Tuesday, July 13, 2010

New Hampshire Vacation

This past weekend we took a trip up to the White Mountains area of NH with Jacob's company. He took the day off Friday so first we went to North Conway and walked around and browsed a few of the shops. We ate lunch at the Up Country restaurant. We never know what to expect with the boys when taking them out to eat but they did okay and the meal was nice. Then we checked in at the hotel and relaxed and watched the Red Sox game. The boys were so excited about the hotel so that made it a bit tough to settle them down that evening.

Saturday morning we woke up to downpours. At breakfast we were still deciding if we should go for it and do Storyland that day or not, but we decided to go for it. When we got to the park it was still pretty bad, so we bought ponchos. Why do the adult ones come in yellow with the Storyland logo plastered all over yet the kid ones are plain white? :) We dressed the boys in swim shirts which turned out to be a very good idea, in addition to the weather there is a splash pad there. Anyway, after about 15 minutes the skies cleared up and then there was occasional drizzle but the rest of the day was actually quite nice. They didn't have the usual crowds due to the weather so there were fewer lines for rides and W loved riding on the Polar coaster, many spinning rides and the flume. C enjoyed the Storybook portion best which was more toddler friendly, and the rest of the time he was in the stroller. After we got back to the hotel, C took a nap and W and I had fun swimming in the pool while Jacob watched C and read.

Saturday evening we went to the dinner at the Mt. Washington Hotel, and along the way back to our hotel afterwards we stopped at an ice cream shop with a playground in the yard. The rain seemed to cool things down also so the humidity was a bit more bearable.

On Sunday we went back to North Conway and went to the Conway Scenic Railroad, where Thomas the Tank Engine had an event going on. (We had picked up tickets for this on Friday). C especially liked seeing Thomas. W was a bit grumpy for part of the day, but between the long car rides, the excitement filled weekend, sleeping pattern thrown off and being sick earlier in the week I am sure there was a reason, so we tried to make the best of the situation. There was a train ride with views of some mountains and a river, and tents set up with various activities for the kids. They also had a tortoise which the animal handler said was estimated at 50 years old, and expected to grow much larger. W said she moved really fast so he petted her but then kept his distance. After Thomas we visited a couple more places in North Conway including the local library book sale. Later we headed home but first went along the Kangamangus Highway to enjoy the scenery.

We are on the cusp of closing on a new home in southern NH, and by late summer we should be moving. W begins his homeschool Kindergarten after the big move once we get settled and into our routines. Needless to say we are all excited about the move and having a bigger yard. We will post much more about the move and our transitions in future posts on the blog.

Friday, July 2, 2010

School Learning and Real Learning

A fresh graduate with a Master's Degree, I took an entry-level job in technical support at a software company.  I spent a little over a year in this position, answering questions about over 80 products, most of which I had only a passing familiarity with.  I always preferred getting customers "off the phone" as quickly as I could so that I could research and provide help through e-mail.

I found the position stressful and was happy to transfer into a non customer-facing position, but I gained more technical expertise in that year than any other year of my career, and probably more than my six years of collegiate education put together.

What sticks out to me now is the manner in which this learning took place.  On our first day, we were not put in a training class or lectured to, but given a project to develop.  We were given two days to complete it, and coding it required that we would learn a wide swath of our flagship program.  After a couple of token orientation classes, we were put on the phones within a few weeks.

Each support case presented an excellent opportunity for learning.  A real person had a real need that had to be met in a time-sensitive manner.  In turn, I had various resources to help the customers: a database of "solutions", other support engineers, and most importantly, the products themselves.  Occasionally, I would even have to disturb a grumpy developer.  Some cases were trivial or easily answered, but most represented a little project and challenge.  Given the motivation to learn an area in order to satisfy a customer, the right resources, and clear, attainable goals, I served many cases and learned more about 80 products than I could have imagined possible.

But even when I transferred to a new position, I was still stuck in a school frame of mind with respect to how to learn.  I had just experienced a year of incredible learning, and I should have thought more about why that was, and how it was different than school.  I wanted to learn about our internal software systems that I had not previously used, and how did I go about this?

By reading text.  I printed out the 200-page user's manual and committed myself to the mental drudgery of reading it cover to cover.  This was, after all, how I had been taught for more than ten years prior to my job: plod through mind-numbingly boring textbooks and hope to retain enough "material" for later use (in the case of schools, for tests).  There is no real justification for learning the material and no reason to think any part of it is more important or relevant than other parts.  There is no goal to strive for, and no hope for real satisfaction (perhaps other than having reached the end of the book).  I continued in the face of these obstacles because I believed learning has to be painful, and that I must be doing something useful through this work.

I am thankful that this attitude did not last the full 200 pages.  Given that there would be no real "test" like in school for whether I retained any of the material, I eventually gave up on the endeavor, frustrated but wiser.

There is certainly a place for reference and textbooks, but it is not as the primary vehicle for learning.  It is a failure in the school system that led me to think otherwise.  Textbooks, exercises, lectures, homework, and tests: whoever thinks this is the best model for real learning must think of the brain as a passive slate to be filled with endless facts at the discretion of teachers.  But when there is no real motivation or interest, and no hope for satisfaction on the part of the learner, the brain functions more like a sieve.