Learning Styles and Physics (or: Embracing Uncertainty)

Being back in the classroom as a student has given me lots of opportunities to reflect on different learning styles. Or, perhaps, more accurately, on my own learning style.

I tend to give my undergraduate field of physics a lot of credit in developing my academic style –  though, I suppose, it’s equally possible that this happened the other way around: that my initial learning style attracted me to physics in the first place.

But, regardless of the order of these items, I find that I am deeply comfortable with a high level of uncertainty in my learning process.

You can see, perhaps, why I think I may have gotten that from physics. Physics is complex, and messy, and, of course, deeply uncertain.

Most importantly, this uncertainty isn’t a mark of incompleteness or failure. Rather, the uncertainty is an inherent, integral part of the system. There is no Truth, only collections of probabilities.

It’s a feature, not a bug.

I’ve noticed myself frequently taking this approach while learning. I’m taking a fantastic Computer Science class right now for which I would be tempted to flippantly say that I have no idea what is going on.

Like Schrödinger’s cat, that statement is both true an untrue. Until observed directly, it is caught miraculously, simultaneously, equally, in both states.

I have no idea what is going on, but I’m totally keeping up.

And I don’t think it’s simply a matter of confidence – my inability to articulate at which extreme I lie isn’t just a problem of trusting my own talent in this area. While, of course, it’s impossible to fully disambiguate the two, it honestly feels most accurate to embrace both states: I have no idea what is going on, but I am totally keeping up.

While I have only a passing familiarity with the works of pedagogical theory, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone describe education in this way. (Please send me your resources if you have!).

I used to think of learning as an incremental, deliberate process – like climbing a latter or building a staircase. Each step of knowledge brought you a little closer to understanding.

Perhaps this is just the difference of being in a Ph.D. program, but I’ve come to rather think of learning as this:

Knowledge is a hazy, uncertain cloud. The process of learning isn’t simply building “towards” something, but rather it’s the process of coalescing and clarifying that cloud. It’s about feeling around for the edges; finding the shapes and patterns hidden within.

Someone told me recently that physics can learn anything. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do think that there’s something to accepting this state of uncertainty. To be comfortable being lost in foggy haze that you can neither articulate nor truly understand…but to stand in that cloud and find the patience to slowly, incrementally, find meaning in the noise –

Like bring a picture into focus.

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