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Tough learning, part 3: Critical comments on the first draft

by Michael Nielsen on August 31, 2003

Why on Earth would anybody be interested in somebody else’s essay revision?

This post is a bit of an experiment. In any case, I’m posting not so much in the hope that anyone is interested in the revision of this specific document, as in the belief that some people may be interested in the general process of how to go about revision, and this post may be of interest to those people.

Why on Earth would anybody be interested in somebody else’s essay revision?

This post is a bit of an experiment. In any case, I’m posting not so much in the hope that anyone is interested in the revision of this specific document, as in the belief that some people may be interested in the general process of how to go about revision, and this post may be of interest to those people.

General comments

The document is too long, at 3600 words. I have to talk for about 40 minutes. That means, most likely, that I have about 3000 words.

I say little that is specific to learning, or tough learning. Most of my comments are more generally related to effective general practice. This is okay at the level of abstract description, but perhaps the examples could more directly relate the principles being discussed to the problems of tough learning.

One problem with the essay is that to some extent, all these ideas are things I’m only gradually coming to terms with myself. My personal confidence in the principles is not yet overwhelmingly strong, and this is, perhaps, reflected by some vagueness in the current descriptions. A major goal over the coming week should be to find more compelling examples by which I can make these points, preferably using more humour and illustrative stories and examples. I should also challenge the principles as much as possible.

Conventionally, most of the talks I give are expected to be either (a) about some new work I’ve done, or (b) about somebody else’s work. I am somewhat uncomfortable about the present work because on the one hand, there is little here that is new – the core ideas have certainly been around for a long time – while I am not at all familiar with other people’s work on the subject. Perhaps the appropriate way to deal with this difficulty is to acknowledge it early in my talk, and explain that my goal is to communicate some old ideas in a way that is particularly compelling, drawing on my unusual perspective as a scientist.

That is, I am shifting my focus from saying something that is truly new, to saying something old, but that not many people have truly internalized, and saying it in such a compelling fashion.

Thus, one of my major goals over the coming week ought to be to come up with compelling examples, metaphors, stories and analogies to explain these points. Rather than putting physics in explicitly (of which more below), I will naturally lean on the points about physics, simply because that is my own background.

A useful way of doing this may be to revisit some biographies – e.g., Watson, Gleick (Feynman), Pais (Einstein and Bohr), Isaacson (Franklin), Morgan (Franklin), (T. E. Lawrence), Brodie (Jefferson), Donald (Lincoln) – looking for stories that can illuminate or further develop some of the points I’ve been making in my essay.

Principles 1 and 2 each describe a class of problems, a principle that can be used to solve those problems, and why obeying that principle is hard. They also give some very brief, not terribly precise, but evocative examples of the use of those principles. By contrast, in Principle 3 I dwell more on the details of how to use the Principle. It seems more effective to do the former than the latter, given the fact that space constraints will prevent me from giving any detailed description of the skills necessary to implement the various principles. It may be worth pointing this fact out in the introduction.

It is likely better to rephrase Principle 3 in the general form – that the most effective way to change our behaviour is to create social institutions which encourage that change. I can cut out the details of my group learning example, instead giving a much briefer, but more evocative description, emphasizing that it took me several goes to get the skills all right, but the basic idea is to create an appropriate social environment.

Add a title, abstract and address information.

Add an acknowledgements section, and an appropriate list of references.

It may be possible to post this to the preprint archive. Check their policy on what file formats may be used. It may be necessary to reformat in LaTeX.

The role of physics in the essay

There is little about physics in the essay, at present.

My gut instinct is that in order for my contribution to be useful, I ought to focus more heavily on physics. I feel most confident with that material, and feel that it is what distinguishes me from others, which is perhaps why I am so eager to lean on it.

Consciously, however, my belief is that very little of what I am saying is specific to physics, and therefore it makes more sense to focus on generalities. I have, perhaps, something of a sense of being an Emperor with no clothes because I haven’t studied this in an academic fashion, and therefore wish to lean on the material in which I have great personal confidence. Perhaps I ought simply to acknowledge that some of the ideas are preliminary, or incomplete, and try to do the best job I can, given my current knowledge and experience.

What is the most challenging aspect of learning that is specific to physics? There are two that come to mind.

First is the formal nature of physics. Human beings don’t think abstractly particularly well. There is no reason whatsoever to suppose that the laws of Nature will be particularly accessible to the human mind. The human mind developed as a way of furthering competition with our fellow living beings, and only incidentally to understand the laws of the Universe. It’s good at doing recognizing faces, and making tools, not at solving mathematical equations. In doing science we are borrowing equipment developed for another purpose, and we should not be surprised if sometimes the equipment is not cut out for the task.

