~ Archive for Learning ~

This donkey keeps heading for the bushes

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This is the third technical course I am taking, and I am starting to notice a pattern.

The instructors teach by defining a project for which they give you all the elements, in lecture, in section etc. They provide support through various mediums so people can put the pieces of each puzzle together. The Computer science courses tend to have requirements that define the requirement the project must meet fairly stricktly, sometimes down to the name and type of the arguments.

What I have noticed, is that before I even get started on the project, I will imagine some way of adding my own spin to the project. On my first ruby project, I developed a browser based GUI so that our hands of poker could display as cards on a screen. On my first php project, I scraped several websites to obtain original data. On a maya project, I decided to create several fish to animate them together. And on our latest javascript project, I decided to integrate some US census data adding several days of work.

On the other hand, when I have much to learn, as was the case with Rails projecs, I still bushwacked through the assignment a bit, adding this or that feature but I stayed much closer to the assignement. And on the maya project, which was a fairly complex rigged animation for me, I found ways to simplify the project so it would be just right.

Why this pattern of learning? It could be that I don’t like following, I love to search, and as soon as you start bushwacking, you need to search. It could be that I believe the way to learn is to explore what others have done on the web, and so I try to find a way to extend the project in a way that forces me to bushwack.

But I am now wondering if the simple answer is that I am unconsciously manipulating the level of stress tension under which I work to keep myself focused and concentrated: When the instructor layed out a fairly structured assignment in Ruby, I immediately tried to escape it through a search for a GUI. The idea of taking methods one at a time and writing code to meet the required functionality sounded like busy work, but did not present any visible challenge. Thus the stress level was low and so was the motivation to get started. When I started on a too ambitious approach to a maya animation, the stress level was too high, and there also I could not get started. But when in a previous maya project I decided to have several dolphins with different patterns, instead of just one, the stress level was just fine for my level of skill. I thought I wanted a creative outlet, but maybe I was just manipulating my perception of stress!

If this is so, there may be other ways I can learn from class projects where all the pieces are given to you, other than heading for the bushes.

Approaching technology with a human touch

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I am taking a course on web programming. I am happy to report that I found a learning wizard as a TA in this course as well.
What is the difference between empty and is_null. Let me show you, I will create an empty string and a null string and we will find out together. Hands on. Brilliant. Well, to me it is brilliant. It works and I love that learning style. New year resolution. Make good use of this sandbox approach myself.

What I would like to report on is the difference between automatic machine response to a technical problem, and a vastly different response with a human touch.

The project starts with a menu. We are to type all the menu items, prices etc in a text file. I won’t be caught dead spending that much time with data entry if there is another way. So I find an html version of the menu, and spend much time learning to parse the file and retrieving the information. I acquired some technical skills, and most of the information is in the computer. Great!?

Then I meet the fellow with the human touch. He looks at the menu not as a pattern of words to be entered in a text file, but as a pattern of symbols mediating between a user and a vendor. He actually looks at the page to see what it says — Ok, I can’t eat pizzas, so I was not open to that type of inquiry, eating pizza would make me sick — Pizzas have a number of options. To my data parser, those options are all to be treated the same. But to my fellow humanist, a 2-way and a 3-way combo means something very different. It requires refering to the previous lines to determine what topping could be added. Extra cheese cannot be ordered by itself, it adds itself to another order.

To further his understanding, he goes to the pizzaria, inquires about different orders, checks out how up to date our menus are, meets the owners, orders a sub. Back at home he finds an on line order site for that same pizzaria and further thinks through the complexity of representing foods that can be ordered through this computarized interface.

This encounter blew my mind for two reasons. One it showed me another kind of wizardry involved in learning. And for another it showed me how completly blind to the meaning of what I am working on I can be when I am working with a computer language.

Learning Wizard

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I have recently had the occasion of watching a learning wizard. I can’t remember when I had an occasion to watch someone learn. Typically, the courses I have taken have been with people who knew the material they were teaching. And on my first work project, we were finding our mistakes by the smell of burned electronics, seriously clamping down on creative interactive learning.

What struck me with this wizard is his ability to isolate an aspect of a problem, embed it in a simple model, and play with it, just act on the new model in different ways and observe the outcome until he has something approaching what is wanted.

What struck me equally was my resistance to this approach even though I could see it worked brillantly to learn maya 3D. My path to learning is motivation, goal. As I watch a ball swing on the screen, I want the color to change just when the two balls hit each other. I have a hard time separating my wanting the color to change from the circumstance in which the color is to change. To actually achieve my goal, I have to let go of it, and just learn how to change colors, the different ways color can change, link color to time, to a geometry, … and only after some practice of this kind can I go back to the embedded problem.

Where there is resistance, I suppose there is fear. Fear of loosing that motivation, that “I want” which propels me to come back again and again at the difficulty until -finally – it gives way. Fear apparently blocks the curiosity/surprise/exploratory way to knowledge. It craves a road map, a vision, a path on which to focus. When exploration -except in the safe confine of a tutorial – is associated with timelessness, unknown, aimlessness.

Indeed, exploration by itself cannot lead very far. Playing with simple models can only create simple animations. An abstract animation might be created with a sequence of random playful variations. But for some kind of narrative creation to occur, a combination of simple steps must be composed in a meaningful structured way.

The successful learning experience runs back and forth between the idea, the concept, the feel of a particular animation and the accidental findings of playful exploration. The mind must constantly seek and let go, never completely loosing track of the direction it is headed in, and yet constantly discarding ways which seem to dead-end. For Maya is not a logically constructed structure, it has its logic, but what it does and does not do was built in by the interaction of many programmers/users. Unlike mountain paths which must lead from some spot to some other spot, a particular path taken in Maya does not necessarily follow through over the pass to the nirvana thought after. Seeking many ways until one leads you over the pass is the way of learning in Maya, and maybe the way of learning in general.

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