Go with a smile!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Helping Yourself

There is a school of thought that says that you do have to do everything yourself. God helps those who helps themselves, and nobody is really there to help you. There is another school of thought that says that you ought to help other people as much as you can.

Once I was stuck writing a computer program. I wanted something that would return for me the number of files in a given directory. I googled the problem, and it directed me to a page on stackoverflow (as it inevitably does). The answer was there, and there was some code written, as a form of demonstration, to show how it was done. One of the commentators just put up a link to the javadoc (those of you who have programmed in Java will know that this is an automatically generated documentation for code written in Java, useful for helping you navigate the object hierarchy for those people using a certain module for the first time.

Another commentator just wrote some code that demonstrated how the object was used to print out all the files of that directory. I was reading the first comment and I was struck by how senseless it was. Here was a guy who was proud of doing things to old school way, where you just threw the javadoc at a person and you expected that person to pick everything up by himself. And you were doing it on a website whose purpose was to convert a question, asked in plain English by a software engineer, into a ready-made solution. Why would you want to go back to the bad old days when everything was cryptic gibberish? Why do we not accept that some advancements in scientific and engineering disciplines make it no longer necessary for us to accept the old bullshit?

I think about all the people from the older generation who were less interested in whether I was doing something useful for my workplace, less interested in whether I was producing impactful and innovative work, and more interested in how I dressed up and whether I showed up on time. What the fuck? And then when it turns out that I wasn’t a sharp dresser, and I didn’t always turn up on time, I was a disgrace? I mean LKY started work at 10, 11 in the morning every day and people still think he did a pretty good job, right?

When I was in Snowy Hill, I used to man a teaching center. People who were doing freshman Physics would come up and ask questions about their homework. People were usually told that you had to teach them how to learn, and try to explain to them the deeper underlying principles behind the physics works.

Well, as you know, we didn’t do it that way in Singapore. Those of you who remember your JC Physics will recall that it is death by worked examples. We didn’t learn principles: we learnt a process of working things out, and it was naturally assumed that some of us, having seen enough examples for ourselves, would eventually learn the principles. Yes, learning the principles is important, especially if you’re going to carry on doing advanced work in Physics or Engineering. But teaching the principles is not the best way to make a beginner learn. That would be to give them some worked examples. You cannot be so adverse to spoonfeeding that you’re going to avoid spoonfeeding even in the beginning – that’s pretty ridiculous.

So I usually just taught it the way it was taught to me in JC. Here’s me doing the problem. Draw the force diagram. Vertical. Horizontal. Got that? OK. Now after you learn how to do the problem, then that’s when you start thinking about what all this force, all this momentum stuff means. That’s when you start going deeper. If you’re just taking Physics so that you can try pre-med, you’re not going to need that stuff anymore, and in that case you’d be better off just knowing how to solve simple physics problems.

The internet exploded when I was doing national service. So it was like my life was divided into two: Up till JC was the pre-internet era. Snowy Hill onwards was the age of the internet. Education, pre-internet was a lot like industrial society. You absolutely had to go attend lecture. You had to be good at taking notes. You had to pay attention in class. In the internet era, things changed. You could still keep up with classes by reading notes downloaded over the internet. In fact this was probably a bad thing because at one point I was skipping too many classes for my own good. But it does present a lot of other opportunities. It used to be that that big classic textbook of yours was oh-so- precious. If it was Physics, it would be Resnick and Halliday. If it was Chemistry it would be Morrison and Boyd. If it was Biology, it would be Campbell. But it’s no longer the case that all knowledge pertaining to a certain field would be bound together in one giant volume. And that giant volume would soon prove to be too big to lug around.

When I was in Snowy Hill, we were still using textbooks. But in a few classes, the professor would just pick and choose a little scrap here and there from various papers and textbooks. By the time I got to University of Mexico, we were almost reading classic papers exclusively. I suppose when you get to graduate level, your education is more specialized, and nobody’s going to package that knowledge for you nicely. It’s no longer an issue of going through an entire course, and then knowing the main, canonical portions of that subject.

At the same time, it would no longer do for a student to know “everything in that textbook”. You had to build a cohesive body of knowledge, that would collectively add up to some useful skills that actually accomplish something in the real world.


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