Unfair Bad Rap on Remote Learning
According to news reports such as the above, according to many teachers and school officials, and according to the headline of this article -- "Remote learning led to lower K-12 test scores in some U.S. states, especially for math..." -- remote learning is not educational, is harmful for students, and is a poor substitute for in person learning. Insofar as these news reports are accurate and representative, it seems pretty clear that the initial and current implementation of much remote learning has indeed been terrible and problematic for students, particularly in areas where internet access is inadequate or unreliable, basically making education inaccessible.
However, I do not believe remote learning has to be inferior to in person learning, and I want to explain why. 1) As the saying goes, "It is a poor workman who blames his tools" and 2) the problem with remote, online 'distance' learning is not the remote, online, distance parts, but the learning part, or more specifically the teaching and learning part. Students are not sufficiently taught to learn even in person in onground classes; remote, online, distance learning simply shows that more but, apart from areas with inadequate, unreliable internet availability, doesn't cause it more. With reliable, decent internet and computer accessibility, there is no good reason remote learning cannot be as good as, and even better than, in person learning.
Remote teaching and learning has been with us for more than 600 years. It is called 'books'. The first book printed on a printing press, the Bible, was created 40 years before Columbus first landed in America. Yet, most people find learning from books very difficult. But that is not a problem with books (other than in one kind of case which does not apply to remote or in person learning from a decent teacher *1). The main difficulty people have in learning from good books is not the fault of books as educational devices but of how people learn or how they use good books to learn -- they are not adequately reading the material carefully or attending to it and thinking about it to gain understanding. Of course, poorly written books are not good educational devices, but then neither are terrible teachers. The problem is not that they are books or teachers, but that they are bad books or teachers. Or, in some cases the students are unmotivated learners or, in many cases, poor readers or seriously unmotivated readers. The remedy is to motivate them to learn -- motivate them, to listen, read, and think, and teach them to do those things well, not to abolish the alphabet or remote learning. If students have trouble learning remotely, the appropriate remedy is to help them do it better, not abandon remote teaching.
It is misleading to imply that remote learning (or teaching) is by nature inferior to in person learning (or teaching). Students who are not motivated to learn either through their own curiosity and joy of learning and discovery or through external pressures (varying from fear of failure to high expectations of others who are important to them) will tend to learn little whether by in person or by remote teaching. There are students who take online college courses, for example, who will not read the course instructions or the material assigned. Many will not even watch assigned videos. Then they complain they were never told what to do and were not taught anything. Basically they are students who do not really attend class and then complain the teaching was inadequate. So yes, remote learning will fail to teach people who will not properly use it; just as in person classes will fail to teach anyone who will not attend or who will not pay attention if they do attend. And although self-motivation out of curiosity and a desire for wisdom is a far better and kinder motivation than extrinsic pressures, learning for the latter reason is far better than not learning much of significance at all. Unfortunately many students are not motivated to learn school work, though they are often motivated and quite adept at learning things in which they are interested, either on their own or through peer pressure. The very same students who are "unable" to learn math, literature, history, science, grammar, spelling, etc. seem to have absolutely no problem mastering the latest social media apps or gaming technology instruments, and do all kinds of clever things with them. In short, they can learn, and they do learn, what they want to learn if they have some decent resources available from which to learn.
The remainder of this essay will be about students who are motivated to learn well and reasonably capable to do it and who have teachers who are motivated to teach well and reasonably capable of doing it. Irresponsible, indifferent, unconscientious lazy people should not be the ones that drive overall educational policy, goals, and standards or for whom they should be determined and set. Plus, I will be writing about a properly implemented system in which all students and teachers have access to stable, reliable, decent internet and decent computers and wifi and know how to use them and the apps involved. I realize that is not true today for many students, but it is also true that in person schools do not always provide decent facilities and capable teachers. The issue I am addressing is whether remote learning is by its nature inferior to in person learning, and I am arguing that it is not, and that when utilized and used properly, it can even be superior to it. The idea is for society to remedy the technological, access, and usage flaws that occur today in order to perfect remote learning, not abandon it because it is presumed that it can never be as good as in person learning, no matter how much its technology, access, and usage are perfected. Much could even be remedied now if students were better shown how to use it and helped to see better what learning in general requires, whether remote or in person. That remedy would stand students well throughout their education, professional, and personal lives, so it should not have to be taught or learned but once. The question should not be whether good in person education is better than poor remote education or whether randomly chosen in person education is likely better than randomly chosen remote education, but whether remote education can be excellent, and if so, what is required to foster and allow it to be.
