Learning by Doing


Something that I’ve noticed over the years is that I only truly learn something if I can apply it in real life. For instance, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, I managed to apply the principles of Finite Element Analysis when I was performing studies of dehydrogenation, even though I proved at the exam that as a student I had not understood the subject when I only learned it in theory.

Likewise with subsequent courses on Hot and Cold Rolling at Ashorne Hill, which merely served to provide a general background to the topics, but no clear understanding because I never really applied any of the course’s content.

This is not to say that I didn’t learn a thing in those courses, but it didn’t go deep enough to become a practitioner, and most of the time, the type of things I was doing throughout my life was that of a generalist rather than a specialist, and generalists usually don’t have to go as deep into a topic as a specialist does, hence not applying what I was taught in courses was not a major drawback.

That all changed when I became data specialist cum web developer : all of a sudden I was learning on the job, often being sent on courses when I already knew more than just the basics of the topic. Although even here there were examples of things that never lodged themselves into my head because I never applied them properly. An example of this is the Matlab introductory course I attended in Cambridge : there was never a clear reason to apply the knowledge in anger, and over time I forgot about it, and maybe avoided reacquainting with the subject on later occasions when it could have been a useful tool.

The clearest example of not learning on the course but during subsequent grafting came the adoption of .NET for programming and web development. I attended not one but two courses on .NET and ASP.NET at e-Academy, and absolutely failed to try and apply the concepts on my return at work. I got so desperate at this situation that I requested to be allowed to position myself in an office at Process Control, where I would be in a position to ask someone to have a look at my work while I was trying to transform an ASP page to an ASP.NET one.

This 2-week period during which I was taken off the job and being allowed to learn the subject by doing rather than just being told general concepts finally cracked the mould: the first results were clunky and not particularly pretty, and showed a clear attempt to continue using procedural programming in an object oriented environment, but it was the decisive first step.

Subsequent suggestions for improvements, mostly from Chris Prince, who was my IT guru during this period, made my attempts less awkward, and in the end I started to come up with designs that stood the test of time (meaning that when I looked back on them several years later I did not have to cover my eyes and cringe). Signs that my training period of learning by doing stuff was nearing its end was when I rang Chris for help and his reply became more often than not “you’ll have to ask Mister Google for help, I’m afraid”.

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