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Questions Drive Learning

November 17, 2012

I really like Robin Hanson’s Chasing vs. Searching distinction in learning. Searching is when you are looking for something interesting in general, and chasing is when you are looking for something specific to answer a question you have. In my own academic adventures, most learning is searching, or worse yet, just listening to what others think is important. It helps to have a guide, but students are so much more engaged when they are trying to answer their own questions than when they are simply trying to remember the answers someone else gives to a question they don’t particularly care about. I think one of the biggest reasons why I got so much out of advanced mathematics is because it was the first time in my life where I wasn’t “searching” math, I was “chasing” it. In my experience, you don’t really learn material until you use it to solve another, more advanced problem. I didn’t get trigonometry until I took physics. Application cements knowledge in a student’s mind. Until it is applied, skills are just unrelated points of information which drift away, unmoored to a wider conception of the world.

In order to teach yourself a subject, instead of reading article after article of various introductions, start to ask yourself some questions related to the field and use the tools of that field to answer them. In economics, simple questions often have complex and interesting answers. The entire field was created to answer the question “Why are some countries rich and others poor?”. By focusing on specific questions, you can reduce the amount of time you spend on esoteric nonsense and focus on the issues and tools which are actually helpful. I think one reason for my love affair with supply and demand is its usefulness in answering, or at least framing, many topics in economics.

Some good questions:
What does a supply and demand curve really represent?
What makes some countries rich and others poor?
The Great Depression: WTF?
Why do jobs seem scarce when neoclassical theory would suggest they should be easily available to all?
Why were/are there shifts from farming to manufacturing and then manufacturing to service?
Can debt increase/reduce total wealth in a society?
Why is medical care so bizarre as an economic sector?
Why do people care so much about unemployed labor, but so little about unemployed capital?

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