Second unfair bad rap: lack of social interaction and development of social skills. Yet students reported in the news to be troubled by lack of in person social interaction during lockdowns are likely among those commonly pictured congregated together during normal times, paying no attention to each other but instead are glued to their phones or tablets, presumably in many cases in contact with their remote friends through DM's (direct messages), social media, video calls, etc. In short, they interact with whom they want to interact when they want to, and often do it better remotely than in person. Failure to be able to communicate in the right ways besides face to face communication (and in many cases, even with face to face communication) is a serious problem for some people that they need to learn to overcome, rather than forcing everyone else to have to meet in proximity for communication that could easily be done from a distance by telephone, email, or other electronic means. Moreover, lockdowns do not necessarily mean you cannot meet outside, socially distanced, with friends, just that you should not be within breathing space of each other. Remote learning does not make seeing friends, even in person, impossible; it only means it has to be done apart from school.
The pandemic has taught many people they can work remotely from home at least as effectively, if not more effectively, and have good social interaction with colleagues over the phone or once they master the mechanics of teleconferencing on their computers and smartphones. And, in doing so, they have all the other benefits they cannot have if they have to leave their homes to go to an office where they cannot take care of their children, pets, personal chores, and where they have to commute, wasting valuable time, fuel, and mental/emotional energy having to contend with the crazies on the road. But apparently, not everyone has learned this lesson or knows how to communicate other than face to face, and many people cannot communicate well even in person; in regard to education, for example, it is not like students all do so well with in person classrooms. One description of in person teaching fits far too much of it -- "an hour in which information passes from the notes of the teacher to the notes of the students without going through the minds of either".
And in regard to the benefits of proximity in general, the divorce rate certainly shows that proximity, even protracted proximity, is not sufficient for understanding, appreciating, or enjoying something or someone. Comedienne Joan Rivers voiced what many people in loveless, non-intimate marriages have felt when she said "you don't know what loneliness is unless you've been in bed with my husband." And even something as otherwise biologically and psychologically interesting as sex with a new partner can be meaningless, dull, disappointing, and unsatisfactory when devoid of emotional or psychological intimacy or passion, as explained in this Vanity Fair article "Tinder and the Dawn of the 'Dating Apocalypse'" which paints a rather dismal picture many people experience about the lack of satisfaction and value of hookups with strangers for casual sex -- which comes as no surprise to an older generation who already knows that good sex requires passion and desire, not just another compliant available body, particularly one that is disinterested or less than enthusiastic. Emotional or psychological intimacy and feeling reverence for, or with, it are not necessarily a matter of proximity, but a state of mind; it is about being in tune with another person's thoughts, ideas, and/or feelings. And you can do that through communication over a distance, while it is not guaranteed by proximity at all. Even being in the presence of an exquisite sunset or other work of nature's art may not be breathtaking, meaningful, or awe-inspiring to someone whose mind is on other things and who may barely notice the scene before him or her. Proximity is neither necessary nor sufficient for intellectual, psychological, or emotional intimacy.
Even in the past, proximity was not always necessary, in that the written word, whether in personal correspondence (i.e., letters) or books often gave people the greatest understanding and appreciation of other and their ideas, no matter how far removed in time or space. People who want to, can learn from books, and can revel in communicating with others through letters. And with digital technology, the recording and nearly instantaneous transmission of images, videos, and sound add even far more than just the transmission of the written word -- both 1) back and forth by contemporaries no matter how distant in space, and 2) forward to those in the future, no matter how distant in time. There is no reason that students with the proper resources available, which the internet makes increasingly abundant, cannot learn almost anything already known or conceived they might want to or need to, and cannot get to know each other emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually intimately if they are just willing to try and willing to think, and develop their communication skills.
Or consider attending a live event or performance versus watching it either live on television (under the supervision of a knowledgeable and skilled director and crew) or in a documentary or dramatized form, such as a movie or video production that is directed well and edited skillfully. Until the availability of large screen monitors/TVs in arenas and stadiums or theaters, it was very difficult to see the action as well in person as you could on television unless you were extremely knowledgeable and knew what to look for at the right moments. Otherwise there is often so much going on, it is difficult to notice the most important things. And, of course, from seats that are far away, it is extremely difficult to see things close-up in the way they can be shown on television. Unless you find some thrill just in being part of a large crowd, as many people seem to, until the advent of large screen TVs in stadiums and arenas, the view was much more advantageous in your homes or in sports bars, which also allow for group companionship and/or a party atmosphere if you want to have that along with the close-up views television provides.
There are at least two main problems that plague remote education: 1) a major problem with schoolwork in general, whether in person or remote, is what students are led to believe "learning" is. They confuse "learning" with doing assignments (often unnecessarily boring, trivial, rote ones) or the passing of a test and receiving a grade, whether they retain the knowledge or skill needed or not. They don't have any reason from most parents or teachers to know that learning is about understanding and being able to use material well that is being presented to them -- material that could be really interesting to them if it were presented properly and if they gave it a chance to be interesting to them and wanted it to be -- and that this takes work and effort on their part because learning is a mindful activity that takes thought and reflection, not a mindless, passive enterprise, and 2) the second problem is students and/or teachers who are not trying to be emotionally/psychologically involved and intensely intellectually invested in communicating with other people through means available to them -- whether through print forms, such as books and letter writing, that has been available for centuries, or through mechanical, electrical, electronic, and/or digital means.
