Saturday, October 23, 2010


I’ve been thinking about what “education” means today.  To me, anyway. In most instances, I, like probably most people, take it to describe “school” or “schooling” of some form.  Someone imparting information in a one-to-many dispersal paradigm.  But we all know that education occurs all the time, from all sources, not just in a classroom or within a formal instruction medium.  To “impart” is one thing.  To “receive” is another.  A form of “imparting” is broadcasting, which is technically what a classroom or online lecture is.

Outdoor classroom in India

The difference between broadcasting and education is the reception part.  Information that it is transmitted is only useful if it is received and processed.  Otherwise we call it noise.  Noise is simply a term for the information or data which we have no use for and turn off our receptivity and processing for it.  Noise as in static on the radio or TV.  But also noise as in music or commercials or voices we don’t like.  It’s also the subjects and topics we are not interested in (or just outright loath). We hear the music, but we don’t like it, so we tune it out by becoming distracted with other things (when possible).

But one common misperception about education I see repeated constantly is that it’s a future tense.  Information is bestowed upon us.  We are requested to perform analysis upon it, usually through exercises designed to demonstrate our understanding and ability to put it to measured use.  Then we take a test to prove we retained that analytical and cognitive understanding, and we move on to the next subject.  We often refer to the approach of the “next subject” as education.  Being educated.  But this is only half of it.

Once you’ve absorbed a baseline, done the proofs, and left it behind, is that really “learning”?  Learning is supposed to be a dynamic, evolutionary process.  Not just going forward, but generative refinement as well.  Right?  So shouldn’t that mean we should revisit what we’ve learned and apply our newer arsenal of absorbed intellect to the information we stored previously?

As developers, do we not revise our work over time?  Do we not learn new techniques for our chosen languages and platforms?  Do we not learn newer versions of our tools?  Do we not apply that to improve our work and produce revision-incremented products?

So ask yourself these questions:

  • When was the last time you evaluated an algebraic expression by hand?
  • When was the last time you looked at a sentence and identified the nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and conjugations?
  • When was the last time you gave thought to F=MA when looking at the scene of an accident (rather than just the carnage)?
  • When was the last time you re-read a book you last read years ago?  Not just your favorite book, but a standard classic that you were asked to read in school?

I don’t know about you, but my current situation is such that I still owe an enormous sum towards paying back my student loans.  I managed to graduate with a BS in Information Systems though, which was the good part.  But due to a series of career setbacks, family issues, and a few general misfortunes, I will never be able to repay them before I kick the bucket (statistically that’s 75, the last time I checked, but then again, most of my ancestors barely reached 70, with few exceptions).  That said, in all practicality, I will not be able to attend a school of higher education again, unless one of the following occurs:

  • Win the lottery
  • Receive an unexpected inheritance
  • Trip over a bag filled with cash
  • Bump into someone insanely generous enough to cover it for me

I’m not holding my breath for any of those at this point.  So, I’ve decided to educate myself in a little more structured and methodical approach than I had been considering.  Each week, I’m going to pick a subject that I’ve been educated on in the past, and revisit it to review what I’ve learned and try to apply my current abilities to help me better understand it holistically.  No, I’m not planning on doing a page of Multivariable Calculus problems, but I do want to review Limits, Integration, and Axioms and so forth at the very least. 

Most of us know these terms and can provide a Cliff Notes explanation to our kids.  But how many times have your kids come to you about something and you’re just dumbfounded?  Usually over some very specific aspect, rather than the topic as a whole.  Sure, you can rattle off an overview of Algebra all day, but do you really remember the Quadratic Formula?  Can you demonstrate what it was used for (in tangible terms, not just theoretical terms)?  If you can: I hate you.  Just kidding.

Even within programming terms, things like refactoring, sorting algorithms, rationalized heuristics, and self-healing theory.  Big words, sure.  But not really complicated to describe in a short sentence.  I just want to wring at least that much from my spongy brain.  Re-dunking my tea bags to get more from them.

So, as of today, I’m going to be pushing myself harder to learn again.  It’s not going to be easy for me, since I’m a person that prefers a classroom with limited distraction, and my home is one giant distraction most of the time.  I will put on the headphones and do my best.  Some of the tools I plan to use are textbooks, online resources like MIT Open Courseware, and so on.  This week: Linguisitics and Philosophy (good stuff!).  I can’t wait to get started.

And at the very end of my endeavors, I hope to be able to find the answer to what I consider to be the most important question of all physical existence: Why do we have two nostrils instead of one?

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