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Phil Wilson
Phil Wilson

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Learning: First principles and patterns

Oscar, 5, finished his breakfast this morning, jumped down from his seat with a bottle of water in his hand, and washed down the last mouthful. All in one fluid motion. Then he stood there for several seconds, motionless, his face frozen in deep thought. I watched him from the other side of the room as I sipped the first coffee of the day, trying to guess what was happening in his young mind. Eventually his eyes began to move again, and he turned his head to me, his expression changing to one of confusion. "Dad" he began "I've always wondered why when we drink, we can just swallow, but with food we need to chew.".

Perception vs Conception

I've observed in some friends and family that when a child asks them a question, they rush to answer it. And when they do they often tend to tell the child the answer, as if plucking a memory from their brain. The memory is how they perceive the answer. A story. An interpretation of how their senses tell them the reason "why". Here this type of answer would have been something like: "We need to chew our food so that we can swallow it." or maybe "If we don't chew our food it gets stuck in our throat".
This does convey an answer, and it's in no way wrong. The child will come away with an adequate model of why it's best to chew their food, and not try to swallow it whole like a snake consumes an egg. But that answer is like taking a model of understanding from one person's brain, and merely trying to copy it into another's. Forcing a memory to exist, whole, fully-formed.

Recently I got a 3D printer and began the learning curve of moving from bits of stringy plastic emerging to decent quality prints. I felt the urge to find other people's perceptions on how to do this. To copy their mental model into my brain. But I knew I had to understand the principles, and build up my understanding of HOW to print good quality items. And, as it happens, everyone I spoke to about printing has also told me to take my time and understand the why. As a result, my learning has been quite swift. I can reason questions for myself by logically inferring the answer from the things I already know. When I do get chance to speak to someone already knowledgeable about the subject, I can ask focused questions, validate the principles I've learned and get concise answers back. I am conceiving the answers.

The difference in result between giving someone a perceived answer and helping them conceive the answer, in my opinion, is a stronger, more lasting understanding. With a perceived answer you are relying on the recipient using their memory to store your mental model. With conceived learning, you are helping them to understand the principles behind the answer and facilitate them constructing them logically into a model they build themselves.


The other thing that learning from first principles gives someone, is the opportunity to find patterns. Different experiences of learning often build on top of the same principles, and so patterns of principles form which re-enforce the new understanding. I'm no neuro-scientist, but I do know that the brain is structured as neural pathways connecting neurons together. And it seems logical that learning principles and connecting them with patterns would cause a brain to re-enforce that same structure within the brain, making a stronger understanding, than trying to store an abstract mental model gleaned from another source.

Why do we chew?

As Oscar came over to me, to better hear the answer he expected me to give, I wafted the air with my hand so that it blew onto his face. "What's that you can feel?" I asked. "The air" he said, with eyes wide and focused. "Is it a liquid?" I went on. "No" and he paused, "it's a gas!". We reminded ourselves about the 3 states of matter, and spoke about how water can be a vapor, a liquid or ice. "Could you swallow an ice cube" I asked. "No, but I could suck it until it turns to water, and then drink it" Oscar replied. "Yes!" I said, "and could you swallow that sugar cube we did that experiment with the other day?" I asked, linking him back to an investigation we did about things dissolving. "No, but when it dissolved I could drink it!". "Can you remember what happened when we smashed a sugar cube and stirred it in the water?" I asked. "It dissolved quicker!" Oscar said, the patterns forming, his face lit up.

"So why do we chew our food, Oscar?" I asked.
"Because we need to try and turn it into a liquid so that it can go into our tummy" he said confidently.

Top comments (2)

klutchell profile image
Kyle Harding

The 3D printing reminds me of my homebrewing experience. There are countless opinions on how to do it "right" but when I tried forcing those steps without understanding the WHY I fell flat and failed to adapt when things went sideways.
I went back to first principles, allowed myself to make mistakes, and learned where some of the advice online could be helpful, or where it really doesn't make a difference.

iamsolankiamit profile image
Amit Solanki

Beautifully written.