Learn Something New Every Day!

Posts tagged ‘learning’

Learning Now!

Siobhan Curious from Classroom as Microcosm has offered a second writing prompt as part of her Writing on Learning Exchange:  What I Want to Learn Now.  My response is below, but check out other responses on her site—and consider adding your own.


I love learning!  To paraphrase Andy Defresne in The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy learning or get busy dying.” If you are not learning, you are not living life to the fullest and you are bound to die, perhaps a bit sooner than you’d expect.  But being open to learning is fairly easy—you just need to fully engage with the world around you.

I just finished reading John Grisham’s The Appeal and learned through one storyline how relatively easy it is for someone with lots of money and little conscience to manipulate elections and the general population.  I cannot say I am thrilled about having this lesson thrown in my face, but it does serve as a cautionary tale.  It also demonstrates that if you keep your mind open, you can learn something from just about any encounter, be it book, movie, tv show, new neighbor, store clerk, church sermon, whatever.

Recently, I have picked up a new recipe from a friend’s blog, discovered some book titles I want to read, and am gaining a better understanding of the concerns and problems surrounding engineered food.  I’m eager to see the new movie 42 to get a better sense of the details surrounding Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in baseball—and I figure that seeing the movie will spark some reading and learning to verify details.

My most recent intentional learning project has focused on mastering the technology needed to teach effectively online for the American Public University System.  I have not been assigned a class yet as an adjunct but will be soon.  In preparation, I took a three-week class to learn the technology the campus uses to enable teachers to engage the students and the material.  Part of what I learned was the mechanics of the college’s Sakai system, so I can—among other things—post assignments, insert video clips into messages, respond to students individually or as a group, grade assignments and then post grades for the students.  I also learned about the services available for faculty and students through the online college library system.

By the end of the three-week course, I mastered the basics, so now know that I can use the technology effectively, and I gained confidence in my skills so now know that I can engage the students through the technology.  I also know that I have more to learn!  When I am finally teaching my first class with this system as an adjunct professor, I will be able to experiment with and perfect how the technology can help me help the students learn.  Taking this class also taught me (reminded me?) what it feels like to be a student in an online environment—the worry about using the technology; the concern that you’ll not get “it,” not get whatever the lesson is that day/week; and the hassles of staying engaged and motivated even when life interrupts the class.

The best part about learning is that it is an ongoing process.  It is not surprising that Aristole was right:  “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”  Obviously then, there is always more to learn.  Learning keeps pushing you forward in life!  Of course, you do have to keep an open mind and look for learning opportunities.  As William Dewar said, “Your mind is like a parachute.  It only functions when it is open.”


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“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Mahatma Gandhi

 “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”   Dr. Seuss

“Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you will.”    Vernon Howard

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”  Harry S Truman

“Life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes along.”   Samuel Butler

“The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think—rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.”   John Dewey

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”   Henry Ford

“We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.”  Lloyd Alexander

“If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way.”    Mark Twain

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”   Confucius

 “Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival.”  W. Edwards Deming

 “It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated.”   Alec Bourne

 “He was so learned he could say horse in nine languages; so ignorant he bought a cow to ride on.”  Benjamin Franklin

First Memories of Going to School

Learning ClipArtMy career has always been grounded in the academic environment.  I taught college-level writing for almost 25 years and then moved into serving as an academic dean in the California community colleges.  One of my favorite activities as a dean is conducting classroom evaluations and holding the follow-up meetings; these activities provide a chance to be in the classroom again and to talk shop.  No matter what else we do, teachers always seem to stay teachers at heart.  That is one reason I seek out blogs devoted to teaching—they give a glimpse into the classroom.  One of my favorite blogs is Classroom in Microcosm written by Siobhan Curious.

Siobhan has recently started a recurring theme on her blog where she is asking readers to share their experiences about teaching and learning.  She is calling this experiment The Writing on Learning Exchange.  The first prompt she offered is “What are your first memories of going to school?”  In encouraging her to start this Exchange, I committed to providing responses.  My response is listed below.  But please do more than read my response.  Explore her website and consider participating as well.  Hers is a great site!


 It feels like I have been in education my entire life.  I went straight from high school to college and then into the teaching profession.  My general experience with being in school is positive, probably part of why I chose my profession:  I did not want to leave the academic environment.

school house clipartWhen I look back on my educational experience, I can point to favorite teachers and specific positive activities and events.  In 6th and 8th grade respectively, Mr. Dixon and Mrs. Perkins both helped instill my love of reading.  In 7th grade, I ended up owning a tarantula as a pet, a carryover from a classroom exhibit. In 8th grade, Mrs. Welch helped me see the advantages and excitement of teaching as a profession.  In high school, our science field trips were exciting and got me started on trekking into nature to marvel at the beauty and diversity that could be found. My favorite high school classes were my English classes.  We read some great literature, and I started writing short stories and serving on the literary journal and yearbook committees.  I had great arguments with my junior English teacher about the composition process of all things.  She tolerated me well and did not squash my spirit.

