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Reasons to Learn
One of the problems with our educational system is that it tries to teach people things that they have no interest in learning. There is a better way.
What started me thinking about the issue and persuaded me to write this post was an online essay, by a woman I know, describing how she used D&D to cure her math phobia.
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How to Cure Mathphobia
I was failed by the education system, fell behind, never caught up, and was left with a panic response to the thought of interacting with any expression that has numbers and letters where I couldn’t immediately see what all of the numbers and letters were doing. The first time I took algebra one, I developed such a strong panic response that it wrapped around to the immediate need to go to sleep, like my brain had come up with a brilliant defense mechanism that left me with something akin to situational narcolepsy. (I did, actually, fall asleep in class several times, which had never happened to me before.) I retook the class the next year. I spent a lot of that year in tears, with a teacher who specifically refused to answer questions that weren’t more specific than “I don’t get it” or “I have no idea what any of those symbols mean or what we’re doing with them”.
Until she had a use for it:
The first time I played D&D, I was a high school student. My party was, incidentally, all female, apart from one girl’s boyfriend and the GM, who was the father of three of the players. We actually started out playing first edition AD&D, which I am almost tempted to recommend to beginners, just on the grounds that if you start there you will appreciate virtually every other edition of D&D you end up playing by comparison. I might have given up myself before I started, except that one of the players in the first game I ever spectated was a seven-year-old girl, and I was not about to claim that I couldn’t do something that a seven-year-old was handling just fine.
One of my most vivid memories of this group is the time we were on a massive zigzagging staircase - like one of those paths they have at the Grand Canyon, that zigzag back and forth down the cliff face so that anyone can reach the bottom without advanced rock-climbing. We saw a bunch of monsters coming for us from the ground below, and we weren’t sure whether they had climb speeds, but we didn’t super want to wait to find out. The ranger pulled out her bow to attack them before they could get to us.
“Now, wait a moment,” says the GM. “Can your arrows actually reach that far?”
“Well, they’re only, like, sixty feet away.”
“No, it’s more than that, because you have to think about height in addition to horizontal distance.”
“Yeah, but that’s, like, complicated?”
“Is it? Most of you are taking geometry right now, don’t you know how to find the hypotenuse of a right triangle?”
There were some groans. Math was hard. But we did know how to find the hypotenuse of a right triangle. We got out some scrap paper and puzzled over it for a couple minutes, volunteering the height of the cliff and the distance of the monsters and deciding that we could ignore the slight slope caused by the zigzagging stairways. We got a number back and compared it to the bow’s range per the rules. We determined that we could hit the monsters without a range penalty.
We killed the monsters. This wasn’t the real victory that day. -
She got better at it:
The math in our Pathfinder game didn’t stop at stuff that now strikes me as simple. When my character wanted some apprentices, I decided that my witch (who had recently come into possession of a magic item that let her use Detect Thoughts as many times a day as she wanted) was going to go around to all of the orphanages she could access in all of the settlements she could teleport to, then detect thoughts on everyone to look for the smartest orphans available - the ones who she expected to be most capable of learning from her insights about herbalism and the nonmagical nature of disease. But instead of just asking the GM to hand me some bright NPCs, I wanted to know what we could expect the stats of the smartest orphans in the region to actually be, and then roll based on the correct probabilities.
I had only the vaguest idea of how to set up this problem on my own. If you gave it to me in a math class, I would panic. But it was my problem, and I was going to solve it. I asked some of my programmer friends to walk me through the math I’d need in order to determine what the INT scores of the smartest children in this a large assortment of orphans would be, based on real-world standard deviations (we were assuming that the stats you get by rolling up characters are intended specifically for adventurers). Once we had the probabilities of various outcomes, we rolled dice and determined which settlements had really smart orphans in them, and how smart the smartest orphans were. Was our method entirely perfect? Absolutely not. But I felt like I had earned those apprentice and their abilities. I knew that I’d come as close as I could to being sure that they belonged in this world, in this place.
Math wasn’t all she learned:
Two weeks ago, my GM let me buy an island to turn into a hospital complex, partly as a way of offloading my excess cash so that I don’t make encounter balance impossible. I measured the size of the island on a tiny little canon map that was partially obscured by text, and converted it into a guesstimated number of acres or square feet to work with.
I spent several hours researching construction prices in the 1790s so that I could ballpark the cost of developing the island the way I wanted it. You find some example buildings that you can find the price of construction for (not easy, so I have no idea whether my numbers are really standard), and you determine their square footage. You look up some battle maps for buildings you’d like to have on your island, then determine their square footage. You convert your dollars-per-square-foot number to gold pieces, using the wages of carpenters or masons or whatever in the relevant year and the wages in gold pieces that people get using the profession skill. The number you get out is a little bullshit, because a lot of steps along this entire process are guesstimates (for example, it doesn’t really make a ton of sense to apply American 1790s wages to 1790s fantasy Egypt), but you get much better numbers than “I don’t know, a lot”.
