Monday, March 24, 2008

Systems approach to learning


Cruising through one plus semesters of my MBA course till now, I came to the conclusion that I can do better. I can learn more than what’s on offer. But considering the amount of activities and the already bloated syllabus with 11 odd subjects in every semester; is it really possible to do justice to each and every subject?

It riles me even further to realize that it’s not just us, but the professors also have to manage a string of activities across the campus and their independent research and also contact sessions. It surprises me to know what is the quality of education received and imparted at the end of any semester? This makes the MBA course look like a sweat shop.

But sweating is good it gives me a solid and tangible feeling of hard work. But I have a work around for this situation of quality of knowledge. Why not incorporate the systems thinking approach to our standard curriculum?

In every system, there are these basic modules, an input/source, a processing centre/logic, an output mechanism and finally a feedback. This loop can be used to sum up almost all forms of understandable concepts.

Studying is a similar process, books / lectures (input), reading / comprehending (processing), implementing / application (output) and finally (and the most important), contemplating on the first three steps and trying to devise new approaches of doing the same.

This logic is so crisp, and we use it everyday, for an astonishingly huge number of tasks. Alawani Sir directed me to read Polya’s ‘How to solve it’. Although the book predominantly deals mathematics and learning math, there are some essential concepts which can crossover into the realm of learning everything. From Alawani Sir’s working paper, he cites that, our human thought process is designed to identify patterns from seemingly abstract sources and forms of information. Our senses are so strong that they are constantly receiving a tonne of information which the brain, through its primitive logic, has learned to make sense of and make our lives “livable”.

It so happens that an average MBA curriculum which I am being exposed to consists of constantly bombarding concepts at me. By the end of the day, I began feeling drained and dissatisfied about what I have learnt. I anticipated every visit to the library to get my hands on the reference material and start reading. But this approach to learning seldom works with these volumes of information. As long as you don’t make a deliberate effort to understand the interconnectedness of the concept that you have just been bombed by, the purpose of learning is defeated. Even if the concept that you are learning is archaic, one should be able to relate to the demise of the concept with the emergence of some new idea or thought that has replaced it. This is a classic case of positive feedback loops.

Every concept is inadvertently connected to every other concept. Even though they seem unrelated at times, there is a thread that binds all these concepts together. Through linguistics, these threads become visible. A study of language and its origin can give you a clear understanding of what are root processes in the brain that give rise to various concepts and the need to communicate these concepts for any sort of survival. For instance, the use of counting, right from hunter gatherer times for counting tribesmen or counting used in financial functions, both use the same underlying hardware and logic, just the application differs.

As Joseph LeDoux says in his book, The emotional brain, about how a computer computes 5 + 4 = 9, is exactly similar to how a human calculates 5 + 4 = 9 and so is similar to a calculator’s way of addition. The underlying process remains the same, but the hardware used to reach the result is drastically different.

So once we start to understand the interconnectedness and the relationships between the concepts, it becomes amazingly easy to learn and use them. For an art’s graduate it might be a daunting task to calculate a problem in capital budgeting, if he has number phobia. But if he thinks of it from the point of view of allocating money for a personal investment (say a book or dinner out with a girl) and then correlates the outcome of both these activities, then his understanding of the concept would be flawless. All he has to do now is to just get a glimpse of the formulae used and then use relative logic in order to come up with results. Although it might seem as if it works only for the simpler problems, but this logic also works for complex problems if you can relate it to some real world function of your brain.

Similarly learning the concept of opportunity cost, it is easy to say that it’s the cost of the second best option sacrificed, but what does it mean in the real world? Assume that you are on a date with a girl that you barely know. But you two have a great chemistry and decide to spend an evening together. An opportunity cost is the cost of the doing this at the expense of doing something else at that exact moment. So to say that, if you are promiscuous, then the opportunity cost of going out with this girl is the cost you sacrificed for going out with some other girl. This gives rise to the concept of sunk costs. You don’t know how you and your date are going to end up. It might happen that you two split up after a year’s passionate relationship. So what’s your sunk cost? Your sunk cost is the amount of money invested in the relationship which didn’t last more than a year or didn’t have any conclusive or beneficial effect on your life.

Now it becomes easy to apply these concepts in economics, once you know the underlying connectedness. Such is the way in which our brain is used to conceive variety of ideas and concepts which can be used in different contexts. But the underlying processes remain the same. We have a limited hardware even though it seems that we have an insatiable capacity to memorize throughout our lives. The basic process of memory also works on relative understanding of concepts or events.

Our memory associates events with people (faces), also associates them with other events and so on, which helps in remembering a tonne of information about everything. The only reason, our memory seems inexhaustible is that, till the day we die, our brains will not stop relating things to each other and deriving causal links and patterns from it. Once these patterns are identified, they get registered in the brain and then whichever events in our lives fit those patterns, we memorize them, and which events don’t fit those patterns, we try to fit in this new pattern amongst its closest relative. Suppose you are the only person on this planet who was lucky enough to spot an alien space ship entering our atmosphere just because you happened to look into that general direction at the exact same moment. Your brain is not accustomed to see an alien space ship and there is no pattern associated with this phenomenon. But your brain has a pattern already constructed to factor in paranormal events, like belief in a god, or belief in something unknown lingering in the dark and so on. So the brain may automatically associate this space ship viewing incident with that paranormal pattern, which gives it an air of mystery. But if you are an astrophysicist and know that it’s not a space ship but a weather balloon, the pattern already conceived to understand weather balloons is associated with this viewing.

In short, what we read and what concepts are fed into our working memory, need to be associated with some pre-existing (read pre conceived or learned) patterns of concepts. Thus making use of the “same” hardware & software lying between our ears we can be the difference between genius and a moron.

1 comment:

Anusha said...

It seems that your nights are really busy with your brain cells 'relating'one idea to another (hummingbirds to local trains and so on). :)

Your thoughts on the education system parallel mine though (and I hate to admit this) you are much more articulate than Ican ever hope to be.

I would like to add ur site to links on my page. I wonder if that is ok with you? let me know.