“The best lessons are those that force us to do something and to manipulate information “
— Charles Duhigg “Smarter Faster Better“
One of my favorite jokes is about a teacher, who complains about how incapable of learning his students are: “I explained it once,” he said, “- they didn’t understand. I explained twice – they still did not understand. I explained for the third time – I finally understood it, but they still didn’t!”
This week, I tried to recreate this effect for myself. I taught a short PhD course at my host university here in Milan, and, being a visiting professor, I had a lot of freedom in choosing the content and the format of the course.
Generally, I believe that academic teaching and research are best done with some synergy between them. In other words, one can benefit the other. In practice, though, I think that usually my research experience positively influences my teaching, but the opposite feedback is indirect at best.
This time, I wanted to take advantage of the fact there were only a few graduate students in the class, who were already well on their way to becoming capable researchers. So I decided to completely re-work the way I usually present the fundamental concepts in my research area (which is aeroacouctics – I study how fluid flows generate sound). The course preparation took a lot of time, but in retrospect, forcing myself to manipulate the information that I was already familiar with helped me crystallize the image of the state-of-the-art, not only for the students, but for myself too, and define the “adjacent possible” – the area just beyond the cutting edge of the research field, where we will focus our next efforts.
The reason for this is that deliberately re-arranging the information makes it disfluent – more difficult to deal with initially (e.g. I cannot jump straight to conclusions, because I am familiar with the field.) It has been shown in various fields that engaging with information, manipulating it, makes it “sticky” in the long term. It transforms information into knowledge.
I think that is why practice is so important in any field, from research to kendo to photography. It is not enough to have read about integration by parts or suriage waza or motion blur. We need to do the techniques time and time again to understand them and “make them our own”.