Reflecting on Brute-Force Learning

Brute force learningMy friend Dan saw me working on this the other day at the coffee house, and he laughed. “That’s brute-force learning, right there.  You’re teaching yourself to draw by copying someone else’s instructional materials, line for line. When nothing but frontal assault will do, that’s how you do it — pencil in one hand, notebook in front of you, and the manual open alongside.”

It was a brilliant turn of phrase, and a brilliant concept.  In schools, we rarely ask students to learn through brute force, but my friend Dan is exactly right. Sometimes the best way to learn something is through a frontal assault on the skill or technique to be mastered — the manual right there, to be consulted and studied and copied; the tools right out in front (in this case, a notebook and a pencil, with an eraser and a sharpener close by); and a half-hour of determination daily.

If you click on the image, you’ll get passed through to the set of all the drawings I’ve done so far.  I’m using Chris Hart’s book, Figure It Out! The Beginner’s Guide To Drawing People. And it really is a frontal assault.  I started with a wire-frame drawing of this guy on the left on page 9, and then (pretty much) copied Chris Hart’s pen strokes line for line, with some embellishments. I’ve worked my way through the first eighteen pages or so, and My God it’s tedious.  But it works.  If you have the patience to sit down with one of his manuals for a half-hour or so a day, and copy his drawings this way, you WILL get better at drawing.

I need to get better at drawing, because of the Kavad. It’s kinda stuck, because I don’t know how to create the images that the Hindus, ibn Ezra, Picatrix, and Agrippa say that I need.  And therein lies the crux of the problem. In order to advance one project, I need to learn a different set of skills; in order to get those skills, I have to stop working on one project long enough to work on another project; in order to work on that other project, two other projects spring into being; to do those projects, I need to learn more. Hence, Brute-Force Learning.

I did some other brute force learning this summer, by way of an alternate example. Two businesses came to my attention as potential investments.  And I needed to learn how to analyze a business’s financial statements: Balance Sheet, Cash Flow, and Profit & Loss Statements.  My mother says Harmione Granger’s motto ought to be Ite ad bibliotecae! GO TO THE LIBRARY. I went to the bookstore, for other reasons, but I wound up going to the business section, and getting Financial Accounting For Dummies and Small Businesses For Dummies.  I like the “For Dummies” books because it’s been my experience that I can learn whatever they have on offer in a given volume in a weekend, if I do some intense work around that.  In this case, I had a turnaround time of a weekend.  So, I gave my lady the Small Businesses book, and I tackled Financial Accounting.  In short order, I had my answer: although both businesses were potentially great investments, they weren’t right for me.  And some conversations with my dad and with an accountant, both professionals at this sort of thing, confirmed that I’d learned the correct lessons from my brute-force learning:  I had learned to analyze the right mixture of information, in the right order, and chose the right set of experiences (analyzing a set of financial statements with a manual on how to prepare said statements close at hand) to unlock the information I needed to know.

Do I need more practice at this? Yes. If I’m going to learn how to analyze business statements regularly and successfully, I need to look at them more frequently, and learn to crunch the numbers faster, and learn how to do it without a manual close at hand to look up what each line-item on a balance sheet or a P&L statement means.  Likewise, I need to be able to do figure-drawing rapidly, without having to look at Chris Hart’s wireframes every time; I have to be able to construct a wire-frame of a person that matches the posture, stance, and intention of the figure I’m trying to draw.  The brute-force learning has to have time and practice to be implanted sufficiently, once the core lessons are learned through frontal assault.

… What I’m so conscious of today, as we approach the two-week deadline before school meetings begin and the countdown to the first day of school starts ticking, is how much I’ve learned through this brute-force method, rather than the roundabout method that’s imposed by the day-to-day structure of school.  You can learn a lot through direct self-instruction, but you have to want to do it, and it takes time: a minimum of a half-hour a day for several weeks, or intense study on a weekend.  But that’s not how we teach in school; we teach (or at least “I teach”) through a complex, and rather round-about, series of lectures, stories, analogies, direct skills-based instruction, and dialogue.  It has different purposes, to be sure.  In theory, in school classrooms, we’re not about teaching one skill intensively — we’re after helping to form a whole person, one who can think and reason by analogy and by logic.

But I do wonder if we should be teaching students how to learn something by brute-force, as well — so often we teach children to besiege the castles of knowledge by indirect methods — create a study outline of this chapter, or practice this multiplication problem-type twenty-five times, or write twelve sentences using this vocabulary, and so on. Maybe we should teach them frontal assault methods, too: “Get a how-to book from the library and learn something complicated this weekend.”

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