Did I ever really know any of this stuff? Can I ever really know it?
July 2, 2019 7:19 PM   Subscribe

There are a number of things I learned in school that I never really "understood," like certain aspects of grammar in foreign languages, or theorems, or programming concepts. Maybe I transiently or superficially understood things, or got by with pattern recognition or test-taking skills... I understood things enough to do fine on the test but not enough to be creative with those concepts. Have you ever revisited high school or college topics later in life? How did that experience compare?

I have considered that college/school learning is different, paced differently, and that I was focused on learning so many other things at the time (making friends, being involved in extracurricular activities, figuring out how to balance getting ahead vs smelling roses, etc.). But it's not like life is getting simpler or slower-paced, either... although I guess the pressure to perform is definitely no longer there.

I feel like when I was younger, there were things that I reveled in understanding... I remember playing and memorizing some piano pieces and being able to really break it down, and it was just this clarity that has kind of stuck with me (okay, or maybe part muscle memory) and I just don't feel like I really have that in other areas of my life (or even in piano) these days. I don't know if it's because the pieces and the concepts just got more challenging and my cup is at capacity, or what it is... I'm not sure if that kind of understanding and appreciation of the world... that kind of mental clarity... is only for people who are simply on another plane of intelligence compared to me. I am tempted to review the stuff that I never really got in college (and likely high school, because lol let's be real here, I can barely integrate these days) and wonder, would it be a different experience, or would things be similarly fuzzy? Would I eke out only a superficial comprehension because I just haven't the right substrate or bandwidth?

Am especially interested in the areas of languages, music, physics, math, literature.
posted by gemutlichkeit to Education (17 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
In middle school (actually freshman year of high school) I failed out of French. I had also always done poorly in any part of an English class that was focused on grammar (though I loved reading and literature). In high school I took Latin and even did a summer study so I could advance another level. In college I went back to French just to do the language requirement and move on (or so I thought). I ended up doing my study abroad in a francophone country, got a minor in French, and now 10 years later use French in my daily work and feel fluent. Latin gave me a basis in grammar that I hadn’t received elsewhere and made French “click” for me when I went back to it. Sometimes all you need is a new teacher or a new perspective to let it all fit together
posted by raccoon409 at 7:29 PM on July 2, 2019 [8 favorites]

For me, things like languages got easier as I got older. I can revisit the French and German I grew up with and whenever I do it comes easier because I already have the basic vocabulary but can learn words that are actually important to me like sewing terms and so on.

I feel like when I revisit math and science I have more of a place for it as well as an adult - there have been a million times that geometric proofs have come in handy for me and there have been a handful of times that something calculus-related has come up and I am always amazed that it is SO USEFUL, never mind my daily algebra use.

I could not try to revisit the French horn again though, but that is more because it was one of those things that I *had* to do to be a well-rounded student, rather than something I picked up organically. I pick up other instruments as an adult that I didn't have experience on when younger and it is a real struggle.

But revisiting things is a great thing to do! I'll be walking along thinking that I don't need to read this or do that because I covered it in 1989 and then I'll do it anyway and just stand in awe at what my adult self can get from ground I totally thought I had covered.
posted by Tchad at 7:36 PM on July 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

Sometimes, there are actually resources that were missing when you learned the first time around. In the context of grammar, there's a whole series of "English grammar for students of German" (et alia) that really are useful for things when the parts you already understand are obscured.

In terms of your own personal development, I have to agree with Tchad. It is easier to learn the things, or subsets of things, that you are actually interested in.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 7:45 PM on July 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

Go for it. Sounds like you weren't too motivated by these subjects in school, but now you are, and that will make all the difference.

Also remember, you're in charge now, you can fire the teacher. That is: if a particular course or book or video series doesn't work for you, try a different one.
posted by zompist at 7:50 PM on July 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

A Mind for Numbers is a great book about how to learn exactly these concepts. School actually does not do a great job of teaching deep understanding, focusing instead on rote memorization long enough to be tested, but there are other methods of learning that provide deeper and longer lasting results. I have revisited or attempted many new types of learning as an adult and found it much more enjoyable than I did in school (even though I generally liked school) and I've found that I'm better at extrapolating or connecting concepts across topics than I used to be. Part of that is probably just being older and having more life experience, but approaching it from a different stance also helped.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:00 PM on July 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

I agree with the above comments that I learn better as an adult without the anxiety of grades hanging over me, as I did until a few years ago as a PhD student. Learning without pressure of evaluation and deadlines makes things far easier for me to appreciate and retain.

I really regret that I pursued tough degrees at great schools when I was just too young to know how my brain worked, and too immature to appreciate ths value of achieving the mastery you're taking about. I think this regret and feelings of deficiency are greatly assuaged by reading lectures, course materials, and research papers (not related to my job) in math and cs as an adult.
posted by shaademaan at 8:20 PM on July 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

I went to Coursera to get you a link for their Learning How to Learn short course but the link returns an error . Please do try Googling same, I think the course is still there! It’s only a few videos, and taught by a super nerdy learning enthusiast who just plain awesomely explains how to retain information. Not exactly what you are asking, but if you end up pursuing a thread of knowledge, eventually you’ll need to really retain some facts and her advice will come in super handy.