Thus, my general memory of being in school says I always did well in my classes, and teachers were my friends. However, when I look to remembering my first experiences in attending school, my mind is blank.  When we moved from Chicago, Illinois, to Temple City, California, I was five and a half.  I was enrolled in first grade at Gidley School.  For years, I thought my education started at that time.  But years ago, as an adult, I was helping my mother sort old photos and found a school group photograph from my semester in kindergarten in Chicago. I have no memory of that experience—and my mom remembered very little as well.  In the photograph, I look very very sad.  From later classroom experiences, I know I was always a “good” kid, not causing trouble or demanding attention.  Given that perspective, I can only assume that I was quiet but behaved and thereby possibly overlooked by an over worked teacher.

snowmen clipartOnce in classes in California, my memories are not much sharper.  My only vivid memory from first grade is being teased by other kids.  I have no clue if or how the teacher responded.  At that time, I loved to draw.  My drawings were of what I knew—snowmen and snowball fights, birds from the yard.  As an adult looking back, I recognized that my general birds were actually wrens with their little upturned tails.  In Southern California, there was no snow, no snowmen, and no birds that looked like the ones I drew. The kids looked at my drawings and laughed and teased—and I stopped drawing.  I do not think it was bullying as much as kids are insensitive when reacting to things that are new and different.

Looking back, I realize the power of feedback—or lack thereof, at least for me.  It is so important for those first teachers to connect one-on-one with each student, to give some positive feedback, to somehow try to minimize the teasing that might come from other students.  Our children need to feel wanted and welcomed at school, to get excited by learning. Kids are impressionable and react as best they can to fit in, to be accepted.  The teachers can help guide those reactions and adjustments.  I was lucky:  by about third grade, I was getting positive feedback and the love of learning and of school kicked in.  In retrospect, I worry about our kids who do not experience that turn-around, who always feel out of it in the classroom, possibly overlooked by a busy teacher.

As an adult, when I was making a decision to pursue teaching as my profession, I was adamant that I did not want to teach at the elementary level.  I always said it was because I did not have the patience, but I am now wondering if it is in part because those early education years were not good for me.  I opted, instead, to teach at the college level, but my area of specialty was developmental students, the adults who did not master the learning from their earlier education and needed help with a second chance.  For me, lots of positive reinforcement and one-on-one interaction were the core of my teaching philosophy.  Students, no matter what the age, need positive intervention on their efforts, so they can see what works and what doesn’t, make changes, and improve. As an administrator, one of my top concerns has always been providing the training for teachers on classroom learning strategies that would help them better interact with their students as individuals.

Through this writing prompt I am realizing that my non-memories may have had a bigger impact on my approach to education as a teacher and an administrator than I ever realized.

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 Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.    Chinese Proverb

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.     William Butler Yeats

The teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring a pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.  Horace Mann

Knowledge—like the sky—is never private property. No teacher has a right to withhold it from anyone who asks for it. Teaching is the art of sharing.  Abraham Joshua Heschel

Learning in the Information Age

The amount of information produced in the world is growing more and more everyday, at staggering rates. This growth pattern is not new. In 2006, Hal Varian and Peter Lyman, two economists from UC Berkeley, reported their research about the speed of information (http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2006/02/ the_speed_of_in.php). In their research, they looked at new or unique information, such as the first recording of a new song, not every recorded version or literal playing of that song.

In 2000, Varian and Lyman calculated that the new information produced that year was 1.5 exabytes or “about 37,000 times as much information as in the entire holdings [of the] the Library of Congress.” Then they compared the information generated in 2003 (3.5 exabytes) and calculated that new information was increasing “by 66% every year.” Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, added to this overwhelming picture at a Techonomy Conference in August 2010 when he announced, “Every 2 days we create as much information as we did up to 2003” (http://techcrunch.com/2010/08/04/schmidt-data/).

That’s a lot information. When I think of our ability to create, store, access, and manipulate this huge volume of data, I am impressed. When I think about all that information and how to master its intricacies, I find myself overwhelmed. Where do I begin? What I decided to do was find something specific that I did not know and figure it out. I started with exabytes—what are they really? I plugged the term into a search engine and found a source that promised exabyte could be defined and explained in simple language. Instead, it said: “An exabyte is 2 to the 60th power, or 1,152,921,504,606,846,976 bytes. An exabyte is 1,024 petabytes and precedes the zettabyte unit of measurement” (http://www.techterms.com/definition/exabyte). I was an English major, so that definition is not simple and easy for me. Now, I was not just overwhelmed; I felt stupid.

But I rallied. I do know that a “byte” is a unit of measure pertaining to the amount of memory capacity and storage capabilities on my computer. A typical laptop might have 4.00 GB of memory and 500 GB hard drive capacity. GB stands for gigabyte. A different source helped match what I knew vaguely to the new term in my lexicon: “It is common to say that an exabyte is approximately one quintillion bytes. In decimal terms, an exabyte is a billion gigabytes.
An exabyte of storage could contain 50,000 years’ worth of DVD-quality video” (http://searchstorage.techtarget.com/ definition/exabyte). Okay. Now I really get it. It’s a whole lot of new information, every couple of days. Our ability to produce, store and access all this information is phenomenal.

