BEING CONFUSED WHILE STILL LEARNING - 12 May 2016
Drifting Snow After Sunset - Taos, New Mexico
I teach an exercise at work where my students have to evaluate a system then report back on what they find. The exercise is relatively unscripted using some pretty interesting tools that you'd find at a place like my work. While flying or using these pretty cool "tools" for this exercise is pretty awesome in the great scheme of things, my ultimate goal for these students doesn't have anything to do with those tools. It's about them understanding how to communicate in a written form using a fairly specialized framework. As simple as the framework is, it's not that easy for some to understand what I'm looking for. After returning their graded reports, one student's feedback was "can you give us an example of a good report, or a standard?" Wow... Such an awesome yet loaded suggestion. You see, being confused yet engaged is precisely where I want my students to be. Being sure, with a simple formula to plug and chug as they say is definitely not. That's the difference between being trained verses receiving an education. I'll explain.
I finished my Masters in Aerospace Engineering by taking half my classes in a single intense semester. That fact might not be so interesting except the first half of my program was separated by six years of service in the US Air Force. By the time I restarted my education, everything I took for granted as a undergrad was lost. I was way over my head trying to relearn all that I knew as a student and still keep up with my new studies.
One of the classes I took was called Numerical Methods. It's the math field that allows complex calculus calculations be made by computers. At the abstract level, it's fascinating stuff. But, when you're up to your eye-balls in homework and can't tell what's up from down, there's nothing fascinating about it.
The professor for this class was a stereotypical super smart guy, complete with the round glasses. Most of the class work was practically giberus to me which made doing homework a challenge. One thing he did which added perspective on math in general was anecdotes of conversations with his wife, the high school calculus teacher. You see, he reported there was the high school approach to math which was essentially the memorization and application of particular formulas--that, I totally understood. Then, there was mat as he saw it which was understanding the underlying essence of theories before getting to the application side of things. Of course, that didn't make any sense a that time.
Two weeks into this course and me attending every single one of his office hours to get help with the homework, I had an epiphany. I was seeking help on proving a particular theorem as part of a homework. He listened to me politely as I asked my questions. I stopped. He stared into space a moment then talked out-loud, not necessarily at me, "I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with students. Just tell them how to do it, or let them flounder." Then, he was quiet. Looking back 20 years I think he went the latter route. I don't recall getting more help, and I certainly didn't go back for any more office hours. I just tried to figure it out myself, which led to a B in the class.
It wasn't until years later when it dawned on me what all this meant. What this professor suggested was the difference between being trained to do something vs educated to understand something. It's the difference between training and education.
As an educator in a organization like the USAF Test Pilot School, I encounter this distinction all the time. Our students are carefully selected using a very intense process. They are the best the USAF environment has to offer. They've demonstrated extreme capability at USAF training programs as we note from their personnel records during our selection process. They are as good as anyone at being trained to do something. This becomes a huge challenge for us at the beginning of our course, to transform their thinking as a trainee that only wants to do what they're told to the extreme to actually understanding the "why" they do what they do.
This is why that feedback--"can you give us the perfect solution as an example"--is so awesome. It's points to the essence of what we're trying to do with our curriculum--to give our students the opportunity to learn and be educated.
Hopefully, the answer I gave back to this student's feedback was a bit less obtuse than the one I got from my math professor. I hope I was able to communicate we're trying to create an opportunity where they understand what we're teaching than simply being trained to do exactly what we tell them to do. Being a bit confused but still engaged is precisely where I want them to be.