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Learning By Viewing or Learning By Doing

Last week, Seth Godin had a thought-provoking post about how you have to actually put in the time and effort to do something in order to learn it. He seems to say you are wasting your time if you expect to learn anything by watching videos, or reading a book. It’s not until your hands and brain are actively engaged in trying something – making mistakes, recovering from them, being awful at first but then getting better with each attempt – that we actually acquire the skill.

In some ways, this is true. You cannot become a good golfer by watching the golf channel without actually picking up a club and hitting balls. You cannot learn to draw without a pencil and paper. You cannot learn to program a computer without a computer. These are all true.

But that’s also an over-simplification. I’m taking a course in Astrobiology right now.  It largely consists of watching videos and taking quizzes. Am I not learning anything? What more could I do to learn Astrobiology that involves learning by doing? I cannot reasonably find a meteorite, dip it in a chemical solution, run a spectro-analyzer against it, and determine the elements it’s composed of. I can only trust scientists who’ve done those tests and have the expertise to interpret the results. Nor do I want to know how to do that. I’m not training to become an Astrobiologist. I am simply interested in the topic and wanting to learn more, by listening directly to an expert.

Golfing, drawing, and programming all have one thing in common: they are all considered skills. There are various levels of knowledge from apprentice to master. There are weekend golfers and PGA Tour members. By putting in thousands of hours of practice (some say 10,000 hours), they have become proficient at that skill.

In contrast, the courses I take in Astrobiology, Marketing, Gamification, and Obesity Economics, are not skills. They are interesting topics. I am not interested in becoming an economist or marketing professor. I want to supplement my knowledge in those areas. In that case, I would argue that taking a few hours of video instruction IS the appropriate way of learning. Perhaps Godin doesn’t consider that learning.

Incidentally, the courses that were most difficult, and were arguably I learned the most, were the ones that had big weekly projects that required hours of effort. In the Android programming class I am currently in the middle of, I’ve created a half-dozen Android apps, learning by doing. Getting the buttons to sit just right where I want them has been the most difficult part, and I’ve spent hours trying to figure out why they’re not where I told them to go. But now I know why that is, and I understand at a deeper level what Android is doing under the hood. I learned something last night.

But I can also quote interesting things I learned in all of the above “mostly videos” courses. Both styles of learning have a place in our life.

(Updated 3/16/2014 with additional links)


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