Tag: learning

I’m far from a country boy but I did grow up in a rural area with animals, playing in the woods and cleaning out chicken coups. Like many of you, we would play most of the day outside without our parents knowing or worrying about where we were.

Was that an “unsafe” way to grow up?

I guess it wasn’t always perfectly safe but it did result in a lot of unintentional learning as we navigated the world around us and gained experiences and feedback via trial and error.

It’s undeniable that one of the quickest and most reliable ways to learn is to try and fail until we get it right.

It’s how you learned to ride a bike, rollerskate and probably how you learned to swim.

Like David Sandler said –

You can’t teach a kid to ride a bike in a seminar

We know it’s true but so often we attempt to teach topics through talking and reading and writing and watching rather than allowing people to learn through good old trial and error.

The problem with the “trial and error” method of learning professionally is the “error” part of the equation and the potential cost of those mistakes.

Learning From Mistakes Without Disaster

I have a friend who works as a nuclear analyst for power plants. He learned much of what he knows in the Navy while working on a nuclear submarine. On a nuke sub you can’t afford to “learn from your mistakes”, a mistake that could kill everyone and possibly bring an end to civilization isn’t a mistake you can risk. In these mission-critical environments, the military doesn’t resort to teaching the book over and over without practice. Instead, they do drills and work through redundant checklists with hands-on practice over and over and over.

It isn’t that they remove practice and trial and error… far from it. Instead, they allow the trial and error to occur in an environment where the mistakes are controlled in a way that can NEVER result in a mistake in real life.

In other words…

They don’t practice until they get it right. They practice until they can’t get it wrong.

Previous generations understood the importance of drills and practice where more modern education has focused on cognitive understanding as the foundation.

Understand it first and then you can do it. It’s as if understanding all about a bike, the chain and how it made, the gears, the brake mechanism etc… must be learned first before a kid should get on the darn thing and learn to ride it.

Often it’s nerds like me that try to force-feed new people a bunch of technical mumbo jumbo because it interests me rather than helping them get on the bike so they can learn how to turn and peddle.

Applying Trial and Error Into HVACR

We can all agree our trade faces an honest to goodness shortage of skilled workers that is only getting worse. We can sit in our ivory palaces and pine away about how to give everyone a perfect education with every detail listed out and taught in a nice clean classroom but it won’t work and it’s too little too late.

In order to get people trained fast we need to allow them to put their hands on tools and equipment in realistic situations and practice, practice, practice until they can’t get it wrong. We need to shorten the list of things we expect workers to know in their brains before we start to allow them to experience it.

After talking to world-class, innovative instructors like Ty Brannaman with NTI I am learning that narrowing down the curriculum and giving more tool time earlier in the training is leading to much better outcomes.

This doesn’t mean that we aren’t teaching safety and compliance but that we are teaching it as a part of drills and practice rather than separate from it.

It means practicing on equipment over and over with modern tools and techniques. It means charging, recovering and evacuating over and over until they can do it in their sleep. It means wiring and diagnosing electrical issues that will actually be seen in the field on the sort of equipment they are likely to see.

It means practice and trial and error before being so heavy-handed with books and theory.

What are your thoughts?

— Bryan


Note: This short series is on the mindset of learning (and teaching) not really a “tech tip” per se. We will be back to the tech tips in a few days. 

I’ve heard and repeated these phrases countless times over the years both at home and at work

That should be obvious

It’s just common sense

How could you miss that

That CLEARLY isn’t good enough

You SHOULD know better

It’s the human condition to forget what it was like before something became second nature to us.

We tend to blur all the intermediate steps it took for us to become competent at something into “common sense” that people just “should know”.

When we see someone turning a screw or bolt the wrong direction we either verbally (or in our head) repeat the phrase

“Righty tighty, Lefty loosey”

Let’s analyze that for a second, what does that phrase mean to someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time with a wrench in their hand.

Turn it right? we are spinning it in a circle so it really depends on how you are looking at it whether it’s right or left is tight.

Hold your hand out in front of you with your thumb pointed down and fingers up. To tighten a bolt we turn right from the top with the bolt facing us. Our fingers turn right but from the bottom where our thumb is it actually turns left. Also, if the bolt is on the other side facing away from us we turn it left from the top to tighten.

We really turn it clockwise to tighten typical threads not “right” but even clockwise is something we learn through feel. If you were going to explain to someone how to tell the difference between clockwise and counter-clockwise what would you say?

“clockwise moves to the right” and then we are right back at the start.

We learn things through experience of

  • Trial and Error (this works, that doesn’t)
  • Compare and Contrast (This is like that or not like that for these reasons)
  • If this happens then that happens (If this, then that)

In the case of a simple phrase like “Righty tighty” we make several assumptions about the person we are saying it to that they know right from left already and that they understand your facing the component being turned and that we are saying right from the top.

