“Congratulations, you’re now the local ________ expert!”

This xkcd (click the image to see the real deal) has long been one of my favorites. Now that I have a little experience learning, teaching, and researching in a few different fields, I'm convinced that this comic teaches us a principle that is true far beyond the realm of tech support: Learning about a particular subject is less about the facts associated with that subject and more about learning the attitudes and behaviors associated with it. For example, when I began this blog post, I had only an inkling of an idea how to embed that xkcd comic and absolutely no idea how to get it to play nice with this paragraph. What I did know how to do was tinker with html (and look up new facts) until I got what I was looking for. It's still not as pretty as I would like it to be, but even if I don't know how to make it prettier, I know I could figure it out if I tried.

This same kind of skill is crucial when you're learning a foreign language. If all you know how to do is say words, you're doing it wrong. What you really need to learn how to do is to think like a native speaker of the language. That means adopting certain linguistic attitudes (cultural ones can help, but aren't as necessary), learning how to meet your goals with your current resources, and figuring out how to look things up properly (people forget it takes skill to know how to use a dictionary) and learn on the fly.

Some of my work lately has focused on a similar skill in social studies classrooms. Many researchers argue that learning history has very little to do with memorizing facts and very much to do with learning the process of historical inquiry. The idea (much like the idea for studying Python or German) is that you can look up the facts on your own -- what you really need to learn is how to find, interpret, and apply the facts.

I love this idea, and I expect that encouraging students to learn attitudes and behaviors rather than facts will end up being a trend in my research. Now I just need to learn how to adopt some stats attitudes before Monday, when my quantitative methods homework is due...

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