Learning is Dead

Inspiration for my blog posts often comes from whatever’s evoking emotion in my life (annoyances, victories, gripes, etc.). Three things happened today that ensured that I’d write this post. Here’s the story of a question from a seven year old, a phone call, and an email.

The first incident was a common one. My son asked me what the circumference of the earth was (ok – he didn’t use the word ‘circumference’, but that’s what he asked). Like a trained seal, I grabbed my smart-phone and looked it up. This was stupid, because a) I knew the answer, and b) even if I didn’t, I know enough about distances between locations and longitude to come up with a fairly accurate approximation.

Just a bit later in the morning, I had a short interview with a journalist from my university – apparently they’re hard up for stories and are reaching out to alumni for gossip. At one point, the journalist asked something like, “What advice do you have for students today?”. I gave a long answer that said (more or less), “A university isn’t a vocational school. Although you may get caught up in the rat race of learning facts and writing papers, to be successful in the ‘real world’, you need to know how to learn.” I also (once again) credited my Methods of Musical Research course and Dr. Snedeker for teaching me how to learn and for fueling my own passion for learning.

Less than thirty minutes later, I received an email response to a verbal request. I asked someone to research a topic and see if they could find any interesting papers that could foster additional discussion on the topic. They replied with a link to paper that shows up as the top link in Bing when searching on the exact phrase as the topic I presented. I expected my colleague to look at academic papers, and perhaps explore the references in those papers, or to find experts in the field and see what they wrote. I expected them to research…but I guess to them, ‘search’ was enough.

Perhaps I’m just being an old fart, but the serendipity of these three events launched a thought that scared the crap out of me. In these days of search engines and Wikipedia, I wonder if anyone knows how to think anymore. Knowledge is much more than learning or regurgitating facts. The learning that happens when you move knowledge from something you don’t know to something you do know is trivial compared to when you add discovering what you don’t know you don’t know to the top of the stack (1). I’m scared that too many people (not just testers) are happy with on-demand fact finding rather than true learning and discovery.

It could be just me – perhaps I spend so much time reading and trying to learn because that’s what works for me, and that on-demand learning is the true future. But if that’s true, I worry what kind of future that will be.

(1) For more on this theory of knowledge acquisition, read Philip Armour’s original paper on the topic here, or my takes, here, here, and here.


  1. Mario
    Posted February 19, 2012 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    Whenever reading about this topic the famous interview with Richard Feynman about the pleasure of finding things out comes to mind: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bgaw9qe7DEE

  2. Posted February 19, 2012 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    Being a mod of the STC and terminating some of the questions that get asked on there, seeing some of the same on QA Stackexchange and not mentiong the quality of dicussion on Linked Inferno I can find myself also being a cynical old fart.

    But then I find myself visiting a blog by a chap called Alan Page and find myself being led to learn about the work of Philip Armour; my recently embarked voyage into learning what designers do after finding out from other blogs that I knew next to nothing about what they really did.

    I could also take encouragement from the Leprechauns of s/w engineering book, not only did someone think about and research these ‘truths’ but the book has attracted interest

    I do have a biased viewpoint though, working for a company who value learning and encourage their apprentices to do so

  3. Posted February 21, 2012 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    I just read “The Shallows” and I thought it had some relevance to what you are discussing in your blog post.


    Best regards,

    Johan Hoberg

    • Posted February 21, 2012 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      Awesome – thanks for the link. I just ordered this.

  4. Posted February 29, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    One day I realized that I would not be able to recall ANY of my friend’s phone numbers if my cell phone went missing. The technology so successfully abstracted away the “annoying” details, and so effectively outsourced my memory, that I no longer need to remember that phones require numbers in order to do their job.

    So maybe it is more like “on demand data”. Such is the way of progress, I suppose. One could argue that the “world” is doing with knowledge what we do with our computers – adding increasing layers of abstraction to assumed truths. Old truths need not be revisited, only employed to gain advances in new truths. Who remembers how to operate the technologies that revolutionized our grandparents’ world? That model concerned me greatly well before I found gainful employment as a skeptical sometimes-Luddite.

    There will always be some for whom the apparent is not enough. The problem of Why cannot be accepted out of hand, and the journey toward insight and discovery will begin anew. As it should be.

    Or roaches will leap-frog our place in the food chain to become our merciless overlords. Then all these millennial hipsters will be forced to use their smartphones for something other than listening to Bon Iver and downloading mustache apps. Humanity always finds a way.


    Posted March 8, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    This was a VERY insightful post. With the introduction of calculators, students had less incentive to learn math. With the introduction of spell checkers, learning spelling was discarded. You hit the nail on the head!!! Why dig up facts and form a theory when it is all online? Why even interact with humans?!? What has technology done to us?

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