“Learning How to Learn”

I remember a seminar I attended decades ago, at IIT Kanpur. It was the Fall of 1991. I had just joined the IIT Kanpur campus for my Masters’s, right after completing my Bachelor’s from NIT Rourkela. On a rainy Saturday evening, I walked over to the Lecture Hall Complex, where this seminar-cum-panel discussion was about to begin. It was a gathering of some of the most elite faculty from across the institute, as well as, eager, somewhat ‘nerdy’, students in their Saturday shorts and pajamas.

Though I don’t remember the exact topic of the seminar, it was about IIT education, in general, how it is regarded as being at the forefront of technical education and has earned its place on the world stage. Many speakers spoke that evening. Though I don’t recall a lot of details, one opening statement made by one of the Professors that evening about IIT education is vivid in my memory even now — “At IIT, students don’t just learn technology, they learn how to learn”!

The transition from NIT to IIT campus was somewhat (pleasantly) overwhelming, in more than one way — the campus and facilities, the state-of-the-art computing resources at the Computer Center (which housed my academic department — Computer Science and Engineering), and just the sheer academic rigor, kept me on my toes and added a unique aura to the grad school life at IIT. However, the idea of education as “learning how to learn” was an incredibly powerful one, and has stuck with me ever since.

Decades later, my son has enrolled at the University of California San Diego as an undergraduate to study Mathematics and Computer Science. As an eager parent, I often read about these world-class research universities in the US and their centuries-old legacy of advancing the frontier of human knowledge through higher education. Earlier this year, in January 2021, when NASA unveiled the initial team of astronauts for its ambitious Artemis moon mission, it was a joyous occasion for UC San Diego. Two of the Artemis team members are its alumni — Jessical Meir, Ph.D. in marine biology from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and Kate Rubins, who earned a bachelor of science in molecular biology, both at UC San Diego.

While reading through the above news article from UC San Diego, this quote from Jessica Meir again caught my attention:

“Many people say that an undergraduate education is about learning how to learn. Kate Rubins had her undergraduate years at UC San Diego and I’m sure that’s true for her,” said Meir. “And then for me at graduate school at Scripps, then we are kind of fine tuning and learning how to really apply those critical thinking skills that use the scientific method. That is something that benefits me so profoundly from my years at Scripps…providing that foundation from which everything else was really this jumping point.”

So, how does one “learn how to learn”? Is it about learning the most fundamental theory underpinning a subject? Is it about learning by doing? Is it about acquiring critical thinking skills? What is it that enables one to learn how to learn? What do these universities and institutions of repute, do to facilitate it?

This has remained an intriguing question for me over the years and here are my thoughts, (rather reflections).

Built on empirical research

Let me start by mentioning this course I recently completed. It is a course on the very same subject: “Learning How to Learn — by Barbara Oakley, a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University and McMaster University, and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski a Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, (at UC San Diego), where he directs the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory.

The duo’s creation of this online course, “Learning How To Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects”, is quite a popular course on Coursera. The course teaches some very fundamental techniques and tools for learning, which are the results of their extensive research over the years. It delves into neuro-biological principles behind short-term and long-term memory. It explains the concept of “focused mode” and “diffused mode” of the brain, the technique of “spaced-repetition”, and how it is the key to “chunking” and developing one’s long-term cognitive skills. It provides plenty of anecdotal evidence of how these techniques and tools have helped learners in a variety of situations and circumstances around the world. It pinpoints some traps and misconceptions that learners often fall into and discusses ways to avoid them. It is a course that essentially teaches the notion of “learning” at its most fundamental and scientific level, which can be used by learners of any age, at any stage of career, profession, or life!

So, does it help when the very subject of learning is researched and studied scientifically? I suppose so. When the process of learning is understood at such a fundamental level, it becomes possible to build on that foundation and all aspects of education — the curriculum, the processes, tools, methodologies, etc., can be designed and imparted on that firm substrate.

Curiosity and Rigor

Those of us having an interest in theoretical Computer Science would be familiar with Computational Complexity theory, and particularly, the P vs NP problem. In fact, it is one of the seven Millennium Problems, identified by the Clay Mathematics Institute, as the most difficult and challenging problems of current times.