Second is the deep nature of physics. There are long chains of facts, and to understand items later in the chain, one must understand everything earlier in the chain.

I am a little hung up on being a “physicist”, here. Most of these difficulties are common to all of the sciences. I would, perhaps, make my talk a little less intimidating if I were to emphasize the science more, and the physics less. Moreover, I feel reasonably comfortable representing myself as a scientist. I am certainly not a chemist or biologist, but do feel that I have some sense for how things are done in those fields, what the difficulties are, and how one must face them.

Specific points of possible improvement


The introduction is rather dry, and focused on the fact that I am a physicist. It might be better to change the focus entirely. Effective presentations usually begin with an wonderful hook, in order to fully engage the audience’s attention. How can I fully engage the audience’s attention on the subject of tough learning?

I could potentially add a discussion of the Wason four-card test, to illustrate the difficulty human beings have with abstract concepts. The basic point is that this is a difficulty physicists have, in addition to all the other difficulties people have, and this compounds those other difficulties, and makes physics truly “tough learning”. Probably the ideal point is rather early on in the document, to give people some idea of why it is that physics is tough learning.

I could add a brief description of what it is that physicists do. For example, how was it that Helium was first identified in the sun. The point would be to get people used to the idea that physicists are dealing constantly with abstractions, and that these abstractions pile up one on top of the other, and become very difficult to deal with. There is a danger that some people may become confused and distracted. Is there some way I can use this confusion and distraction as a plus, not a minus? Perhaps repeatedly draw people’s attention to it? Not sure that could be done.

The Lederman quote, and discussion that follows, is primarily in there to give an impression of the difficulty of doing physics. Unfortunately, it’s at a great remove psychologically. While the story has some significance for me personally, I’m not so sure that it will mean much to most audience members. Perhaps it would be better to give an actual active example? Or perhaps there is some other way of making this point entirely?

My explanation of what I offer – the unusual perspective of a physicist – is rather light on for details. I haven’t explained what it is that a physicist does, or why that should give a physicist any greater insight into tough learning. In short, I haven’t explained what that different perspective is. Perhaps it is simply the fact that, day after day, we face challenges that occur only incidentally to other people. Perhaps I would gain credibility by identifying those challenges more concretely? Two facets of the challenge are the difficulty of abstraction, and the extreme social isolation.

If I go this route, I should be careful to say that, of course, every profession has its own difficulties. I’m certainly not looking to make out that physicists have a hard lot, or that they’re particularly smart as a class, only trying to explain what is different about physics that may account for my different perspective.

A point I do not at present emphasize is that I am talking about research in physics, not teaching or any other activity. Research is primarily what we mean when we talk about doing physics.

Principle 1

The beginning is low impact. Instead of beginning with a low-impact abstract discussion, I’d be better off with a single high-impact example. The general principle can then be abstracted.

The Maslow example is unclear.

What’s the difference between purpose and meaning?

I need to emphasize more that developing a unique capacity to contribute is only one way of finding purpose and meaning. In physics research, in my opinion, it’s probably the main way it happens. But compare an artist or a writer. They can have similar capacities, yet contribute in very different ways. There it’s the development of the long-term vision that provides them with purpose and meaning, at least to some extent. (An obvious place to modify is in the fourth paragraph of this section.)

Overall, the discussion of principle 1 is very abstract, with few good examples, metaphors, or analogies.

There is no conclusion to the section. Perhaps I should add some practical questions that can be asked in any situation to diagnose deficits in purpose and meaning, and to figure out what to do in response?

Principle 2

The soccer example works quite well, in my opinion.

Add comment about exams and marks as short-term rewards. If that’s all there is, if students don’t have their own long-term vision, then there’s no point to it all.

A possibility for shortening the section is to remove the ARC discussion, and add something shorter, more punchy and effective.

The discussion is not really concluded. There is no description of how to form a long-term vision. How to diagnose a deficit in long-term vision, and how can we respond?

Comparing the first and second principles

This section feels a little tacked on. Perhaps it could be incorporated earlier. A very natural place for incorporating these ideas would be after the initial abstract description of the second principle.

A very succinct way of describing this idea is that it’s the difference between the “why” and the “what”.

Principle 3

Once again, there is not much of a conclusion.

The example given – organizing a discussion group – is not terribly compelling. It should either be rethought, in a more compelling manner, or else it should be axed and replaced by something better.


Pretty good for now! One possibility for shortening, given the time constraints, may be just to put this up on a viewgraph, and conclude with just my final two paragraphs.

From → Tough learning

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