From the Confucius analects: In a group of three people, there is always something I can learn from. Choose to follow the strengths of others, and use their shortcomings to reflect upon ourselves.
The brilliance in Confucius wisdom is that, being the Master of teaching, he asks his students to be an active learner. Education, after all, is about learning, not about teaching.
I started to follow Brian Will on YouTube lately. He gives very succinct lectures to explain the entire thing about programming, computer science... etc. In one of his intro videos, he says, on your journey of learning, you're going to encounter 3 types materials:
The goal of a narrative is to help you build a conceptual model in your head about the subject matter, so that when you come across a problem, you know how to approach it, where to investigate.
A tutorial is a demonstration of a way to solve one particular problem. It's always good to attempt a problem yourself at first, then to watch the tutorial to compare your solution with others'.
You consult a reference of the subject matter when you don't remember a certain concept or rule. But if you haven't built a conceptual model in your head, the reference is hardly useful.
There's nothing wrong to learn from tutorials and references. But we need to have the awareness of what we were learning at that moment.
If you have done a lot of tutorials, and you have the access to a good reference, you may have the illusion of knowing it all. However, without a strong conceptual model in your mind, you won't be able to create anything beautiful on your own. (a.k.a. You won't be able to pull it off on the dance floor if you just complete the Beginner Salsa 36 Moves without enjoying the music and understanding the style.)
On the contrary, if you have a strong conceptual model in your head, but haven't done a lot of tutorials, you probably won't be very skillful in that matter. Many of my latino friends come to the salsa class for tutorials: they know the music, the dance is part of their culture, they move their hips like they were born to move like that... But that's just a conceptual model. They still come to the class - to learn more intricate moves!
I also want to say something for Sal Khan. I saw the accusation - how terrible it is to learn maths from Khan Academy; I think it's unfair. I have taken some Calculus lessons on Khan Academy, and then some Finance basics. I think Sal's teaching on calculus falls into the "Tutorial" category. It's fair to say while he explains pretty well how to solve an equation, it didn't help me to build a conceptual model of calculus. I still don't know how to apply calculus to solve an everyday problem. On the other hand, Sal did a brilliant job constructing a narrative about Finance, especially about the mortgage and the housing market during 2008 crisis.
Let's be human here: Sal was a hedge fund manager at the Wall Street before he started Khan Academy. He's good at using maths as a tool to do his finance job, but he doesn't necessarily contemplate maths on a narrative level. That's why he came up with all the math tutorials, but not the math narrative. All the while his first hand experience in hedge fund must have helped him to build a very strong conceptual model about finance, thus he could build a nice narrative on finance for us.
I think ultimately, it is our job, as an active learner, to distinguish each type of teaching. It's also our job to decide how far we want to go.
- If you just want to impress people at a party or to remove a stain from your shirt, go find a tutorial.
- If you want to understand a subject matter, you'll need to find a good narrative.
- If you want to become very creative, skillful and innovative in something, you'll need to fully internalize the narrative AND do a whole bunch of tutorials. AND always consult Google for references. :)