncomfortable. It asks the question: Is it OK for me to be a complete amateur in public? The answer when I originally wrote this was no, but I might want to do it anyway. The answer now is yes, let’s get on with it.

Sitting in lecture

How students learn best

Back in 1990, a physics professor at Harvard (Eric Mazur) noticed that his students were learning “next to nothing.” After studying physics for an entire semester, their erroneous conceptions of how the physical world actually worked were firmly intact. So one day Mazur tried an experiment. After several unsuccessful attempts to clarify a concept, he suggested to the class (of 150 students) that they discuss the matter among themselves. It worked. He reports: “within three minutes, they had figured it out.”

Mazur’s explanation of what happened is as follows: When you’ve only recently learned something, you’re still familiar with the parts that were difficult to master (“where you got hung up”). It’s easier for a novice to explain something to a beginner than it is for someone who mastered the concept decades ago.

The way we learn best, it turns out, is by doing something active with new information. The activity helps information get transferred from short-term to long-term memory. The article describing Mazur’s discovery goes on to explain the subsequent documented success of interactive or active learning. This includes the ability to erase the gender gap between male and female undergraduates, BTW.

This got me thinking about an ongoing conversation I have with myself about blogging.

A hierarchy of understanding

Somewhere – this goes back to when I was in high school – I remember coming across the idea that there were three levels of understanding. One, there’s the sense that I understand something while I’m reading about it. When I later try to recall what I read, I may realize my understanding was deficient.

Two, there’s the ability to repeat what I’ve read, in my own words, to other people. They may or may not understand what I’m saying, and I myself may not truly understand what I’ve read, but I can at least repeat it as if I do.

And three, there’s the ability to communicate what I’ve read (verbally or in writing) so that someone else truly understands it. This is what teachers and writers are presumably doing. (These levels of understanding apply to acquiring information from any source – I could be listening to a speaker or watching a video, for example, not just reading.)

I’ve had time to think about this since high school, and I can now see that such a hierarchy may be debatable. Nevertheless, I think it illustrates something about active learning. When I simply read something, there’s very little activity or interaction. Yes, I can underline. That’s useful primarily if I later want to locate something I remember reading. I can take notes. That’s definitely more active, especially if it leads to writing down new thoughts that occur to me.

When I explain what I’ve read to someone else, there is interaction, true. However, I can repeat something I’ve read with only a superficial understanding. Of course if the conversation leads to a serious discussion, there is the potential for deeper understanding. A discussion will make me aware of things that hadn’t occurred to me and provide insight into what I had failed to understand.

For me, level three learning happens when I write, not when I speak. When I try to write something, I quickly recognize what I don’t understand. In particular, I recognize those things I cannot easily explain to someone else. (I assume this happens more often when I write than when I speak because there’s more time to reflect.) Writing is a monologue with someone who is not physically present. I have to continually ask myself if the reader will understand what I’ve written (this being an important objective of writing). When I become aware of what I don’t understand, I either have to figure things out or abandon the attempt to write about this particular subject.

This brings me to my current personal dilemma with blogging and how that dilemma relates to the idea of active learning. Some months ago I stopped writing daily blog posts at The Health Culture. This gave me more time to read books full of ideas that I really wanted to write about. So why wasn’t I doing that, I asked myself.

What is blogging?

What kind of writing is blogging? In an influential 2008 piece in The Atlantic (Why I Blog), Andrew Sullivan asserts that blogging is “the spontaneous expression of instant thought.” He contrasts the blogger with the columnist and the novelist, who – he says — must take time to think before they write. According to Sullivan, blogging is all about the rapid interaction made possible by a digital audience, not about the quality or substance of what one writes. Those considerations are reserved for print.

Sullivan’s idea is the foundation of the Huffington Post style of blogging (spelled out in The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging). Not everyone who blogs subscribes to this style, and ultimately it didn’t satisfy me. But I definitely found something useful about it.

I started blogging in October of 2008, right before Barack Obama was elected president. Just as I was getting my feet wet, health care reform started. I was writing about health, so I followed the discussion. I wrote about the issues. I learned a great deal that I hadn’t known before. By early 2010, as the Affordable Care Act squeaked into law, I had narrowed down the set of topics I was interested in writing about. I pursued those interests on the Internet, in books, in magazines, on TV, and in films (one of my interests was the portrayal of doctors in visual media).

Blogging kept me busy and interested. Whenever I stopped to reflect, however, I found myself thinking that my blog posts fell into two types. One I called “hey-look-at-this.” The other involved the word “substance.” Hey-look-at-this posts required no more than a level two understanding. More substantial posts required level three, and they took more time to write.

Hey-look-at-this posts could be written quickly, but I often spent a great deal of time locating and reading the sources from which I then selected an idea for the day’s post. All that Internet searching and reading was highly distracting. “Distracting” doesn’t quite capture it. The over-consumption of information was not conducive to the reflective process, something I needed to engage in if I wanted to write a more “substantial” post.

My search for new information led me to Twitter — a superb tool for locating interesting subject matter (those who regard the essence of Twitter as nothing more than “what I had for breakfast” don’t know what they’re missing). From there it was a short step to the thought: Why write a quick post when I can accomplish virtually the same thing more efficiently with a tweet? Before long I had stopped writing daily posts.

The novice, the expert, and the self-conscious blogger

My favorite thing to do is to learn something new. My first job after college was teaching high school math (I was a math major). That first year, everything was new. I failed to anticipate that in the second year I would be doing exactly what I’d done the year before.

I went to graduate school and got a PhD. Teaching at the college level was different. My courses may have had the same titles each year, but the subject matter was sufficiently complex that teaching was always new and interesting.

Writing was the best of all because I could (theoretically) pursue exactly what interested me. Unfortunately, it was a time of academic rivalry between two schools of thought in my discipline (the history of science and medicine). My professional support system (my source of recommendations for employment) was in one school (internalism, the view that science is independent of society) and my interests, as it turned out, were in the other (externalism, the recognition that science occurs in a social context). Eventually I dropped out and found other ways to earn a living.

These days I have the time to learn new things. Even before I came across the idea of active learning, I knew from experience that the way I incorporate new ideas as useable knowledge is either by teaching them or writing about them.

Theoretically I could simply write in a private journal. There’s an advantage to writing in a public space, however. The imagined reader stimulates the effort to write with clarity of thought. The imagined reader, however, also introduces an element of self-consciousness.

I currently read a great many things far from the original area of my narrow expertise. I would like to explain new ideas that interest me to an anonymous reader because I feel that process would be of benefit to me. As a former academic, however, this feels like a no-no. Even with extensive attribution, you don’t just repeat what someone else has said, even if by doing so you translate it into something much more comprehensible than the often jargon-filled original. If I were officially a student, such writing would be a routine part of my learning process. But technically I’m not a student. Bottom line: I find it difficult to expose myself to the scrutiny of learning in public – warts, insufficiencies, and all. Yet this remains what I want to do.

The best compromise I’ve come up with is to use Tumblr for “this-is-what-I-learned-today” posts. I called my Tumblr blog “Taking Notes” because that’s what I wanted to do there. It’s not a private journal and it’s not really a public blog unless I call attention to it. It occupies an intermediate space.

So now, having clarified my dilemma by writing about it, will this make it easier for me to proceed? That remains to be seen.

Related posts:
The self-conscious blogger

Image source: Jacket2


Craig Lambert, Twilight of the Lecture, Harvard Magazine, March/April 2012

Andrew Sullivan, Why I Blog, The Atlantic, November 2008


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