Learning How To Learn

I have given a pitch to middle school children a couple times where I go through various math classes that I have taken over time and explain how each of them work.

For example, I talk about algebra and how it makes the transition from arithmetic, where things can be counted, to an abstract world where operations are performed on variables. I talk about geometry and learning how to do proofs, trigonometry and the triangle. Then I talk about calculus and how it is yet another abstraction layer from algebra, where we look at how functions perform with respect to different variables. I also explain linear algebra, differential equations, statistics, computational mathematics, and other forms of math.

After getting the kid’s heads spinning with all this information, I tell them that I have used almost none of this math, even when I was doing serious, complex design work. The plain fact was that the point of the education was not to have a collection of facts and ability to solve the homework problems.

The point that I try to drive home is that my education was really about learning how to learn. It was not about the details.

I show the kids how solving geometric proofs teaches how to construct arguments that are used in politics, and how the various layers of abstraction in algebra and calculus teach the ability to analyze social interaction problems on different levels and with different layers. In each case, even though I do not solve differential equations at work, I use many of the skills acquired in those classes in many different ways.

After talking with the kids for an hour or so, I ask them to tell me which class they think was the single most valuable class I ever took. After many different answers, they never get the correct answer.

The most important and single most useful class I have ever taken in any form and any level of education was Typing. I tell the kids that in today’s society, if you never learn to type, it will be like trying to run with a limp for the rest of your life.

BTW, when I took Typing in 1979 on the manual typewriters, there were only a couple boys in the class, and about 30 girls. Admittedly, I wanted to take it so I could run the brand new Digital PDP 11 that was the pride and joy of the newly formed computer club, even though it only had one CRT terminal and three dot matrix printer terminals. I fondly remember all of us huddling around the CRT playing Adventure after school. About then, my dad bought a Z-80 based Northstar computer system for home, running CP/M with 48K of RAM. That is where I cut my teeth writing code. Even though Typing was the most useful class in high school, it was the only one in which I got a C.