One solves both problems at the same time if one is really trying to understand what one is being taught and is paying full attention to a decent presentation of the material, whether in oral or written form and whether on video or in person, and if the teacher is presenting the material in a way it can be understood, absorbed, and assimilated by thoughtful students and is trying to understand how the students are understanding it. A conscientious student can often learn material from other available sources if the teacher is poor at presenting and explaining it and if the other sources are good at presenting and explaining it, but a student who is making little or no effort to learn will often not likely learn from even a good teacher or other sources, because the student is not paying the right kind of attention to either the teacher or the material and is not asking helpful, meaningful questions. Teachers should present material well, but students need to try to work around or push teachers who don't by asking questions or by challenging statements that do not make sense or that seem false, or by seeking help from other sources, in order to aid their own learning. While sometimes such work-arounds are not possible, much of the time these days they should be, given the amount of good material freely available on the internet today*2.
These problems are minimized or even non-existent for learning to use the newest social media because in using social media or other computer apps, the important goal is obvious and tangible because you either cannot use the app or get the result you want from using it if you don't sufficiently learn to 'operate' it properly to begin with. There is incentive to learn to use it; and success or failure in learning how to use it is immediately and naturally obvious. E.g., you either can create a video you want and transmit it successfully to others or you cannot. And you get feedback of at least some sort on how much your video or message is liked or not liked, though generally not how well it is understood; many people like things that it is fairly easy to tell from what else they might say that they do not really understand it, and in many cases they clearly even believe the exact opposite of what they are praising. But at least there is incentive to master the method of communication and the quality of it, or at least the perceived quality of it, which may or may not have to conform to a particularly high standard.
But in studying academic material simply for a test or an assignment that will be graded, unless you 1) really care to understand the material and make sense of it for yourself, or unless you 2) really want to get an "A" by doing well what is assigned, all you have to do is take the test or turn in the assignment, even in a half-assed way, and you have done what you were told. There is no incentive, and the resulting grade is imposed by the teacher (whom you can falsely blame for it) rather than being a natural consequence that clearly shows your own failure to meet the goal. As one student told his teacher one time in protesting a grade on an assigned paper, "The only directions were to write a 500 word essay on this topic, and I did that. Nothing in the assignment said it had to be done well or be a good essay to receive a good grade. So I should have an "A", since I did what was assigned." Somehow I suspect football players don't use that kind of excuse to their coach for poor blocks or poor execution of plays. "I did what you told me coach; you didn't say I had to do it well or that it had to work." Or soldiers to their officers: "We went on the mission, like you said, but it was difficult, and we didn't really know what you wanted. So can we just have our medals and promotions?"
The kind of psychological/emotional involvement, investment, and intimacy I am talking about for remote communication is the sort of thing that happens when you get engrossed in a good movie or television show, whether a suspenseful or horror type show, a good romantic love story, or a phone conversation with a good friend, and you are paying rapt attention to all that is being said and shown, and tuning out everything else besides what is the heart of your interest, particularly any distractions and what would otherwise be annoyances. While involvement of this sort occurs spontaneously to some extent, you also have to want to make it happen and you have to be attentive. You cannot become engrossed if your mind is on other things or just wandering and not really paying attention to the content of the communication or if you do not care to be involved. Whether intimacy is about romance, sexuality, other emotions, or single-focused attention to a story or to information you are reading or hearing, or whether it is the same sort of thing that athletes talk about "being in the zone", it is a form of oneness with, total focus on, and absorption into something or someone or into your own heightened experience. It involves your undivided attention.
And there is no reason you cannot get engrossed in the right way if you want to, on material delivered from a distance to you, whether you are on the phone, corresponding in writing through surface mail or email, which can be most productively thought of, not as 'long texts' but as instantaneously delivered letters. And although texting can be useful in some situations, texts are usually too short to allow for that much communication, particularly about complex matters. Many college students today give short, text-like answers to complex questions, often showing little or no thought, no insight, and very little or no explanation or examples of what they mean or have in mind. Whereas brevity is said to be the sole of wit, it is also often the sole of misunderstanding or no real communication at all. It is not easy to translate what you are thinking or feeling into words or images that other people can then perceive and attend to in a way that lets them accurately translate in reverse into the same feelings and ideas you have, and thus understand you. It takes work to communicate well and to understand what is being communicated to you, both in person and through remote means. With complex matters, that normally requires more words than fit into a tweet or a typically concise telegram.
