Trial-and-error-and-Google

Reading the section called “Google the Error” in Thomas and Brown’s A New Culture of Learning hit home for me. A man named Allen had learned many different computer programming languages through what may be called trial-and-error-and-Google.  He would write up a script, try to run it, and when it crashed, he googled the error message for some ideas.

When I started my PhD program, my research project was to pick up where one student left off and keep going with it.  The previous student had done basically everything in Python–an object-oriented programming language.  There were dozens of Python scripts that I needed to use for my work and I had only one brief prior exposure to Python.  I knew that I had to learn how to write in Python and the task was very daunting to me.  I have never considered myself to be even a kindergarten-level programmer, even though I did ok in my undergraduate Computational Skills class where I learned basic programming.  So how did I learn Python?

I Googled it.

I would look over a script that the previous student wrote, try to figure it out, and then Google hundreds of things that were about as understandable as Chinese to me (and please note… I don’t know Chinese).  I won’t sugar-coat this… it was EXTREMELY frustrating and difficult at first until I could figure out the structure and the lingo. There were many days that the word “Python” came out of my mouth almost as a curse. Now I am much more proficient in Python and I actually enjoy all of the neat things that I can do with this programming language.  I have even voluntarily used it on a few homework assignments where Python was not part of the class at all.  Who would have guessed it?

Now I wonder how I can capture this learning style in more traditional classes within my discipline: civil engineering.  As a future professor, I wonder how I can help the students do a little more trial-and-error-and-Google learning.  Honestly, when I look back on my learning experiences, learning from my mistakes has been one of the most enduring and memorable methods.  Though sometimes painful or uncomfortable (as previously described), it can turn a tough subject into a strength that may end up being your new side hobby.  Like Python is for me.

14 Comments

  • splummer says:

    I really enjoyed your personal experience. I find a sense of pride and achievement in the things I’ve had to google to learn (like replacing the belt in a clothes dryer from a youtube video). There’s something to be said for trial and error, which I think is a type of mindfullness in learning. It gets away from that output-input teaching method. I’m wondering how I can use trial and error in the humanities. It is always hard to see a model work really well in one discipline or area of study and figure out how to apply it in another.

    • Kristin says:

      Yes, I think there is a lot of pride in figuring something out using trial-and-error-and-Google. Probably because you end up asking a lot of your own questions, looking for the answers to those questions, and putting it all together in your own way. I think it also ends up being really personally tailored, because you aren’t just asking the specific questions in the prompt for an arbitrary homework assignment. Instead, you’re searching for something personally applicable.

  • Ali says:

    Thank you for your post. Just wanted to add that trail-and-error-and google might seem easy task to do, but I would say it is a skill. If we want to have up-to-date classes and learning methods, we should better teach the students how they could benefit from this important skill.

    • Kristin says:

      You are absolutely right, it is a skill. I think that was part of the frustration that I had at the beginning of learning Python through Google: I had to learn how to search for what I wanted AND I had to learn the lingo/jargon that these proficient Python masters were using. This is definitely a skill that students need today, in addition to knowing how to judge what is accurate or useful information.

  • hlee28 says:

    True. Just Google it. A lot of times, that was the answer I’ve got when I have some questions. It’s an effective way to find any answer somehow, but i kind of think that it’s risky because it’s knowledge which solely rely on a search engine Google. It is literally a site what we all use to find any information, but we should ask, what if it is not the best way to find information what i’m looking for. Google has its own algorithm to display information when we search, i’m curios about how they select information for the first page or following pages when we search. I believe Google, but the reason behind my question is due to Naver, which is a most popular search engine in South Korea like Google in the U.S. Last year, it turned out that Naver was being used by the previous government for manipulating public opinion to get some political advantages. All the information and its the sort order were displayed and manipulated by the government.

    • Kristin says:

      This is a great point to bring up, and a really interesting case study about groups using a search engine to control public opinion. I think there some Google searches for which a large dose of skepticism is required. For some other things, like learning from other people how they tackle DIY projects at home or how they approach a difficult integral in calculus, we might be able to lower our defenses slightly.

  • saloumeh says:

    I couldn’t agree more! I, personally, have learned a lot (especially in coding) by just trial and Google! It gives you the chance to try your best (because you know there will be no-one to teach you) and to fix your own mistakes. I really see it as one of the most effective learning methods.

    • Kristin says:

      Right, it is so effective in coding in particular. Coding gives you lots of chances to try something, see if it works, debug as necessary, and search for better solutions from others who are more experienced. And when I finally find that silly little bug in my code after hours of searching… I’m usually more likely to remember NOT to make that mistake again in the future :).

  • Amy Hermundstad Nave says:

    I absolutely loved your post and hearing about your experiences learning Python! I think it would be so great if we incorporated this trial-and-error-and-Google (or even just Google a topic and explore) into classes more. And I think that approach offers a great opportunity to help students learn more about and evaluate different sources of information. Thanks for the post!

    • Kristin says:

      Thanks! And your point about learning how to evaluate different sources of information is key. I have heard of entire courses geared toward this very topic, and it wouldn’t hurt to incorporate those general principles into multiple courses about a variety of topics so they can apply what they know about information gathering/evaluating.

  • Ernesto Acosta says:

    Your comments about Google encouraged me to find out how mindfulness applies to this company. Chade-Meng Tan is the head of Google’s mindfulness training for employees (Confino, 2014). According to him, “Google and other technology companies in Silicon Valley are receptive to mindfulness because they believe in being at the vanguard of change and innovation” (Confino, 2014). Mr. Tan stated that “Through the development of apps and other software, tech companies such as Google will have a major part to play in mainstreaming mindfulness” (Confino, 2014). And “In the same way that the pedometer has influenced exercise, these apps could similarly popularise mindfulness” (Confino, 2014). It will be interesting to learn how future apps will promote mindfulness.
    Confino, J. (2014, May 14). Google’s head of mindfulness: ‘goodness is good for business.’ The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/google-meditation-mindfulness-technology

    • Kristin says:

      I like the way you’re thinking, Ernesto! I wonder how other companies (particularly tech companies) approach mindfulness in their work cultures?

  • sogandmhz says:

    Nice points! I also learned what I know about Python programming from Google. I became frustrated at first when I could not write simple codes and receive lots of errors, then, I googled all errors, and the results helped me to figure out what was the problem. As you well said, when we make a mistake and learn from our mistake, it will stick to our mind (learn it deeply).
    Good question! But how we can incorporate this learning technique in Civil Engineering to facilitate deep learning?

    • Kristin says:

      Yes, more Python learning through Google! Out of curiosity, did you learn Python for classes or for research? If you ever come up with ideas of how to use this in Civil Engineering, I’d love to hear it. 🙂

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