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Gus Van Horn blog

Reblogged:Higher Returns and Discounts in Learning

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Statistician John Cook observes that, regarding a complicated subject, having either a concrete problem some of that knowledge applies to, or a preexisting interest which overlaps it in some way, can help one approach it without feeling overwhelmed:

There are many things I've tried and failed to learn via a frontal assault. For example, I've tried several times to learn algebraic geometry by simply reading a book on the subject. But I find all the abstract machinery mind-numbing and difficult to absorb, just as [Tyler] Cowen described his first exposure to Chinese history. If I'm ever to learn much algebraic geometry, it will start with an indirect entry point, such as a concrete problem I need to solve.
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Sure. You probably could get your car onto the highway some other way, but why not use an on-ramp? (Image via Wikipedia)
I had a similar experience with learning my editing software of choice. Emacs has a steep learning curve. I had known about it and its legendary powers for years, but it was always frustrating to try to use it for anything. Only after I learned that Emacs could also very easily solve a collection of personal organization problems I wanted to get out of the way, did I have enough incentive to get over that hump.

I also observed a similar phenomenon with one of my brothers back when we were in middle school: He'd always lagged a bit in his reading skills -- until our mutual interest in Dungeons and Dragons caused him to start reading the rule books voraciously. His reading scores improved dramatically after a year of that. In both cases, we found a return on the knowledge that caused us to overlook, or be willing to pay, the price of admission.

This is a powerful lesson that is the opposite of much of what has been going on in our schools for generations now. Fortunately, it is applicable throughout our lives, and we can begin using this tool now. Learning anything comes at a price. Having a problem to solve can help us grasp on a gut level that there is a future payout, motivating us. Having an overlap with preexisting knowledge indicates, also on a gut level, an area where the price is lower, and it is easier to get started.

-- CAV

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