Even in an in person classroom, you have to be attentive and in the right frame of mind to get absorbed in the material and what the teacher or your classmates are saying about it. If you don't, then the effect is little more than like watching a video of the classroom taken by a camera at the back of the room sitting up on a tripod. It will be cold and sterile image-wise and sound-wise, often with annoying, distracting, ambient noises such as people coughing or moving in their seats or moving things on their desks. The reason two hour movies and one hour television shows take so long to make is because they do multiple angles and extensive editing to prevent or remove unwanted distractions, and they stitch together close-ups, distance images, and moving perspectives to give a flavor to the material and bring it to life in a way your mind might if it were experiencing it live and if you are an insightful person.
It is vastly different from just watching a play from the back of an auditorium. When you are at a live event and have a decent vantage point and are wanting to be involved, your mind can 'edit out' some things and attend closely to others in a way that a great film director and editor does. And generally your mind has to do that in order to get and hold your attention on what you are perceiving. Otherwise you can easily tune out what is important also and miss the point that is being made or miss what is being said or done altogether.
What your senses perceive and what your mind perceives can be different things entirely. That is obvious 1) visually when photographs you take do not come out looking like what you thought you were seeing through the camera and 2) auditorily when you listen to recordings of phone calls or other conversations or performances that do not have any of the feeling or flavor you experienced when you participated in them or experienced them originally. When you are paying close attention to what you are trying to see or hear when you are seated in a concert hall or trying to take a photo or video, your mind often tunes out the distractions that are extremely difficult to tune out of a recording of the same thing.
Oppositely, you can be just half-attentively hearing your wife when she is near you tell some story that doesn't get your full attention until she gets to the sentence "I'm pregnant." And then you may be ready to actually hear what she said that led up to that if you can get her to repeat it. Same with a story by your spouse that doesn't get your attention until the sentence "So I want a divorce" and when you ask "Why?" s/he says "I just told you why!" and you have to admit you weren't really listening although you did obviously 'hear' everything s/he had said. But you were not attending to it, not paying attention to what you heard. That can be particularly embarrassing if the reason s/he wants a divorce is that you never pay attention to what s/he says or thinks.
Common mistakes, for example, of people taking pictures or making videos are their being too far away from the main subject and not noticing how insignificantly small the subject appears to be or not noticing distractions in the background or foreground. It is so easy to just focus one's attention on what one is interested in that one blots out and doesn't notice there is too much distance and too many things in the foreground and/or background to let someone looking at the photo or video be able to zoom one's mind in the way one can do it in person. Similarly with audio; we tend to hear the content we are interested in rather than surrounding sounds or problems with the delivery of the speaker, such as pauses, "um"s, unnecessary repetitions, self-corrections, extraneous noises from traffic or other sources, such as children at play outside or dogs barking, etc. Yet all these things intrude on our listening to the recordings of what seemed like a close and intense or intimate conversation at the time. Film and video productions require skillful direction and editing because it is far easier to filter out and ignore distracting elements in real life and focus on what is essential than to ignore them when viewing and/or listening to recordings. So a good director and editor removes all the distracting elements and helps you focus solely on what is important. And, although it is possible to get very engrossed in watching good material on a poor recording, it is much more difficult than doing so with a good recording or a close-range in-person interaction, such as a classroom with a good teacher who not only has organized the material and its presentation well, but who walks around the room and makes psychological contact with each student. But that psychologically/intellectually/intimate contact can be established even easier with using the right camera techniques in a remote classroom or a video recording of a lecture or other presentation because all students watching a video can, for example, see the teacher's face close up as s/he makes eye contact directly into the camera. Attentive students can all see and hear the same things equally well when viewing a live or recorded broadcast in a way they cannot in an in person classroom.
There are lots of instructional videos on Youtube, for example, and clearly some of them are far superior to others, not only in how the material is explained, but in how "personal" or what I am calling "psychologically intimate" the filming of the presenter is. Are there good lighting, angles, voice intonation and volume, sound quality, proper distance from the camera, proper framing of the person or his/her face if zoomed in, etc. I am claiming that remote teaching can be done well, not that it always is. Some remote instruction is done better, and presented better, than others, just as some books are better than others, but also just as some in person classroom teaching is much better than others.
Nevertheless, there are still limitations even in the best of recorded teaching, whether recorded in writing, or in audio or video presentations -- as already explained in footnote 1 -- because you do not have anyone immediately available to ask clarifying questions or address problems or what seem to be contradictions or other errors. The same is true of live lectures where questions from the audience are not permitted at the time. Some of the finest videos explaining science on PBS or Youtube, and many of the explanations of computer software, such as Microsoft or Adobe products, leave out crucial parts you need to know, refer to things you cannot find or things not previously explained you do not understand, make apparent deductions you cannot follow or see from what they were derived. It is almost impossible to produce a recording or an essay or explanation that makes everything relevant perfectly clear to everyone without their having access to answers from follow-up questions from readers or viewers. But that is not a problem with remote education itself, as long as knowledgeable teachers accept and answer questions about or disagreements with the material. Access to such teachers through remote learning is comparable to such access through in person learning.