Which showed that D&D can teach an enthusiast who wants to do it right not only math but also other things, including skills of historical research and back of the envelope calculation.
A simpler example of the same approach to learning math was my wife’s experience volunteering to teach cooking at the small and unconventional private school that our children were going to. If the recipe for a single batch of chocolate chip cookies — the chief contribution of the 20th century to world cuisine — says to use eight ounces of chocolate chips but you are making a double recipe, what weight of chocolate chips do you use? How much flour, how much brown sugar? If you have four ounces of chips left over and want to use them for another half recipe … .
The mathematics is easy, division and multiplication, but these were children.
How to Learn Physics
I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago preparing for my PhD qualifying exams. Some older students had, with the assistance of a professor, written a book designed to help students do what I was doing, put the draft in the library, and offered a prize — what it was I no longer remember — to anyone who could find a mistake.
The book consisted of the sorts of physics problems likely to be on the exam and solutions to them. I went through it looking for wrong answers. That was more fun than studying usually is — and a better education. If I had assumed the book’s answers were right my response to getting a different one would have been to try to figure out what I had done wrong, perhaps try to memorize the way they did it. Instead each mismatch between their answer and mine was a challenge, an opportunity to show that I was a better physicist than the authors and win a prize.
I spent more time and effort doing it than I would have studying a more reliable source, found a lot of mistakes, and ended up that year with one of the highest scores on the qualifying exam.
How to Learn a Programming Language
Long ago I concluded that the way to learn a computer programming language was by having a program you wanted to write in it. Instead of reading through a manual and trying to learn all of it, start by figuring out how to do the first part of your program, do it, then treat the parts you can’t do as puzzles to solve, the manual your cheat sheet.
It helped, in my case, that I had a program building program. I used it to build a version of my program, looked at how it was structured then used what I learned from that to build my own version. A computer science course in college might have served the same function in a more organized way, taught me general lessons about how to program, but as far as I know there were no programming courses, at least at Harvard, sixty years ago.
Learning a Language
I came across an online discussion of when children of immigrants do or don’t grow up bilingual. The claim, which struck me as plausible, was that if parents speak both English and their native language and everyone else their children interact with speaks English, the children end up speaking only English. If some of the people they want to speak with, grandparents for instance, do not speak English, making the second language actually useful, they learn it.
For a more extreme example of the same pattern, consider language learning by immersion. When almost everyone you want to talk with can only do it in a language you don’t know, you have a very good reason to learn it. For an extreme example of immersion, consider the difference between how you learn your second language and how you learned your first.
Which reminds me of the story of the child who got to three without showing any sign of language.
On his third birthday:
(child) “Please pass the asparagus”
(astonished parent) “You can speak.”
(Child) “Of course.”
(Parent) “You never spoke before.”
(Child) “Everything was satisfactory.”
Learning to Write
The skills that go into writing a novel are story telling, world building, character creation. Playing in a role playing game is improvisational story telling. Running a role playing game, serving as GM (Game Master), is that plus world building. Doing either right requires creating characters and making them come alive.
If you are learning a complicated skill it is sometimes easier to do it gradually. Role playing games often come with scenarios, frameworks within which the GM creates his story. The game designer has done part of the work, the GM and the players do the rest.
That is how quite a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors learned their trade.
Fan fiction is another example of the gradual approach to learning to write. The author of a book, movie, television series, has created a world and populated it with characters. The fanfic author tells new stories in that world with those characters, perhaps additional characters of his own. If he gets good enough at it he may go on to build his own world, populate it himself, publish it.1
The fanfic site I have spent most time on blurs the distinction between rpg and fanfic. The stories alternate passages by different authors “playing” different characters, which makes each story feel like an account of a role playing game. Some may have originated that way and I expect most of the authors have a background in role playing games.
The author of online fanfic, unlike the author of a published novel, is under no obligation to finish his story. That can be frustrating when a story you are enjoying slows to a halt before the end but may be an attraction of the form for writers since they can play with story ideas, drop ones that are not working out, finish ones that are, again useful training.
So far as I know none of the authors on that site has produced a conventionally published novel but at least two of them are good enough so that I would buy it.
Fan fiction may violate the copyright on the original work. Some authors give permission; one of my favorite authors was a founder of a major fan fiction site that displays works based on her books and those of other authors. An the author who has not given permission for fanfic based on his work may not bother to take legal action against non-commercial use of his world and characters, may even feel flattered by fans wanting to write in his world.