If you can’t find the videos, there is a book written by the same Barbara Oakley as the Mind for Numbers book suggested above.
posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee at 8:42 PM on July 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

I had never done well in math in school, but eventually was thinking about graduate school and studied for and took the GRE. It was indeed explained differently, I had no problem with it, and actually got a really high score on the math section (higher than my verbal!). Go for it.
posted by jrobin276 at 9:01 PM on July 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Language teaching has gotten SO MUCH BETTER in recent years. If you can take a good college course with good online resources (we used Quia), it might blow your mind.

Also, though, one thing I used a lot was testing translations using Google Translate, and doing lots and lots of practice quizzes on [language].about.com. Those seem to be gone now (although the new site still has the excellent Laura K. Lawless explaining French), but I bet there are other quizzes out there for whatever language you study.

Also, if you don't understand something, there are a lot of sites out there explaining stuff, so you're likely to find an explanation that works for you.
posted by amtho at 9:39 PM on July 2, 2019

The thing about school is that it was learning for the sake of learning, which to me was very uninspiring.

When I actually have a use for the topic (which I now do for some college level math as well as Spanish) I find that topics I once struggled to stay awake for come relatively easily.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:44 PM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Language learning is one of those things that you can learn for life. Were are constantly evaluating out own understanding of our native language, playing with emphasis, new cultural shifts, all kinds of things, learning new words etc.

I came back to Japanese about ten years after taking two years in college. I am better now than I ever was, and do mostly on my own. It requires displine, but wow online tutoring and SRS systems and the textbooks and YouTube resources and internet access to native speakers and children's books, etc. It is so so much easier to be engaged and learn and so much less abstract than it was when I learned in college.
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:59 PM on July 2, 2019

In terms of your own personal development, I have to agree with Tchad. It is easier to learn the things, or subsets of things, that you are actually interested in.
Specifically in my case I have:
1. Learned Pythagoras' Theorem only many years after my school maths classes - as a result of writing a computer program where I needed to calculate if a bullet had hit a spaceship.
2. Learned Trigonometry properly when trying to program a computer game sprite to move in circles - and when trying to estimate the height of trees.
3. Learned French having contemplated -and then executed - a move to France.

A shout out to the role of educational technology here too: I believe it is dramatically easier to learn skills like languages and sight reading now that we have ready access to tools like DouLingo and SimplyPiano.
posted by rongorongo at 3:34 AM on July 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

I hated math in school and did as little as possible to meet requirements. Then, late in my college career, I was helping my little sister with some algebra homework, something clicked and I started seeing algebra as fun. I wouldn't say I use it often in my professional life, but I do see a lot of opportunities to solve for x in everyday life. I especially like using algebra (and geometry) in relation to football: if player A runs a 4.4 40-yard-dash (really fast), and player B runs a 4.8 40 (pretty slow for an athlete), how far behind A will B be after 40 yards?
posted by kevinbelt at 3:46 AM on July 3, 2019

I had to dust off high school calculus after fifteen years for the purpose of doing a grad degree in a new field a little later in life. It was really hard! I’d actually been pretty good at the rote stuff in high school and college, though I lacked real understanding, but even getting the rote stuff right was tricky after it had decayed a while. I say this not to discourage you, more to say that if you try to pick up math again and it feels really rusty, that’s not particularly weird. (And I got it well enough to get by in my degree program.)
posted by eirias at 4:21 AM on July 3, 2019

I feel like most school learning is not about deeply understanding the subject, it's about getting a high-level map of the knowledge that's out there - you don't get to spend a year studying in every location, but you know they're out there. I don't remember anything that I memorized about the periodic table or various algebra equations, I couldn't label the parts of a cell to save my life, I can't remember how to find the area of a triangle or the point of Ethan Frome. I do remember a lot of stuff about writing, grammar and music because I liked those classes and have continued to use most of that knowledge throughout my life.

But. I recently started a hobby for which math is sometimes really useful, and I find that when I'm looking up and using that knowledge for a purpose, it's far more interesting and meaningful than it was in high school. And while I don't remember many specifics from my math and algebra classes, I remember enough that I can look at a situation and think "okay, math can help me with this" and look up what I need to know to work it out.

There's no reason that learning needs to stop after college, or that we need to be confined to the subjects we found interesting at 18. Learning new things throughout life keeps your brain engaged and can provide a lot of joy and satisfaction.
posted by bunderful at 5:56 AM on July 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

My education in history and geography was poor. In 8th grade, I didn't know or care what bauxite was, but as an adult, I've gotten more interested in geography, and knowing that having reserves of aluminum has political and economic meaning. It's not too hard because it fits onto knowledge that's around me all the time in the news and books.

When I took programming classes in my 40s and 50s, it was really hard. Just plain new information with no context. But after I got some basics, it felt good to stretch my brain. Older brains are less plastic, and learning new material isn't as easy, but certainly possible and enjoyable.
posted by theora55 at 7:30 AM on July 3, 2019

As I get older, I tend to focus on building my strengths rather than trying to address weaknesses. Related to that, I try not to get bogged-down in subject areas that are not directly relevant to some project or interest that I am actively pursuing.

To give some examples: I studied French for six years, but I never really became fluent. And by now, I've forgotten most of the French that I did learn. But I'm OK with that -- I don't really need to know French for anything. Also, I did well in physics classes, but I always felt like I never really developed a good grasp of electricity. At this point in life my attitude is, "So what?". I'm not an electrician or electrical engineer. I don't need to know this stuff. I'm content with living the rest of my life with the realization that I will never really understand electricity.
posted by alex1965 at 12:17 PM on July 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

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