There are two paradoxes involved in attentiveness: 1) the first paradox is that you need to blot out all distractions to focus on your main interest in order to learn, but if you do that when trying to communicate or record what is your main interest for teaching purposes, you will inadvertently allow too many unnecessary and distracting elements, which you do not notice, to occur for your audience to be able to focus on what you are focused on. To learn you have to be focused on the essence of the material, but to teach or tell stories -- convey ideas in general, you need to be aware of, and able to eliminate potential distractions to your audience, so they do not have to fight through them as much themselves. 2) The second paradox is that when learning, you need to do things that seem to conflict with each other; that is, you need to focus intently on the material being taught, but in order to understand and be able to use it well, you need to be analyzing and evaluating it in regard to all other things you know or believe, which I will discuss later in this essay. You need to be focused enough on the material you are reading, hearing, or viewing to be able to absorb it, but you need to consider it in relationship to anything potentially relevant in order to be able to assimilate it as fully as you can. You need to be single-minded and attentive to your subject while at the same time being aware of what needs to be eliminated. For example, the tricks in doing photography or video imagery well is 1) being able to see what your eye sees when using the camera instead of seeing what your mind sees and 2) knowing how to make the camera show what it is that your mind is seeing -- making your still picture or video capture what your mind is attending to from all the information that is being gathered by your eye and by your other senses. That is not always easy to determine or to be able to do.
One of the best examples of that not happening occurred when I worked for a weekly suburban newspaper as a photographer when I was younger, and one Monday morning, a man brought me a roll of film he had taken at his son's high school football game Friday night. He was so excited because he was sure he had got a perfect shot of the game-winning touchdown catch in the end zone. So I processed the film and made a 'contact sheet' of all the images in rows and columns in order to find the specific picture, and I didn't see any such catch. He came back in the afternoon to see the photo and I had to tell him there wasn't anything like that on the roll of film and gave him the contact sheet to examine. He couldn't find it either and at first thought he must have brought the wrong roll of film, but then he recognized other pictures on it and it was the right pictures of the right game. So he then started to narrow down which frame had to contain the picture he remembered taking -- after certain ones and before other ones -- until he had it narrowed down to the one it had to be that he pointed out to me. That didn't look like what he had described, but I enlarged, as much as I could, a figure that was in the end zone, printing a small portion of the negative as an 8x10, in which a player was about maybe one inch tall with his arms outstretched, and a quarter inch away there was a speck that was the ball coming toward him. The rest of the image on the negative itself had every player and ref on the field and half the field in it. What was so interesting though was the man's reaction (after his disappointment) because he said with astonishment "but I saw it so perfectly through the viewfinder while taking the picture, how could it not be here in the picture like that?!! I don't get it!" And I pointed out that because he was so engrossed in what he was seeing, that his mind 'zoomed' in on the key element and excluded everything else, but the camera couldn't do that. I pointed out that from the full image, it appeared he was using the standard 50 mm lens on his camera, while standing on about the 50 yard line on the sidelines, and that the touchdown catch was made, not only all the way downfield, but was diagonally from him all the way closer to the other sideline in the end zone -- making it something like 70 yards away from him -- and he confirmed all that was true. He just had not realized the significance of being that far away without a telephoto lens. When you listen attentively to a lecture, a phone or in person conversation, a teacher in a classroom, your mind has to "zoom in" -- in the same sort of way his mind did on that play -- to what is being said in order to perceive it properly without distractions and have a good chance of understanding it or knowing when to ask questions to get clarification.
But there is even more involved and required for understanding and utilizing ideas than just perceiving and understanding the words or images and what they mean. You also have to think about them in light of everything else you know and believe in order to analyze and evaluate them and see or extend their significance. Paradoxically, you have to focus on the subject matter intently without distractions, but also, in some way and at some points, keep in mind anything that might be relevant to the material that will either support or contradict it in a way you need to resolve.
