The thoughts of one young developer

Spiral Learning

Most of the little time I spend on Tumblr is spent looking at awesome pictures of nature, seeing how math is found in nature, or analyzing animations from pros, but every so often I come across something that has a larger and more direct effect on my life. The most recent was caused by this image:

I have since found out the image was by an illustrator named Budi Kwan and the quote is by Barry Gillespie. While I disagree with Gillespie’s outlook on life, I think the quote describes my thoughts on knowledge well.

The conventional way of looking at knowledge is very segmented and generally linear. Learn one thing, then add onto that, then continue to add on new pieces. While this may be helpful for looking at some types of knowledge, I feel like it’s not a very accurate way of at the learning process in general.

I think back on my own life, whether it be programming knowledge, soccer skills, life truths, my thoughts on this subject, or any other thing I gained knowledge of, and note that while I learned particular things about whatever it is, the process to get to those thoughts was more fluid than suddenly having new thoughts. Additionally, over time I understand a subject more deeply when I get more experience with it or related subjects. This is true even for things that I thought I had mastery over. There are milestones of understanding, but there aren’t really distinct steps. The whole process is more like sinking deeper in understanding. Thus, learning should be thought of more in terms of a spiral.

Whenever someone learns about a subject, they realize that there is more to learn than they originally thought. We continually learn more but also realize better how much we don’t know, causing a greater and greater divergence between the two. Similarly, the deeper in a spiral we go the deeper we see.

Let’s look at an example showing how a spiral way of looking at learning differs from a linear outlook. In a linear outlook, learning how to read would mean that we may learn a few words but before fully being able to comprehend writing we must first learn letters, then learn words, then learn how those words relate to each other and how they are used in sentences.

A spiral way of looking at learning to read is much more fluid: we gather the general concept that words on a page are trying to convey something to us, we learn that words are trying to convey a particular meaning to us each time we see them, we learn that they can be chained together to have a larger meaning, learn that we can break down each word into smaller parts that can be combined in different ways to have different meaning and sound, and we learn rules of what can and can’t be done. Each of these points, while some likely come before others, flow into each other and cannot be learned without some base knowledge in some other.

Looking at knowledge in this way also means that when we try to convey something to others, they may not receive it in a little nugget like we want them to. It may take reiterating, changing the phrasing, or showing it in some other way because their entire knowledge on the subject is being changed, not solely added to.

What implications does this way of thinking about knowledge have?

Working to learn something is beneficial even when no new thoughts form. Teaching the same thing in different ways can be very beneficial. Iterating upon the same information can lead to a deeper understanding and new thoughts. A subject can never be fully mastered; one always has more to learn.

I am sure that there are other implications that I’m missing. I’d love to hear them and any other comments on the subject you have.

Another thing I liked about the image is that the subjects were portrayed as children. Children don’t usually assume they know everything even about a particular subject, are open to looking at something in a new way, and look for the best in whatever they come across. They often are in awe of the world and chase after things they are interested in without care for much else.

Let’s not assume that a subject has been fully explored – it never will be. But let that be encouraging – we can always improve.

When in the editing stages of this essay, my brother the editor brought up this article which describes the learning process as a fractal. Given a spiral is a type of fractal, the argument is very similar and worth considering as well.