But really we aren’t thinking about any of those things… we are really just thinking “This is obvious, stop overthinking it, turn the darn thing right to tighten it”

I can already see the messages –

Why are you complicating this… it’s obvious which way we mean when we say “righty tighty”

It isn’t obvious until it becomes obvious, then it seems to us like it always was.

We may think we learned it because someone repeated the phrase “righty tighty” but we actually learned it because we turned it the wrong way a bunch (trial and error), we learned right a left and clocks via repetitive reinforcement as a kid and it’s enough like the motion of a clock that we make a connection.

Memory Doesn’t Work How We Imagine (Imagining is how it works) 

I often envision my memories like books on a shelf that I pull down and read and then put back when I’m done, safe and sound for access next time.

In this model, I may lose a book or have a hard time finding it but my memory is my memory and it doesn’t change any more than the words on the page change. I may misplace my copy of “Hitchhikers Guide” but when I do locate it “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” just like always (forgive my force-feeding of Douglas Adams line).

The reality of memory is messier and more fluid than books on a shelf

Have you read Neural Correlates of Reactivation and Retrieval-Induced Distortion Published in the Journal of Neuroscience? No? It’s a real page-turner.

The results of the study demonstrate that memory recall is actually quite dependant on the current state of your mind and emotions and surprisingly untrustworthy as exact replicas of the facts.

Modern neuroscience has demonstrated that all memories are recreations of the ideas and senses that you experienced in the past but using the brain of the present.

Think of it this way (compare and contrast in action)

When you take a voltage measurement with a digital, data logging multimeter, what is happening?

You are placing probes on points of differing electrical potential… do the probes measure the voltage? No, they simply transmit the potential to the meter.

Once the voltage gets to the meter, the meter can “measure” the voltage but does the internal electronics display the voltage? No, the display actually shows it in a way that makes sense to us.

If the meter stores the measurement, is it stored in the display?

No, the measurement is stored in memory as a bunch of zeros and ones and can be recalled later and reconstructed into a display later using software designed to make sense of those zeros and ones, therefore, replicating the result.

The difference with the human mind is that our experiences shape and change our software.

As we have experiences our brain encodes this data into our long term memory via neurons that are trained to fire in unison to “recall” a past experience or idea.  When we recall these experiences they are processed with your latest software that may come to different conclusions as to what these signals mean than the original.

The result? sometimes we don’t remember things as they actually were and especially all the little details it took to get from point A to point B.

Once we realize that all of our memories are complete reconstructions of raw data rather than books or photos on the shelf we can begin to understand that concepts that now seem simple, obvious or given were not that way when we first learned them. We likely just learned them through methods and during times that we are now failing to recall.

Lock in Understanding 

On social media, we often get some version of “If you don’t already know that you need to go back to school”. The funny thing about that is the people who say that often have similar blind spots and probably didn’t learn the very thing they now see as “so obvious” in school anyway.

Education at it’s very best is simply a forum where experiences can efficiently be metabolized into understanding

Understand and do, do and understand they go hand in hand. Sometimes we understand something first and then we do it. Sometimes we do something first, become confused, make mistakes and THEN we understand it.

Either way, the goal is to be able to both understand something and do it well. Once we do something long enough and understand it deeply enough it starts to feel simple to us but don’t mistake the fact that it is now simple for your mind as being “obvious” for others.

In order to teach well, we don’t simply vomit out the information we know and expect it sink in. We need to meet the student where they are and facilitate the experiences that will lead them down the path that will result in understanding.

Habits and Reps 

When I was 16 I went to work at a golf course for about 6 months. I really enjoyed golf and I wanted to get better so I figured working around it and playing almost every day would help.

It didn’t, I got worse

While I was getting a lot of reps swinging over and over the things I was doing and my assumptions about what I was doing wrong were incorrect.

I had the experience but I lacked the insight to come to a proper understanding that would result in effective practice.

Many of us learned most of what we know in the field simply because we get so many repetitions of experience in the field. Many of the time bad habits and incorrect thinking are ingrained in the field for this very same reason.

Incorrect assumptions lead to incorrect understanding and bad results.

Like Reagan once said

“It isn’t so much that they are ignorant. It’s just that they know so many things that aren’t so.”

On one hand, we cannot expect anyone to understand anything without experience any more than someone could learn to golf from a book. On the other hand, practice doesn’t make perfect if it is based on incorrect understanding.

To summarize;

  • We all know things because we have a combination of experience and understanding not because “it’s obvious”
  • Our memory is unreliable as to how we learned things and we often miss the little details that got us where we are
  • Trying to separate understanding from experience or vice versa is a waste of time

The next article will be on Trial and Error and how we can use it intentionally to learn and teach.

— Bryan






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