One example of someone's doing that occurred at a movie I went to after my last final exam that term where there seemed to be a number of other students there too just trying to decompress. The movie was The Long Ships with Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark, probably one of the worst movies ever made. Richard Widmark plays a Scandinavian ship captain seeking some sort of treasure who sails to the Moorish coast of either the Iberian peninsula or of North Africa, where his ship wrecks and he is captured by the Moors led by Sidney Poitier. Luckily the Scandinavian captain and the Moorish leader both speak English so they can communicate with each other directly and so the audience in America can understand their conversations without needing subtitles. The captain escapes however, and somehow swims back in the Atlantic Ocean from there to Scandinavia, washing up on the beach precisely at his destination. He then gets another ship and mounts the expedition again, again getting ship wrecked at the Moorish coast and again being captured by the Moors and Sidney Poitier. Poitier tells him that to be allowed to avoid torture and execution he must pilot a ship the Moors have built, to an area where Poitier knows there is a priceless treasure. To get to the place where the treasure is, however, the Moors need a navigator to captain the ship because none of them can do it. At this point some guy in the movie theater audience yells out "You've got the wrong guy!", since he had wrecked both ships in his two trips, and cracked us all up. That person in the audience was 'thinking' while he watched, and had that insight into it I had not thought of at that point because I was watching rather mindlessly and had just pretty much written off the movie as being 'camp' or a stupid, frivolous kind of entertainment just to relax or anesthetize my brain after a mentally grueling term and tense week of final exams.
In fact, studying serious material and writing jokes about serious material (such as political or social parody and comedic commentary) require the same attention and effort, except that studying is the attempt to notice and make sense of conflicting ideas, patterns, and relationships, and comic writing is about pointing them out mockingly. For example, Jay Leno's comment to the effect that 'Now there is the Miracle Bra, the Super Bra, and the Wonder Bra -- what's the matter, do men not pay enough attention to women's breasts?" which in a more serious vein would raise, and require trying to understand, the psychological or sociological conflict about women wanting to attract men by being more sexy looking and then complaining that men care so much about, or only care about, looks or sex, and which could be part of a larger topic of the relationship between love and sex or between how people conflate outward appearance and inner essence and value of anything.
On the television show House, the protagonist, Dr. Greg House, was particularly adept at seeing clues and evidence to make diagnoses where other people only saw facts. It takes insight, and often luck or accident, to see that some facts can have important implications for other ones. But many discoveries stem from seeing a useful juxtaposition, pattern, or relationship among different things.
Two examples from my own life, one which fostered learning, and one which didn't. 1) The one that didn't began when I was around the age of 6 or so, and I asked my mother how babies got inside the tummies of pregnant women, and without batting an eye, she said "The daddy plants the seed". That satisfied my curiosity because I assumed it was like swallowing a watermelon type of seed and then having a watermelon grow in you in the same way it would if you planted it in the ground. I just assumed there were people seeds that sprouted into babies that once born grew into children and then adults. However, about a year or so later, I was watching the episode of I Love Lucy, where Lucy is all in a dither about telling Ricky she is pregnant without him getting excited and hyper in the way he tends to. That puzzled me, and I went back to my mother to ask "If the daddy plants the seed in order to grow a baby, why doesn't Ricky know that Lucy is going to have a baby? He knows he planted the seed." And again, with no hesitation, my mother just said "The seed doesn't always grow." That again satisfied my curiosity, for longer this time, and it made far more sense to me than an explanation and description a school friend gave me years later about people having sex, which seemed like a really stupid idea because there had to be a better way to make babies than what he was describing and claiming people did, which seemed to me to be a preposterous and disgusting claim that no one in their right mind would do. The point of this story though is that an episode of I Love Lucy showed something wrong or incomplete with my mother's first explanation of where babies come from. Clues and implications can come from anywhere and we need to be attentive and receptive to noticing them, as Dr. Greg House was or as a Sherlock Holmes always was..
2) The more helpful and productive case occurred the second semester of my freshman year in college. My calculus teacher announced one day the math department was postponing the midterm from week 8 of the 15 week term to week 12 because they wanted to include a third chapter along with the other two we had been studying, "because that made a better unit". I didn't understand why they thought adding a third chapter of formulas and equations to the first two made "a better unit" because there was nothing unifying about any of it, even in either of the first two chapters by themselves. Each chapter had some 15 or 20 different, unrelated formulas that you had to memorize and then remember which one applied to which kind of problems in order to solve the problems. Adding a third chapter of formulas just made it that much more difficult, and it was already practically impossible to begin with. When I did practice problems each night, I would just as often get them wrong as right, even ones I had got right previously. It was just too difficult to keep it all in mind -- all the different formulas and which kinds of problems they applied to. And yet, the announcement about adding the third chapter because "it made a better unit to have all three together" kept running through the back of my mind, and still making no sense at all, which was troubling. I was sure there must be something I was not seeing, but at that time in my life, as a freshman, I didn't want to show the teacher how ignorant I was that I didn't see whatever the unifying factor was that must have been obvious to everyone else. I just worked harder to try to memorize it all.