Let me go back to the IIT Kanpur days. It was my second semester. By then, I was quite clear that I wanted to do my graduate work in the area of Distributed Systems, and Networking. I approached Professor Gautam Barua to be my thesis advisor and had been accepted by him. In addition to starting and making progress towards my thesis, I had to pick two courses for the semester. I picked one on Advanced Computer Architecture. I went and sought Prof Barua’s advice for picking the other. I had expected to pick a course related to my thesis work (e.g., a course on Distributed Systems). However, Prof Barua had other ideas. He suggested I pick the course, “Structural Complexity” offered by Professor Somenath Biswas. Prof. Barua told me (in Hindi), “Kuchh theory padh lo”; i.e., Study some theory (you may not get a chance in future)!”

What followed was an incredible time with Prof. Biswas, during the course of the semester. Prof. Biswas is a pioneer in Theoretical Computer Science. Here is a beautiful collection of work, compiled by his student Prof. Manindra Agarwal (of AKS Primality Test fame).

In this course, Prof. Biswas took us through a journey of amazing insights into this abstract subject of classification of computational problems. He would cover the topics from his research on the subject and lead us through rigorous intellectual exercises in his classes. With his absolute mastery of the subject and lucid explanations, he made it so intellectually engaging, looking back, progressing through the course, and excelling at it, was no less exhilarating than reading the Harry Potter series! And the interest has stuck with me ever since!!

So, it is about igniting that curiosity and sustaining it with rigor. Prof. Barua’s advice to take Prof. Biswas’ course and the ensuing journey was just that!!

I have heard, undergraduate education is about breadth, whereas graduate education is about depth. Some say liberal arts schools cover the breadth of human knowledge, while professionally focused (e.g., engineering) institutes focus on depth for imparting lifelong practical skills. In the end, however, the means remain the same. Once curiosity is kindled, rigor sustains it, and the student becomes a lifelong learner.

People Inspire

A few days back, Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos captivated the world when they completed their respective private flight to the edge of space. While reading a related article, The long-term quest to build a ‘galactic civilization’, on BBC, I learned about the Physicist Gerard O’Neill, who had pioneering thoughts on space travel and space settlement back in the seventies. He was first to think and propose the idea of orbiting or “floating” settlements, which today’s International Space Station (ISS) resembles at a miniature scale. Though the idea was an audacious one in the mid-1970s, it would go on to inspire generations.

The BBC article goes on to note the following:

In the 1980s, there was a student in O’Neill’s seminars at Princeton University, who took careful note of his professor’s ideas. He aspired to be a “space entrepreneur”, and saw settlements beyond Earth as a way to ensure humanity’s long-term future. “The Earth is finite,” he had told his high-school newspaper, “and if the world economy and population is to keep expanding, space is the only way to go.” He would go on to amass an enormous fortune, which one day he’d start spending to kickstart that ambition.

The student’s name? Jeffrey Preston Bezos.

Examples abound in today’s technology world where such bold leaps, (as Bejos’ space flight) inspire entire humankind. Their anecdotal stories, such as the one at Princeton University, inspire even more!!

But, let me come back to a very different and nonillustrious example. When I look back, I often remember my high school days at the Town High School, in my home town Balasore, in the state of Odisha. I had a teacher, Rameshwar Bera, who taught us Science. I vividly remember the Optics classes when he would trace and explain the path of light through the convex and concave lenses, drawn on the blackboard, with a large wooden compass and scale, and reinforce with us whether we understood or not. We often use the term “clarity of thoughts” to describe our proficiency to reason logically. We consider it a basic and essential skill in almost all aspects of our intellectual pursuit and technical and professional work. When I look back, I can clearly see Rameshwar Bera Sir’s lucid explanations to the 10th graders in those science classes are examples of seeds sown which blossom as clarity of thoughts in later academic and professional work.

