Nebula learning

Great Nebula @iStockphoto / angelhell The traditional method of teaching involves introducing students to a new concept, then exhaustively explain everything about that concept before moving to the next concept. This is linear learning. I think of it as depth-first learning, where a topic is studied in detail, sometimes to the point of redundancy.

There’s a huge flaw in linear learning. It’s boring. Different learners have different learning styles. When applying one singular teaching method with an emphasis on giving out as much detail as possible, students are interested up to a certain point in the lesson and then stop. They stop because either they’ve learned enough or got bored with the subject. In any case, they need to apply that knowledge and then move on to something else.

Searching for a more comprehensive learning method
Another learning method is spiral learning, where students touch on a new concept, learn to apply it, move on to a related concept, apply that one and move on to another related concept. The idea is for students to gain a level of mastery in other subjects and acquire greater understanding about previously taught subjects. A concept may be revisited again for a deeper discussion, thus completing a cycle or in this case, a spiral.

I think of spiral learning as breadth-first learning, where many related subjects are covered as much as possible. Spiral learning solves the boredom problem in a linear learning pattern. It too has a flaw, though it’s not obvious.

In an academic setting, the topic of study is often determined by the degree requirements, subject prerequisites, a friend’s recommendation or even a whim of the moment. “Related” subjects are weakly connected to each other, where “weak” refers to the level of personal interest. And this is a weak point of spiral learning. Few people know what they want to learn next, so they follow predetermined guides.

They work better for computers
So linear learning and spiral learning, the former being a depth-first, the latter a breadth-first. They follow two standard search methods, the depth-first search and the breadth-first search. Both try to find a sought after item in the shortest amount time or with the least effort. This works well… for a computer program. Computers need structure, a predetermined system to do their work.

I believe human learning behaviour is radically different. Children learn an extraordinary amount of knowledge about many seemingly disparate subjects quickly. They learn to differentiate colours, ride a bike, do math, sing and dance, speak and read and write, be a friend to someone. They learn about as many subjects as they are interested in. Then school kicks in and institutionalised a learning behaviour for every single child.

What happened when we grow up? We are faced with problems to be solved and there’s not enough time and energy to learn linearly. We don’t even do spiral learning. We pinpoint the problem and we search for an exact answer for that problem.

I see this happening particularly in programming forums, where someone post a question and sought an exact answer to that question. A kind soul answered the question and gave an incomplete code sample, which just needed a little tweaking to get it right for the questioner’s unique situation. Keyword here is “unique”. It’s always better for the person to determine if a solution is usable. Not good enough for the questioner though.

If the questioner had the habit of connecting many different concepts at once, a little thought would have given him the answer. The incomplete code sample would simply act as a nudge in the right direction. The habit however, needs to be formed when we’re younger, and generally speaking freer in our time.

The nebula learning pattern
Humans follow a nebula learning pattern. We form interests, emotions and knowledge of different topics and are therefore proficient at different levels. Our knowledge can be visualised as a nebula where denser clouds represent deeper interest and proficiency. We learn about things with no relation to each other, yet sometimes with almost equal amount of interest and intensity. We touch on topics till bored, then jump to another topic.

In a way, our questioner above is following the same pattern. The question posed was important to him, probably because his job depended on it. That’s why he’s interested in the answer. He probably doesn’t even care about the concepts that led to that answer. He just wants to copy and paste the answer.

We don’t all have to become polymaths, but if we can consciously learn and form nebulae of knowledge, I believe the world will be a better place. We have too many specialists anyway.