Saturday, December 17, 2016

Learning is Inefficient

I've been doing some thinking lately - which we all know is... a DANGEROUS PASTIME!

In a prior life, I spent significant time researching and developing my own philosophies of teaching and learning.  This task was a part of my doctoral program and is an exercise that I have never regretted doing.  I came to realize more fully than ever how personal learning is and that it is a continuous process.  And, I gained an appreciation for inefficiencies in learning.

Learning often is a result of struggle.  It happens when we make mistakes or when things go wrong even when we seem to have done everything correctly.  When you go through the processes of learning on a farm such as ours you can successfully argue that learning is not an efficient farming process.

I think I can also persuade you that failure to learn is far more inefficient.  And, I suspect you will also agree that learning can lead to greater efficiency on the farm once understanding is reached.

Failure Overcoming Discomfort
I am absolutely certain that most people will understand me when I say that we may resist learning something new because it is not always a comfortable process.  Learning takes effort that we may not want to expend.  Learning moves us from what we know now to something else and we don't always embrace change.  But, when failure begins to force the issue, we suddenly become much more willing to learn and perhaps reluctantly embrace the changes it might bring.

Trays ready for onion seeds
We have both the benefit and the misfortune of having years of gardening experience prior to our starting the Genuine Faux Farm.  I suspect you will understand the 'benefit' portion easily enough - but the 'misfortune?'  Maybe that's a bit harder to understand.

Growing techniques that worked for us as gardeners have rarely worked without significant modification as professional growers.  But, I have to admit it took several poor to marginal onion growing seasons before we let go of all of what we thought we knew so we could overhaul the process.  In this case, our discomfort with change might have been better classified as stubbornness.

Failure was necessary to prepare us for the learning.  It might have been much more "efficient" if we had just swallowed our pride and adopted new systems over sooner.  But, I don't necessarily think we would have learned what worked and why nearly so well if we hadn't actually had some "inefficiencies" in the process.

Experience and Reflection Take Time

Constructivism is the view that each person's understanding and knowledge of the world comes through experience and the reflection on those experiences.  An important point here is that there MUST be reflection on the experience for there to be learning.

Ready for potatoes in late April
Our potato field might be a good example that we can use to clarify what I mean.  There are certainly many well-documented processes and sets of tools that exist out there to successfully grow potatoes.  We could certainly take one outlined method and gather the tools and follow instructions.  We might have success doing that, or we might not.  If we immediately have success, you could say that we were efficient and we learned.  But, do we have any idea as to why the system worked?  What happens when conditions change and the process you blindly adopted no longer works?

Exposure over time provides a person with more circumstances that require actions or reactions to adjust if there is going to be continued success.  The time spent considering the why and how things work or fail help us to prepare options for the future. If it weren't for the 'inefficiency' of the experience/reflection cycle, we don't learn to adapt to a changing world and changing seasons.

Treasuring Those Preconceived Notions
I admit it.  There have been (and still are) numerous ideas in my head that I just can't let go of - even if the experience and reflection periods I have had since I started the farm all point to them being wrong.

We like dandelions - now.
Case in point?  The dandelion.  Most of us were taught that the dandelion was a noxious weed.  How many of us spent hours as a kid with the dandelion fork yanking them out of our family's yard?  Or did you grow up in a home where you had to stay off the lawn after it was sprayed?  I remember diligently pulling dandelions in our gardens and the tendency to want to keep them out of our fields was still there when we started the farm.

Over time, I've observed the pollinator activity on dandelions.  I've noticed how easy it is to remove them from areas in our fields when we need to remove them.  This is especially true when I compare them to other weeds we have problems with.  Have you noticed how much more earthworm activity there is in an area where there have been dandelions?  I have a new understanding of dandelions that has led me to appreciation, rather than irritation.

Learning Is Often Courtesy of a Negative Event
If learning were 'efficient' in terms of our farm's progress and well-being, then we wouldn't learn so often as a result of a problem.  However, if you think about the times in your life when you made the biggest strides in your own understanding it is typically as a result of the reflections you have with respect to an event that you would not characterize as a good one.

Fence those peppers!
A few years ago, we lost nearly all of our outdoor pepper crop (the indoor crop did fine).  Apparently, we put them in a field that was a favorite for the rabbits, woodchucks and deer.  Inside of 48 hours of transplant, 85% of the plants were gone.  That's a bitter pill to swallow after you and your crew spent time prepping the beds, putting transplants in and setting up the drip irrigation. 

This did lead us to some new preventative measures with portable electric fencing and other things.  In short, we learned some new techniques to deal with young plants and the critters that might find them tasty.  Clearly, we weren't doing enough to learn these lessons when there wasn't enough pressure to get our notice.  So, this event taught us to be more pro-active for possible predation problems in addition to being better prepared to react when pressures increase. 

Incremental Progress is Not a Bad Thing
Every farm is different.  You can not just 'cookie cutter' a successful farm onto another one because there are too many variables.  When you have a farm like ours, the variables are greater because we grow so many crops.

Love those collapsible cages!
But, let's pretend it would be more 'efficient' to just copy someone else's techniques, tools (and whatever else) onto one of our crops.  Let's say we do that for... oh... tomatoes.  And then, our crop fails.  Now what?

We have no experience to make adjustments.  If we've grown any tomatoes before in our lives we likely forsook all of those processes for this new 'fool-proof' method.  We've changed so much, there will be no way to isolate any one thing that might need changing.  Because we had little or no experience in the implementation of the new method, we can not even determine if the crop failure was user error or system error (or some of each).'

In other words, sometimes the best way to learn is by working things out in steps until our understanding is sufficient to take bigger leaps.

Learning How to Learn from Others
I suppose some of you might be wondering at this point if I am really as foolish as to say that prior knowledge and understanding collected by others is not useful if you really want to learn.  In fact, I would say just the opposite.  You can make your learning more efficient if you DO look at how others have done what you want to do. 

A mat of cucumber vines
Except the learner rarely starts at the same place of understanding as the teacher/expert/professional who has a system you might want to use.  Sometimes, the answer lies in knowledge that has been around for decades or centuries, but we have somehow managed to set that knowledge aside collectively.  In other situations, the answer is a variation on a well-known theme. 

The hard part isn't in seeing that something works or could be made to work.  It isn't in the understanding how it might work either.  The difficulty is in integrating this knowledge into what we already understand.

Transport yourself back to the last time you were in a classroom.  Pick a subject that wasn't inherently easy for you, but not necessarily impossible.  Do you remember the instructor giving you an example of how to do something (like solving an algebraic equation) and it seemed to make sense?
 "Yes, I think I could do that," you say. 
And then, the teacher gives you another problem and tells you to use that process.
And you struggle.

Assuming you do not give up after one try, you get several opportunities to try again.  After a while, you are able to use that technique to solve a certain type of problem.  And then, the teacher tells you to use the same technique for a different sort of problem.
And you struggle again.
But the struggles begin to lessen as you gain experience and you think about why things are working or not working.
And suddenly, you are helping others to learn.

Maybe learning isn't inefficient.

Maybe it's just necessary.

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