Decades later, in December 2019, with all my high school friends, we decided to get together at my hometown Balasore, for a felicitation ceremony for our teachers. Note that few of our beloved teachers have left us for a better world. Most other teachers are in their eighties and not in the best of their health. However, with the effort from my resourceful friends, we were able to get all our teachers to the Town Hall center at Balasore, for the felicitation ceremony. It was a gathering of all of my classmates, their families, in front of our beloved school teachers, where we expressed our sincere gratitude for our teachers’ contributions to our lives (and felicitated them with a plaque and a shawl). It was an amazingly beautiful evening, which I will always remember.

During that ceremony, when Rameshwar Bera Sir got up and spoke on the stage, he expressed his happiness and said, “We always taught you and always wanted you to be not just ‘great’ in what you do, but also be ‘good’ in who you are!” My son was there with me. Nothing could have been more appropriate and inspiring for my son that evening, coming from my high school teacher!!

So, People (Teachers, Professors, Faculties, Mentors, Gurus, and not to forget, the fellow students) inspire, whether in the famed hall of Princeton University or in the corridors and classrooms of Town High School, Balasore!!

Firm Grounding

The undergraduate curriculum at US universities usually embodies the cornerstones of strong Liberal Arts education (to varying degrees). As a result, a student studies certain minimum credits of humanities, arts, mathematics, science, and social science, before he or she goes on to “major” or specialize in a subject of interest.

True to this principle, the University of California system lays significant emphasis on the study of humanities and associated university-level writing. The humanities courses at UC are fairly rigorous and for good reasons. Undergraduate years are the formative years for a young adult. No matter what the student goes on to study and choose as a career, perspective on humanities, history of mankind, both the highs and lows, are essential learnings for life. Imparting this knowledge with necessary rigorous academic coursework enables the students to build a lifelong perspective of our place and existence on this planet. It goes on to help lead a balanced life and make informed choices, irrespective of one’s profession.

While browsing through the courses and contents at UC San Diego, I came across this — Making of the Modern World, which is one of the humanities sequences at the university for fulfilling the undergraduate requirements. And, here are the required texts for the course:

MMW 12: CLASSICAL AND MEDIEVAL TRADITIONS

Required Course Texts:
- Mckay, A History of World Societies, 10th edition (Bedford)
- Bhagavad-Gita, trans. Barbara Stoler Miller (Bantam Classics)
- Matthew Gordon, The Rise of Islam (Hackett)
- Arthur Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History (Stanford)
- Hacker and Sommers, A Writer’s Reference, 8th edition (Bedford)

When I looked at the content of the course, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Bhagavad Gita is a required textbook for the course (along with the rest). (In fact, and a bit ironically, I have not come across any formal academic curriculum in India, where Bhagavad Gita is taught as a required text!)

The world knows Bhagavad Gita encapsulates some of the most profound philosophies of human life. It transcends religion, race, history, ethnicity and is truly a storehouse of the most invaluable human knowledge and ancient wisdom on the face of the earth, which every human being, benefits from, in order to lead a life in this world.

Shouldn’t the essence of such philosophies be inculcated in young adults, with the necessary academic rigor? Isn’t it important for students to imbibe these life philosophies early on?

I believe, just as a student learns the skills for writing a complex system of software, or producing a fine piece of research, he or she needs to learn, with equal academic rigor, how to deal with both success and failure in life. The student needs to look at the history of mankind through the lenses of the greatest of teachers and philosophers — from Krishna to Plato to Buddha! He or she needs to ponder about how the Galileos, the Newtons, the Maxwells, and the Einsteins of the world pondered about the universe. The learning needs to encompass the skills for synthesizing ideas and articulating thoughts into coherent, purposeful writings. Above all, the students need to be provided a firm grounding, on which they can excel with their professional skills, and lead a fulfilling life.

Conclusion

That brings me back to one of Einstein’s quotes at the beginning of the article — “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school”. Indeed, the key ingredients of education need to bring out those attributes to the fore, which help the student prepare for the long haul, go the distance, become a lifelong learner.

Education is, after all, about “learning how to learn”!!

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Himansu Sahu

Himansu Sahu

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Interested in science, technology and the topic of education.