But I find myself wondering, “Who cares?” I do now have a better sense of what exabyte means, but how does that help me? When I go to buy a new laptop, I will still call my nephew for advice because he really knows this stuff. For a few seconds I deluded myself that I had learned something. But I did not learn about computer storage capacity or information generation—all I did was memorize a definition. I am realizing that my worry has nothing to do with access to all this new information; I am dismayed that people might think that knowing facts or details is the same as learning.

Sure, learning involves knowing things, but it is the use of that knowledge to better understand and maneuver in the world, the application of what is known to make things better that constitutes learning. There is an element of problem solving or discovery and experience that marks true learning. It is the quest or the journey for learning that is important, not the details. As Einstein notes, “Imagination is more important than knowledge, for while knowledge defines everything we know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.”

Another concern of mine about this vast amount of information is that it comes at me unfiltered, often times unrequested. I get especially bothered when I remember that information is not synonymous with wisdom or even knowledge. The ever-growing mountain of information certainly includes useful data: scientific research, new medical discoveries, new artistic creations, philosophical or religious treatises, and even political speeches. It also includes details I want to know, so I can be a more informed and engaged citizen of my flatter and more-and-more global world village: the U.S. role in Libya, the outcome of attacks on workers’ rights in Wisconsin, the cuts to education inherent in the proposed California state budget and their impact on students, and how the nuclear fallout is being addressed in Japan. Some of this information helps me decide for whom to vote, where to put my time and money, what events to attend, and how to better control my life and immediate environment.

Other information just totally fascinates me. For example, I was thrilled to have stumbled onto some provocative items that were new to me by reading David Brook’s blog entry “More Tools for Thinking” (29 March 2010, http://brooks.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/29/more-tools-for-thinking/?nl=opinion&emc=tyb1). He introduced me to the Edge Symposium, which is a site that questions great thinkers about what they are thinking. The members of the symposium were asked to nominate a scientific concept that should be in everyone’s cognitive toolbox, a concept that would help us all learn about or better understand our world. Brooks shared several examples, including Shifting Baseline Syndrome and Pareto Principle. I did not know about the existence of the Edge Symposium or about these two concepts until I read his blog. I want to learn more. This is information—dare I say knowledge—that would be worth my time and effort to understand.

But the mountain of data being churned out everyday also includes such tidbits as commercials for ShamWOW, Viagra, and Jenny Craig; Charlie’s Sheen’s rantings and people’s comments about those rantings; who was voted off what reality shows; which celebrity has adopted a new child; that Glen Beck is leaving Fox News; that a Nigerian prince needs my help with his finances, and even that Snookie earned more for giving a talk at Rutgers University than Toni Morrison will earn next month on the same campus. I don’t want to know that stuff. I certainly do not need to know that stuff. But it is hard to avoid that information.

Sure, there are other odd tidbits of data that I appreciate, such as tomorrow’s weather prediction, what books are on the best seller list, that taxes are not due until April 18th this year, where to find the best chocolate, even my horoscope on some days. If I try to stay informed on what I want to know by reading or watching the news, using e-mail, searching for specific details via Google or Bing, then this other data sneaks in—and doesn’t go away. But accessing and even manipulating this data is not learning, per se. It could be termed sensory overload, or TMI, if I want to use a new word from the OED.

I guess what I really need to know—regardless of how much information is out there—is how to avoid the silly and annoying sound bites, forget what I did not want to know in the first place, catalog the useful, stumble upon the fascinating more frequently, and then truly master what I want to learn. Search engines can help, of course, but they really just catalog all the growing information into subsets that individuals still need to sort through. I was impressed by Watson, the super computer that performed so well on Jeopardy; its ability to sort through data and play the odds to find the correct answer was impressive. But Watson did not really learn anything, no matter how impressive the demonstration was.

Eventually someone may design a search engine—or perhaps a brain implant farther into the future—that would miraculously help me focus on what I want to know, ignoring the rest. Until then, I need to set the sheer volume of data out there aside and focus on the information of interest and use to me. I need to take comfort in knowing my world and thereby knowing what I don’t know—or at least the boundaries of what I don’t know. Then I can decide what I want to learn, what I want to explore and discover—and learning will become manageable again. This ability to know that no matter how much we know means there is just that much more to know is what keeps the truly learned humble.

Learning, imagination, discovery—that’s what I value, not information for the sake of information. Although I will admit, being able to look up on the Internet where I left my keys would be helpful!

Getting Started!

Have you ever had one of those days? You catch yourself just going through the motions, making it through, not really tired but not really awake and aware either? Only you can avoid having days like that. It’s easy. Just make sure you learn something new everyday! It does not have to be something earth-shattering. It can be almost anything: a realization about life, some strange animal facts, tidbits about sports figures or other heroes, how to teach an old dog new tricks, or maybe how to tackle some new activity. This blog is dedicated to sharing all the new learning that goes on each and every day. You can read about what I am learning, and you can post your feedback and comments as well. So, what have you learned today?

Me? Today I learned how to post a blog!

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