Saturday, April 23, 2005

Learning for the situation or using a model

I can't seem to help myself but seemingly without trying I make every situation into an abstraction suitable for analysis and then do some quick and dirty thinking to come up with a preliminary conclusion. Whether I'm hard wired this way or it's a product of my education and specifically the approach I was taught to do economics, I can't say. The thing is, of necessity I throw away a lot of detail. The modeling says that's ok; indeed it's a necessity. If I want that detail later, I can go back for it, at least that's my rationalization.

Now as my senses are noticeably diminishing in their sharpness, I'm having doubts. What if one takes the experience as a thing in itself, not as an example of a general principle. Then throwing things away is simply reducing the experience. Shouldn't we want the experience in its fullness?

This line of thought brings to mind Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception. If one does a Google search on that title, one gets hits like "" and "" I guess I don't need to add that I read the book when I was an undergrad. My recollection, tarnished as that may be, is that Huxley argued that a child takes in experience in all its fullness, but that is overwhelming. A child can't survive on his own. As the child matures much of that is blocking out the environment, to focus on the task that is necessary for survival. An adult blocks out most things, not necessarily for abstract reasoning but rather for narrowing focus, though the two obviously share some similarities. Huxley argued that drugs returned the adult to the child like state. I'm not sure that is true and I'm not interested in drugs here. What I want to do know is this: Are there times when instructors interfere with student learning by forcing abstractions on them espccially too early into the situation? Might it be better to stay in the situation longer and not move to the abstractions so quickly?

I don't know the answer to those questions. What I do know is that my own universe about how to teach has turned upside down on this issue since I've embraced instructional technology. Consider the case study method. I know we frowned on it as faculty in the Economics department, including some of the very best instructors, because the case method masks the theory. Now, I would embrace the case method as a way of providing richness for the student that would engage them and deepen their learning. But when I see a case (at least in the business/management arena) I have the abstraction approach inside me. What of the students, however? Do they learn to abstract based on the cases? If not, do they get something out it? Do they perhaps get more than if they had a prior theoretical background?

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