Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A little metacognition

Metacognition - thinking about thinking - is occasionally useful as a way of see where we are and where we might go. In yesterday's class, you surprised me. I thought I'd hear more of you say what you learn in your majors transfers to other areas. But I believe, instead, most of you felt the opposite. What you learn is highly situated. You excel in a small universe, which comes into sharp focus. Other things remain a blur.

There is a different notion of transfer that we didn't talk about yesterday - longitudinal transfer - I call it riding a bicycle. Once learned, it stays learned. Other learning is use it or lose it. Here is an example.

When I was a high school senior I took a course on Saturday mornings at NYU in Relativity and Geometry, a course meant for high school students in the NYC area. The prof was a fun lecturer and did a variety of sidebars. One of the those was a critique of the standardized tests and the question type: here is a series of numbers, what comes next? He taught us the Method of Sucessive Differences and claimed if you used it on those tests you'd always get the right answer. He also gave us this particular example, which I'm sure you won't get (because you didn't grow up in NYC) but at the time I didn't get it either and I did grow up there. The series is

4, 14, 23, 34, 42, 50

What comes next?

The answer is Lexington Avenue. Those are stops on the F-Train. Back to longitudinal transfer. This discussion and the particular example I recall 38 years later, no problem. The special relativity however....

So there is a puzzle of what is learned once and doesn't require relearning and what isn't. The chapter on transfer talks about how things are learned the first time as being important for this. I agree, but I also think it matters what it is that is being learned. The expression, "fundamentals" cuts across many areas of study, includes sports, and probably includes the arts as well. So a big question is whether we learn fundamentals in a riding a bicycle way. Those who do can go far in that particular field, at least that's my belief.

I want to switch gears a little and touch on the ethical implications of the expertise-in-narrow-scope conclusion we seem to have drawn. In today's NY Times, David Brooks has an Op-Ed column, that touched me. The piece is about a radio broadcast he had listened to quite recently that was a replay of a broadcast when World War II came to a close. The tone in the broadcast was humble and subdued. The World Ware II survivors had endured together. There should be thanks for that. But not a sense of triumph. Brooks is both nostalgic and pining for that tone to reappear in the social pysche now. What he observes however, at least in the world of professional sports and popular entertainment, is a far different tone, egotistical and with much bravado. He mentions, in particular, Michael Jordan's recent acceptance speech as he became a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. I watched that live. And John Stockton's too, which preceded it. Stockton's speech was more of what Brooks has in mind. But Stockton, a player's player, never appeared in a Nike ad.

Trying to bring those thoughts back to you guys, where many of you are studying science or engineering, what do you think of the tone in the climate where you work? Does the environment encourage humility or bombasity or something in between? And when you have broader interactions, what then, a common bond or a bunch of individuals who are just getting by?

1 comment:

  1. I definitely don't think the environment encourages humility, but too much arrogance leads to no one wanting to work with you, and where I work, *everyone* is always working on teams. I think in general those broad interactions are a single group working towards a shared goal, though there are bad apples in every group who are just after personal glory.