The night before the exam, I was again working practice problems and still getting them wrong half the time, and I knew that under exam pressure, I would likely do even worse. Frustrated, I went for a walk to try to clear my head and calm down. During the walk, the announcement about this making a better unit kept going through my mind with its usual torment, and then suddenly it happened to flash in my mind that there was an unusually larger amount of bold print at the beginning of the first of these three chapters than normal. Each chapter in the book had bold print to some extent in the first paragraph, and I just had always chalked that up to being some sort of stylistic affectation of the author or publisher. But the realization about the excess of bold print in only this one chapter, made me wonder if it was introducing some sort of general principle that then went through all the formulas in all three chapters.
I went back to my dorm room and looked at the first formula in that first chapter and saw that, indeed, it was a general form from which all the other formulas could be easily derived, depending on what information you were given and what you needed in order to calculate the solution in each problem. That made it easy to do all of them, and I was grateful I was lucky enough to figure this out the night before the exam instead of the night after it, if ever. There were some 1500 students taking this calculus course, scattered throughout some 50 different classrooms, and the exams were given simultaneously in lecture halls throughout campus, and then graded over night after the curve was determined for everyone. I figured I was the last person to see what the unifying factor was, but was glad to have seen it at all, even though I felt foolish it took me so long. The exam seemed pretty easy. But, of course, that could be a false impression. So getting our exam papers back the next day in class was still pretty frightening. When I got my exam back it had an 83 on it as the grade, but you didn't know what percentage that was of the total possible points or how many total possible points there were, and you didn't know what the curve ended up being. Still I felt that at least I must have passed. The teacher, however, was clearly upset and pale, because it turned out that the overall scores in the course were terrible and the professors had reamed out all the classroom teachers for doing a poor job teaching the material, though none of them knew where they had gone wrong.
He then gave the scoring and grading breakdown. It turned out there were 84 possible points on the exam, and the highest score anyone got was an 83, and there was only one of those, mine. The next highest score among the 1500 students was a 56, and the median score was 30. I was stunned and both elated and embarrassed to find out that I had set the curve, and that apparently I was not the 'last' student to see the operating principle that made this a unit, but was the 'only' student to see it. And, in fact, if I had not been a smartass on the exam showing off that I knew what the square root of two was, and had just left one of my answers as √2 instead of simplifying it (from memory) to 1.414, I would have got a perfect score of 84 on the exam, because I forgot to put the "" "plus or minus" sign in front of the 1.414, and was docked one point for that careless error. The 83 was a miracle to me; an 84 would have gone to my head.
But all of it came about only because I was trying to make sense out of the conflict between 1) the claim given by my teacher that the three chapters together made a good unit and 2) the clear fact that there were a zillion different formulas that didn't seem to have anything in common with each other. If I had not noticed and tried to resolve that conflict and been lucky enough to do it before the exam, I'd have done at least as poorly on the exam as everyone else because I was no smarter than any of the other students and I didn't know or understand or have a feel for calculus any better than they did, and probably worse than most.
When I was young, I had always asked questions about things I did not understand, but became increasingly reluctant to do so after learning many people, including teachers, did not take kindly to questions. I asked one academic advisor one time, in the days when you had to register for courses in person in a large gymnasium and could not always get into courses your counselor had approved, "What do I do if any of these courses are closed when it is my time to register?" And he angrily said "You'll do what everyone else does! There is no special treatment for you." And so I said "I do understand that. But what is it that everyone does then? What is the regular treatment? That was what I was asking." I had previously had this particular counselor as the lecturer and professor for a course that was terribly designed and taught. He was a particularly poor lecturer and course organizer. And not only was it almost impossible to make sense of the voluminous material assigned, that I found out, after the course was over, other professors organized and explained in ways that gave it meaningful and intelligible structure, but he had a short fuse for questions. One day in lecture when a student did manage to ask a question that he did not like, he threw a glass water pitcher across the stage that smashed and shattered against the wall. He was not the kind of person you asked questions.
After the calculus experience, I went back to asking questions in class about anything I clearly did not understand, even if it did make me look foolish for not knowing something I perhaps should have. Unfortunately that still leaves ignorance and misunderstanding about those things I don't realize I am not understanding correctly. As per the Dunning-Kruger effect, sometimes you just don't know enough to realize you don't know something.
And also unfortunately, sometimes being able to evaluate an explanation given to you or that you think you discover for yourself requires specialized knowledge you do not have and do not know you need and are missing, and you can fool yourself, or dishonest people can fool you, easily when you don't have that knowledge. I was conned one time by an auto mechanic from a major auto service chain in a way that two weeks later I saw on 60 Minutes in a segment about common scams perpetrated by unscrupulous auto mechanics. When my car was hoisted on the rack to get a bad muffler replaced, I was told my lower ball joints were worn out and needed to be replaced too. The evidence I was given for that was when the front wheels were turned, they could be made to wobble or shake just by hand. What makes that a scam, as explained on 60 Minutes is that while it looks dangerous, it is perfectly safe because good ball joints allow such a wobble or shake (or "play in" the wheels) when turning. The actual sign of bad ball joints is if the tires can be made to wobble by hand when the wheels are pointed straight, not turned.
