Sometimes the achievement of Learning “How to Learn ‘How to Learn’ “ comes on us in strange but beneficial ways. It’s vicarious learning that, unfortunately, is not easily taught; it is rather more easily caught. Since it is often a rather uncomfortable experience, it needs encouragement and empathy.
While I have often tried to challenge (nicely) my children and students (and sometimes employees) to embrace this approach to learning, I have not always had captivating and memorable enough personal examples to demonstrate it, much less help my victims to “catch” it.
Until now. For some unexplainable reason, a blast from my past came to mind recently that provides what I hope is a vivid example of vicarious learning in practice. Without further ado,
Recall Archimedes’ famous experiment, begun when he was taking a bath, the story goes, and noticed the water his body displaced. Having a “Eureka” moment, he concluded that the purity of the gold crown could be determined by comparing the crown’s displaced water volume to its weight. A key component to the story is that he performed the experiment on the crown after his moment in the bath, a component that did not fully register in my mind when I was 8-years old.
In any case, I somehow had what I thought was the brilliant idea of duplicating Archimedes’ experiment by borrowing an available crown and taking it with me into my bath. Since some of the women in my family consistently behaved as princesses, I figured there had to be a suitable crown, or tiara, somewhere. Alas, while the behavior was real, the tiara was not. Being denied a necessary component I thought was available and thus the opportunity to perform a really, really valid experiment with the materials and conditions available to me, I resorted to typical 8 year-old bath-time contemplation and focused on my Rubber Ducky. (Typical adult conclusion regarding bath-time convenience and safety: tiara, no; Rubber Ducky, yes. I recall making similar decisions later in life.)
I discovered, quite by idle (or was it contemplative?) chance, that if one shifted one’s body to and fro in the water one could also induce Rubber Ducky to move to and fro. Further, if I relaxed, I would also be passively moved to and fro. And if I put some energy into moving to and fro against the water’s flow, I could slow down the water and Rubber Ducky’s movement. However, when I put some deliberate energy into moving to and fro with the water, then behold! I managed to pop ole’ Rubber Ducky a good two to three feet up the tiles surrounding the bath. Along with a fair amount of water. O, sweet Eureka!
Then, water and Rubber Ducky came down, mostly back into the bath. At this point, for some reason I was not able to fathom until becoming a parent myself, my mother entered the bathroom and had a surprisingly different response than Archimedes had when struck with his discovery.
In this very short episode in my life, I learned a surprisingly great number of very important things, many more than the average person would guess. Some were of immediate import, others would be useful only later in life, but all confirm the importance of vigilant observation in order to be able to capture the lessons that life is going to throw at you every day.
Here are the lessons I learned in that event (at least the ones I remember), in no particular order other than moving from long-term potential to short-term impact:
Lesson 1: If a force is applied to a body (water, for instance), energy can be transferred if the body is able to move;
Lesson 2: The forces applied to a body (including aforesaid water) add together. If the forces act in the same direction, they add constructively; if they act in opposite directions, they add destructively, or subtract. (Note: the use of the terms “constructive” and “destructive” above pertain to a physicist’s viewpoint, or the child-in-the-bath’s viewpoint. The usage of the terms needs to be reversed from the perspective of the parent-walking-unannounced-into-the-bathroom. Side lesson: Parents rarely appreciate physics in action);
Lesson 3: While it can be said with certainty that the water and Rubber Ducky must come back down, statistically speaking the same outcome can be described in two different ways: there is a 50/50 chance (50% probability) that the water and Ducky will return into the bath; OR, stated differently, there is a 100% probability that only 50% of the water, and/or Ducky, will return into the bath;
Lesson 4: The reason that the originally desired “tiara” (crown) was unavailable for a more modest experiment was that, I learned, it was in actuality an imaginary tiara in everyone’s eyes except our princess. For her it was very real and needed to be “cherished” 24/7. This was a life changing realization, which led to …
Lesson 5: Any person or event that distracted from said imaginary tiara’s polishing, admiration, and being illuminated by all available limelight, would be subjected to untold real negative consequences originating from said princess;
Lesson 6: There is a corresponding universal Law of Behavior similar to Newton’s Third Law of Motion for physics (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction), but which has slightly peculiar but important differences for Practiced Behaviors:
The Universal Law of Behavior (included in Fundamental Principle 14):
There will be consequences for any behavior. However, the consequences may be instantaneous (if lots of inanimate objects are involved), fairly immediate (only some inanimate objects are involved), or they may be delayed (if only people are involved);
(In my case, the worst-case scenario occurred when the negative consequences were delayed, for instance, until my father came home. Under these conditions, significant real energy was transferred (i.e., in the form of corporal punishment);
Lesson 7: After the aforesaid delayed negative consequences have been delivered, keeping upright on one’s feet and moving around rapidly increases blood flow, which significantly decreases the time until one can sit down again and resume normal activities.
It also became clear what must be considered Lesson 0: You can learn a lot just by observing. Much more than you think, which is why that encouragement has appeared many times in this blog.
What took a bit longer to learn was a subtle issue with the above lessons: they are essentially feedback: the behavior leads to a consequence, and by experiencing the consequence one learns. This is learning, for instance, by “reacting” to something outside the “bath.”
At some point good observers and learners discover feed forward: the recognition that the behavior will lead to a certain consequence. If the consequence is desirable, the behavior is reinforced. If the consequence is undesirable, it can be avoided (or attenuated) by modifying the behavior. This is the essence of Strategic Problem Anticipation, “proactively” thinking outside the “bath.”
Took me a while to grasp that one. I mean, what goes up must come down! Why couldn’t I have seen that not all of the water would simply come back down into the tub? Probably because I was watching Rubber Ducky enjoying weightlessness and laughing hysterically.