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Is Learning Problem Solving?

Over the past 7 years as I’ve been teaching people how to code I’ve often wondered this question which is what is the overlap between personal development and learning? What I see as a instructor is that often times when people are challenged to learn a new skill, it’s helpful to frame their skill acquisition goals as problem solving. But is learning problem solving? Or is there some greater purpose to learning?

Are you Goal Oriented?

I think the answer lies in how you see goals. Goal setting is an important milestone tactic when looking at how you have progressed within a system. But goal-setting is not the main framework for planning a career. Goals help you set middle tier milestones so that you can track how far you’ve come between a starting and ending point. Learning a new skill is like solving a problem in that you must understand the scale of your what it is your want to learn, then you must work towards solving that problem while tracking progress and checking in.

Thankfully because life isn’t goal-oriented we’ll never finish the business of finding a meaning beyond the meaning we create for ourselves. While learning a particular skill resembles problem solving, learning itself isn’t like problem solving because with learning you are never truly done. You can build mental models of concepts that help demonstrate your proficiency with skills within a frame of context but there are always new things to learn about a concept. Even if you are the foremost authority on a topic, your understanding of that topic can shift and bend with context – even if that context is just time and perspective.

Having taught professionally for many years, I think the academy has many useful frameworks for learning. Some are what we might call heuristics. If we are to approach learning as a problem solving and personal development tool these heuristics can be useful. Two that I think are helpful when setting learning goals are scaffolding and assessments. When a teacher is attempting to help a student learn, they are going to set up what is called scaffolding for the student. The student is given exercises to accomplish which are built to the level of the learner. As the learning progresses, the teacher assigns more difficult assignments and exercises in order to help the student progress with their learning.

Scaffolding Your Learning

Just as a building is built with scaffolding first, so too is learning. You build a temporary, and limber framework that allows you to form the outline of the building you eventually want to build. Then you lay in the foundation of the building and the bricks to form the walls. As you move up in building the structure, you build more scaffolding. The scaffolding is like the exoskeleton, providing a sense of where we are going and giving the builders and planners easy access to each floor.

This metaphor is how most instruction is laid out. Whether taking a class, learning from a book, or other types of education, learning always works by starting with the simpler structures and progressing to more challenging ones. Through repetition, practice, and exercises a structure is created for you to build upon your foundation. Once the building is built, you can remove the scaffolding because the building can stand on its own. So too education scaffolding can be removed once the students demonstrates proficiency in the subject matter. This is analogous to reaching a goal state or solving a problem. Once you have demonstrated proficiency within a context, you can say you have met your learning goal.

Assessing Progress

Just as a house’s foundation must be built on solid ground, a student who comes into a class ill prepared will struggle to take the concepts.

Test Taking

Most of us are used to assessments from others, but for dedicated lifelong learning we must learn to self-assess our progress when learning a new skill.

How does one demonstrate proficiency? That’s where the another key to the education puzzle comes in: The dreaded assessment. There are many tools in a teacher’s toolkit to assess the learning progress of a student or class. These can take the form of assignments, quizzes, tests, and other external demonstrations of proficiency. As students progress through the class material, the teacher is able to get a sense of how well the students understand the concepts by assessing them.

If the foundations for the understanding of a concept seem firm and the majority of the class is progressing, it is OK to scaffold to the next level of the building and prepare to lay in the next floor. There may be students for whom a subject isn’t sinking in. These are areas where the foundation was laid improperly and didn’t set. This can be a fault of the instructor or it may be circumstances beyond their control. Just as a house’s foundation must be built on solid ground, a student who comes into a class ill prepared will struggle to take the concepts. As the building rises, this student will lag and this area of the building may collapse.

This is when a student may fail a subject. This is why classes often have levels from introductory lessons to more complex ones.

We are rapidly moving into a theater of work and education where lifelong learning is an imperative.

Are You Ready for Lifelong Learning?

In academia scaffolding and assessment are looked at mainly from the perspective of the teacher assessing the student. What students often discount, however, is their active and participatory role in the teaching and learning process. One student who is particularly disruptive or combative with an instructor can change the classroom dynamic and perception of the teacher. Classroom dynamics and individuals willingness to believe in themselves and the learning process can have demonstrable effects on how well students take to a subject.

What students must understand is that they have an active role within the system of learning. We are rapidly moving into a theater of work and education where lifelong learning is an imperative. We all must take ownership over our learning path and invest in ourselves to constantly adapt to changing conditions and marketplaces.

What students must understand is that they have an active role within the system of learning.

In this way, learning is becoming a personal development tool. We can use it to better ourselves and our career. In this system of self-learning, we must scaffold our own learning paths and self-assess our progress. This takes discipline and a focus that wasn’t demanded of us before in the marketplace. Before we could basically be told what to do, show up, execute and we’d have a job. With the looming threat of automation, however, we are confronted with the need to be much more creative in our paradigm with respect to setting and achieve learning goals. Getting the career you want becomes yet another problem to solve.

We must think ahead and look to the next leap to judge where we are going and how we can protect ourselves for uncertain market shifts. This shouldn’t discount the wealth and variety of life and reduce it to mere goal setting. Instead, we can think of the scaffolding and assessments as simple heuristics to guide us towards the life we want. The one where we are more content and in balance with ourselves and our greatest potential.


New Podcast! Cut Your Learning Curve: Hack Your Brain to Learn Skills, Increase Your Potential, and Get The Life You Want

Available today!

Subscribe now on iTunes or Google Play


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