Learning to learn (7 hours)

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Module overview

The goal of this module is for you to think about the strategies you have used in other classes and the way you think about "knowledge", and brainstorm about ways you might be able to improve your approach in this class. By the end of the module, hopefully you will be able to do the following things:

Module instructions

This module includes four tasks. For each task, you will need to read something and then answer some questions; some of these questions may require a long time to think about. There is no required order you must complete the task in, but I recommend you do them in the order presented here. To receive credit for completing this module, you must complete all the tasks at a satisfactory level of quality.

Next to each task I have written an estimate of how much time you might need to complete the task. This is, of course, a rough estimate, and the real time may be different for different students.

Module activities

  1. The concept of "learning to learn" (3 hours)
  2. Thinking styles (3 hours)
  3. Thinking about science (0.5 hours)
  4. Learning plan (0.5 hours)

Suggested discussion topics/activities

In the 2019-2025 strategic plan of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, one of the university's missions is stated as "To nurture holistic professionals for the future".

In summer-fall 2019 there were ongoing political protests in Hong Kong, and in November 2019 protesters occupied several university campuses for about two weeks. At that time the president of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University sent an internal e-mail saying, among other things, "Universities are venues for advancing knowledge and nurturing talents. Universities are not battlegrounds for political disputes".

When students participated in the abovementioned protests, some people in Hong Kong (including some university professors) criticized them and said that Hong Kong students are not well educated, and that good students should focus on studying and learning how to be a good worker, rather than focusing on protesting outside. For example, at a meeting of the faculty Senate at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, one professor argued that the presence of students at protests was evidence that the university was not doing a good job educating its students.

Some people consider education a path to "social mobility". i.e., there is an idea that if someone comes from a poor background, they can use education to get access to a better job and improve their socio-economic status.

Here is a quotation from an article in Jacobin magazine, describing the Humboldtian idea of education that originated in the 19th century: "[University education] was to be an institution that would produce better citizens, aware of their duties, responsibilities, and (crucially) rights. The idea of liberating education from a religious straitjacket, nurturing a scientific outlook and the values of secularism, had the potential to deepen democracy. If realized, it would equip students with the necessary attributes of an engaged citizenry, able to question established forms of oppression and inequality. Universities were meant to be spaces that would allow students to develop as autonomous human beings, sharpening their ideas and critical skills in an environment of academic freedom."

In her book Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks (an American author and professor) describes education as "the practice of freedom". She talks about how, as a Black girl growing up in the south of the United States with few rights (when it was expected that women can only be teachers, cleaners, or mothers), school was what gave her the inspiration to imagine other things she could do with her life, and to question and challenge the biases/prejudices of society.

Sparky Abraham and Nathan J. Robinson write, "Students should be finding out about all of the fascinating things in our big, wonderful world, not being fitted and measured for future drudgery. What is education for? It's for becoming a person, not a worker." (This quotation is from an article in the May/June 2018 print edition of the Current Affairs magazine; a similar argument is made in a short online article "How neoliberalism worms its way into your brain."

On an episode of the Bad Faith podcast, Sparky Abraham says the following (starting about 51:30 minutes into the episode) in response to the idea that university education is an "investment" meant to lead to a higher income later in life, which I quote at length here: [That claim] about college is also true of high school, and was particularly true of high school before the free high school movement [the 20th-century movement in the United States to make high school education free and publicly available] started. High school was something that not everybody did; the people who did it could see a massive increase in their expected income over life.... [But] it seems to me when I talk to people about this, the notion of making people pay or take out loans to go to high school is unthinkable, but college... it's like we've switched our thinking, we now understand that high school education is a necessity, it's a public good, but higher education is still seen as something else. I think that higher education should be seen the way that all education should be seen, which is the same as elementary school and high school and everything else, which is that education in general is a public good.... I went to three very different institutions for higher education. I went to a community college, and then I went to a big public university to get a bachelor's degree, and then I went to a small, private, ultra-prestigious law school.... but I think that the times when I felt like I was getting the most out of my higher education, and the times that I've called back the most throughout my life and that have been the most useful to me, have been the times that I was there having fun, when I wasn't trying to follow a particular program, when I wasn't so goal-oriented toward my future career. And particularly when I was at Santa Barbara city college, I didn't know what the fuck I was doing, I was just working full-time and going to college for fun, I didn't have any sense that I was going to transfer or anything like that, that was when I managed to learn the most useful things about, like, how to write and how to interact with people and what this other world kind of looks like. That's, I think, the experience that I would want higher education to be for everybody. I think that requires not just a financial divorcing from the idea that you're doing it for your future boss, but an entire mental shift from that outlook. Education is not to prepare you for the labor force, education is something else, and it's very important.

by Stephen Politzer-Ahles. Last modified on 2021-04-17. CC-BY-4.0.