Monday, February 10, 2014

You can't learn to [ ] by reading a book

Triggered by this tweet and following conversation:

I commented: "Learning happens during reflection as well as action. Reading can be both." But then I ran out of space to explain in a tweet what I meant.

Here's my example:

When I was learning to fly a glider, I spent a LOT of time flying in circles. (Why? Because I was thermalling, or trying to - which means that you're trying to find, centre in, and stay in an invisible, moving column of rising air, which, by the way, has sinking air on the outside, and to do that you need to fly in fairly precise circles, and also have a good mental picture of where you think the thermal is now, that you keep adjusting to new data). I kept finding myself out of the nice thermal, sinking fast and hunting around to try to find it again, for reasons that were entirely mystifying to me.

Eventually I sat down with the books, and read up on the theory. One point I noticed was the comment that your turning circle was going to be larger if you were flying faster. I worked out and drew circles to scale for the aircraft I was learning in, for different speeds. Huh. Quite a lot of difference. In fairness, my instructor had pointed out a number of times that my somewhat ropey speed control was making things harder. I think he might even have drawn a few circles. But until I'd struggled with it in practice, re-read the theory, and then worked out a few examples myself, the penny didn't really drop. The next time I went flying, I still had difficulty controlling my speed, but now I felt I had a good grasp on the effect it was having, and it seemed to be easier for me to picture mentally what I might need to do to recover and find the centre of the thermal again.

After that, I got better, and my thermalling skills are something that instructors have always complimented (even when they were being very negative about the rest of the flight!).

So, where did I learn to thermal? While I was up in the air? Down on the ground reading a book? A bit of both? Or is that the wrong question?

I think it would also be wrong to assume that the action only happened in the air, and the reflection only on the ground. Reading a book can be a very active process, whether that be externally visible (calculating and drawing diagrams), or internally questioning, cross-checking, and rebuilding your own mental models as you read.

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