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From the perspective of the education system I was and am a less than ideal student.  It is not that I didn't (usually) get acceptable grades or that I have problems learning, rather, the problem is that I do learn and most of us have lost sight (if we ever knew) of what it really means to actually "know" something.

Knowledge is power - Sir Francis Bacon
Power Corrupts - Lord Acton
I am dedicated to the pursuit of corruption - Shannon Dealy :-)

If we want to be good at anything in life: our job, hobbies, relationships, (literally anything), it is important to understand the true meaning of "knowledge" in order to be sure we are actually learning something useful, rather than just collecting useless facts and information.

One of the core problems of the modern world in my view is that we define "learning" far too broadly and treat the acquisition of knowledge, information and facts all as equivalent.  To make my meaning clear, let me define the differences:

  • Facts - When someone memorizes something such as: "when the war 1812 was", how many protons there are in a hydrogen atom, or what your partner's favorite color is, that is a "fact".  We often call this "learning", but it isn't - if it were, then any computer is capable of "learning".  Computers contain far more facts than we can memorize and more facts can be easily added.  There is no context to this information, there is no understanding, so when we test a person on their ability to recall a "fact" or piece of data, we are not checking if they have learned anything, only if they were able to memorize it.
  • Information - this is more complex than data.  Information puts the facts into a context, though in some regards this is just facts on steroids - you not only have the facts, but also the contextual information that allows the facts to be useful for other purposes.  Unfortunately, though it might be called "learning" this still isn't - it is simply memorizing more sophisticated data and their relationships.  If this is learning, then we should start awarding PhD's to the computers at Google, since relationships between data is what complex searches are all about.  Examples of this:
    • What triggered the war of 1812 to start when it did?
    • How do chemical properties of an atom relate to the number of protons it possesses?
    • What types of objects does your partner prefer in their favorite color?
  • Knowledge - At last we come to what it means to learn something.  For learning to have occurred, you must not only have the facts and information (relationships), but you must be able to recognize when it relates to something new and apply it where appropriate.  Solving story problems in math class is usually a good example of students demonstrating knowledge.  Being able to explain how a particular political and cultural environment led to a war when this was not directly addressed by any of the information or facts you have memorized would be another.  Being able to describe the probable chemical properties of a newly discovered element, or decide which colors in shirts, pants, or skirts your partner might prefer also require knowledge.

In addition to the above, there is one more requirement for "knowledge" and that is "belief".  Perhaps this is redundant, since if you don't believe something is true and correct, you will not apply it when appropriate, but it is important to recognize the role of belief in knowledge.  This doesn't mean you don't know how to apply it, but it is just a mental exercise much like playing a game of chess.  Regardless of how much you study evolution or how many tests you pass on the subject, if you truly believe in "creationism", you will not apply what you were taught about evolution when you dig up dinosaur bones in the real world.  This makes sense: how can you claim to "know" anything that you pointedly do not believe?

Getting back to why I am a less than ideal student.  I realized at a relatively early age that (for me anyway), I could learn something by putting in just enough effort to get a "B" grade and that to get the "A" grade required twice as much time and work!  I therefore set out to be a "B" student, leaving me with more free time for personal projects, which usually involved applying many of the things I had learned.

Whenever I learn something new I see so many possible applications that I want to play with them rather than waste time on boring homework problems.  Of course what I was really doing was creating a large number of "interesting" homework problems for which I would receive no school credit, but would have a lot more fun with.  From the perspective of getting in to a university, my "B" grade goal probably wasn't the best plan, though I did get into the university I wanted.  Sometimes despite my plans I would get A grades, particularly if I enjoyed the subject, or the teacher only required that I had learned the topic and prove it on the exams, or if one of my personal projects taught me so much that the "A" grade was inevitable.  I even accidentally made the honor roll my last term in high school (not sure how that happened :-)

Once on a physics exam I took in high school, there was a question about a man "Hermy" standing on a tightrope which broke in the middle.  Fortunately, Hermy was able to grab both of the broken ends of the high wire, and we were required to figure out how much force there was on Hermy's body while holding on.  During the exam our teacher, Mr. Canan, interrupted the test to warn us that when we got to this question we shouldn't be surprised if Hermy was ripped in two.  I don't remember exactly, but I think the force was around 2,000 or 3,000 lbs.  A student who gained real knowledge from this material would realize that you can create a tremendous amount of force by attaching a rope or cable stretched tightly between two objects, and then pushing or pulling sideways on the middle of the cable, since it only took the weight of one man to generate that 2000 to 3000 lb force.  I have used this technique many times over the years, most recently to drag a 500 lb log about 100 feet to use as a border around an outdoor exercise area.  I simply attach a cable to a tree and to what I want to move, then pull sideways on the middle of the cable.  When I can't move the object any further, I adjust the cable to make it tight again and repeat the process.

The point is that if you can't apply what you have "learned" to the real world, you haven't actually acquired any "knowledge".  So whenever you study anything, whether it's for a class in school, someone you would like to know better, or a problem you are trying to solve at work, try to find ways to apply everything you learn to the real world; then you can be sure that you have really understood and learned something.  You might have a lot more fun with what you are studying, and you will definitely be better at it.