Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Six Questions of learning

We all know the six questions, we've heard them all our life: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.  Who did something, What that something was, Where that something was done, When that something was, Why that something happened, and How that something happened.  If you can answer all six of those questions, you know that something.

Since these questions are about learning something and the pinnacle of the desire to learn something was the Moon landing, let's apply those questions to that.

Who: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.

What: well, Neil and Buzz landed on the Moon and Michael stayed in orbit until the other two returned.

Where: The Moon, or more specifically Tranquility Base.

When: July 20th 1969 at 20:17 UTC.

How: Lot's of paper, pencils, slide rules, and way more balls then I will ever have.  I don't know specifically how they did it, I know I'm not smart enough to understand the maths involved.

Why: Now here's the big question.  While I could easily look up the equations that sent people to the Moon, to truly understand why they went I would have to look much deeper then just what they did while they were there.  Why did they do those tests?  What was it that they wanted to learn that caused them to spend millions of dollars and many years to shoot three people in a tin can 238,900 miles away from home?

All of these questions would have to be answered dozens of times to fully understand the Moon landing, but if they could, the person who answered them would be an expert.  That person would truly understand the Moon landing.

What does this all have to do with learning?  We all go threw those questions when we learn.  Who is doing the thing: Mom.  What is she doing: walking.  Where: right in front of me.  When: Ever since I was born.  How: One foot in front of the other.  Why: it's faster then crawling.

While it takes a little while for a child to fully understand the how part, it's the why that's important.  What would be the point of walking if the why question could not be answered?

And that brings us to the point: The why question is the most important question in learning.  When we start understanding why things do what they do, we can start putting them together with other things in ways no one thought of before.  If we just understand the statistics, the (who what where when and how), we only know they work in ways that have already been done.

We know what E=MC² is.  Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, but why is it?  Why is the speed of light squared?  Why is the speed of light in there at all?  If you can understand the why, you can understand the equation.

Now, think back to when you were in school.  Several years ago, yesterday possibly.  How many times did you learn the why question?  How many times were you given the information and just told to accept it as is?

I can kinda think of a perfect example from my school days.  I don't remember the equation from my Algebra II class, but I remember asking why there was a 1 added into the equation.  I was told just to accept it as fact and move on.  Well, obviously I didn't learn the equation as I don't remember it now, but I do remember asking why.  So I would remember the equation today if my question was answered.

And that's where we need to start focusing education.  As it stands right now, teachers teach to the tests.  We are forced to memorize facts and statistics.  We have learned to cram for tests, to remember things long enough to pass and then move on.  If we started teaching to the why question, our students would learn more and retain it better.

Why is that?  The human mind cannot store massive amounts of facts, it just can't.  We were designed to focus on what is in front of us and then remember the general details of the thing.  Don't go over there, there's a tiger pride over there.  The details (the who, where, when, how) are lost and only the underlying reason is left.  The why question is the underlying reason, it's the information we are built to learn.

Always ask why.

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