So just asking questions, paying close attention, and trying to assimilate material in a meaningful way with everything else you know, although important, are not always sufficient to get it right. But they are often necessary and usually important to try, in order to be able to get the most out of instruction -- particularly in regard to material that is more intangible and relies more on reasoning than on completion of a task that is empirically clearly working correctly, or is done correctly or that doesn't work, or look the way it should. And that applies to remote and to in person education. Remote education allows and fosters it at least as much as in person does, and often more because it allows for more time to digest material from the teacher and to formulate more coherent and complete questions for teachers and replies to questions teachers ask than a student is likely to think of extemporaneously in an in person classroom. Unfortunately, in both kinds of courses students tend to be reluctant to express lack of understanding, ask questions they have, or persist in asking follow up questions when initial answers do not make sense to them. They fear teachers and classmates will think less of them, when in reality, often teachers will be grateful to have "teaching moments" that can make material more meaningful, and other students will be grateful someone raised the issue they were afraid to raise but really wanted to have explained better -- or that they did not realize they did not understand until the question was asked .
1 The limitation of books or videos relative to having a teacher available in person or remotely is that books and videos by themselves do not allow you to question the author for immediate, if any, response, particularly if the author is dead. However, you can ask the teacher your questions whether the teacher is in person or remote, you can write living authors to ask those questions, and you can ask other people/experts those questions, or search online or other books or articles for the answers. I even had a disagreement one time with my ninth grade English teacher about a grammar exercise question in the textbook, and I wrote the author to ask which of us was correct. He wrote back that my teacher was correct but that the problem given in the textbook that prompted the disagreement should not have been in that textbook because it asked about something not covered in the book but in the 10th grade grammar book, and he said he would direct the publisher to change that problem to something more appropriate. I know he in fact did have that change made because when my sister, who is five years younger, took a course at a different high school with the same book, half the class had the older edition and half had the newer edition, and the particular problem in that section was different in the newer edition. My sister's teacher didn't understand why that was until my sister showed her my letter from the author. (Return to text.)
2 There are limitations to learning even by conscientious, hard-working students. 1) Sometimes one does not realize there may be other ways material can be presented that are more conducive for one's own learning. When I took an art history course, the textbook and the lectures presented the material in something like 50 year periods of the historical changes in different art forms: first painting during 50 years in southern Italy, then sculpture there, and then architecture there; then it did the same for northern Italy, and then for northern Europe. Then it would come back to painting in southern Italy and go through the next 50 years, followed by sculpture and then architecture. The the same thing for northern Europe. I could not keep track of it enough when broken down in those kinds of segments to see any sort of continuity or remember much of the specifics. Fortunately I found a really good, relatively inexpensive book that presented the same material in the way I needed to be able to follow it -- linearly over a longer period of time separately in each art form in each region: the complete history of painting in one region of Europe, then the complete history of painting in another area, and then in the third area. It presented the history of sculpture, and then of architecture in the same way. That allowed me to see patterns in the incremental developmental changes in more similar styles of each art form and made it all make more sense to me, and easier to remember the details.
But when I took organic chemistry, they used a new textbook that year that presented the material in a way different from the way textbooks had previously, and I did not know that or have reason to suspect there were other ways to present it. At the end of the term, the professor said they had made a serious error changing textbooks and that students clearly were not learning the material the way it was presented in this one, that the lectures also mirrored. In the art history course, I knew that what was troubling me was the disjointed presentation and that I would probably better follow a more one that had more continuity in each art form in each region over time, so I looked for such a source. In the organic chemistry course, I just figured it was difficult material and never realized there might be some alternative way to present it that would make it make more sense and be easier to remember. So I never looked for a different textbook -- almost any of which apparently would have presented it better.
2) Sometimes better presentations or explanations do not yet exist or are not within reach. Before the internet, I one time had a teacher in a highly specialized graduate level course who had pioneered much in the development of computer logic, but who could not explain much at all in ways we could understand it. The students in the course were highly motivated to learn, and we would ask questions about what we did not understand, expecting him to be able to clarify his comments in light of what we were asking. But this particular teacher did not know how to clarify anything and only knew one way to state each thing he was trying to teach, and each time we asked questions he would simply restate exactly what he had said the first time, but louder and louder each time, and he would rewrite exactly what he had written on the board the first time, but in a different color chalk -- as if the reason we didn't get what he was saying was because we were hearing impaired and/or colorblind. This would go on for each topic until we gave up trying to ask our questions in different ways to try to get him to see what we were not understanding about the particular idea he was presenting. Unfortunately we could not find other sources of the material, since there were not that many other experts who were producing it.