Sharpening the Saw

20 percent doctrineThe idea of taking some time out from the things that you have to do, to do intellectual things you might like to do. Google call it 20% time, Stephen R. Covey called it ‘sharpening the saw’. But whatever title you might give it, it’s a habit seldom practiced these days.

Education now-a-days is often a practice of seeing what is the highest mark one can get from the least amount of work, getting maximum value from what you put in. Scrimping and saving is, in some scenarios a very noble thing to do. But putting in a little more, whether it be in wise purchasing, or the accomplishment of a degree, can go a long way.

Let us pause for a second to read from some anecdotal evidence:

Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to cut down a tree.

“What are you doing?” you ask.

“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”

“You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”

“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”

“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”

“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”

The 7 habits of highly effective people, Stephen R. Covey

Now, think about the great discoveries that have been made over the many generations in psychology. Think about Freud, Watson, Ebbinghaus and Titchener. You’ll notice that some of these names studied along side the others, or were tutored by them. And it wasn’t in the completing of essays, or the reading of long documents to satisfy assignments that the new discoveries were made. It was in working in the lab, experimenting, contemplating and trying things out. You could even call it ‘playing’.

Think now about today. Is it a drag, knowing you have these essays to do, or that revision to do before you can rest, party, never think about it again, or what have you? Is that a pleasurable experience? What about the personal statements we all had to produce where we had to show passion and excitement for our subjects? Do you feel that now? Do you think Watson felt that way?

Maybe sometimes, but by and large, I don’t think he did. Next thing to think about. How unexciting is reading research papers and lab reports? Twenty pages of bumf that you need to get through for one little bit that you can use as a reference. It is devastatingly boring. What if I asked you to go on Google Scholar, and find a paper of your choosing to read? For no particular reason, other than just ‘cos? What would you choose? Do you think you’d enjoy reading that? And, how well do you think you would remember it?

I’ll bet you could even describe with detail what you have read, and what it means! Why? Because you are sharpening the saw!

I have greatly enjoyed reading some papers, and blog entries from different academic’s, because they are about matters that genuinely interest me. And I know all about the things I have read. I’m sincerely hoping I’ll be about to do my dissertation on that topic next year. I also enjoy writing my blog, about the things that interest me.

And I believe that this is how best to learn the skills of analysis and novel thought. That is what useful talents are made of. Real cutting edge research, truly spectacular solutions to life’s challenges. That is what education is really about, and when you have hit that nail, you should be able to feel it. You don’t have to have a doctorate or a professorship to do the exciting stuff. Heck, you don’t even need to be enrolled in anything. It’s actually quite devastating that we live in this world where you have to have ‘Dr’ by your name for anyone to listen to you.

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A New Strategy

So here we are at the end of week six. Week six at Bangor University is exam week, so I’ve been doing my best to regurgitate all the things we’ve been learning the last five weeks. One bonus for me is that I had a cold, and a headache during every exam I did, not to mention the constant running nose, the head aches and the tiredness during reading week.

Naturally that was quite a thought provoking topic as I looked over how the whole thing turned out. These exams are worth about 1.5% of my degree, so they’re at a stage where I should be making them count.

Let me put this exactly as it looks in my mind. I don’t like exams, and the reason for that is that I don’t enjoy preparing for them. I don’t enjoy the impossible situation that accompanies content modules. What do I mean by this? I mean attending a lecture, and then needing to read 45 pages of a book, for each of the five lectures, for three topics, to learn and internalize them, and to show evidence of extra reading in the exam.

Yet people manage it, so there must be something I can do to get myself there. Well, this is my plan:

1. Attend every lecture and make a reasonable effort to make notes – weather I ever read those notes or not again is irrelevant. Taking notes helps concentration, and also gives the information a more permanent base.

2. Re-watch every lecture as a podcast, and highlight bits. – if nothing else, this creates a second pass over the content, strengthening it in my memory. It also then makes chances to ponder, see how much emphasis each aspect of the lecture was given, and to decide how much required reading needs to be done.

3. Use the textbook to delve deeper into things I don’t understand, or that are of importance. – This is a third pass over the important parts of the course content, and a detailed look at the parts I need to know. Things should be starting to become fluent by now.

4. Make many flash cards covering all the terms relating to each subject. – Key terms act as a cue for the things learnt in lectures. Using flash cards frequently will build fluency in recall, and is a time effective way to have a cue to all parts of the topic.

5. Do at least something in the way of extra reading for each module. – A friend of mine, who teaches college students said you can tell in the answers students give who has done extra reading, through the ideas and the ways of thinking they demonstrate. With the extra time I have I can do some extra reading, of something I like, and I will be satisfied with that. I choose not to worry about it any further that. What happens happens.

One of the problems for deep thinking students like myself, is that I cannot bear for any bit of information to be left behind, because logically, it could all be necessary for the exam. The problem is not lack of time, but lack of strategy. This is what we call working smart, not merely hard.

Well I hope I can report success at Christmas!

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