Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

Why students dislike deductions

When teaching I’m not only concerned about the applications within a certain subject, but I try to motivate students in learning concepts. But should I deliver a certain concept on a platter or explain how we get there, deducing it? I prefer the later, but some students prefer the former. The challenge is more than teaching concepts; it is in teaching them to like learning them.

The value of concepts

Concepts are important because when you master them you improve your knowledge and have a deeper perception of reality. And to master concepts you need to interiorize them. This means trying to understand them by making them yours. An what should we do this? Because it is the best way to make sure you never forget them.

There are two ways to develop concepts. When you use induction, the premises provide evidence for a probable truth. This happened for the first time probably with Galileo, when science developed several concepts for which there was no evidence. Take the Higgs boson for example. In 1960’s Peter Higgs and others predicted its possibility, but only observed experimentally in 2010’s, 50 years later. You may wonder “what’s the point?” I would say induction drives our ability to imagine reality and uncover it. It is an intuitive form of learning.

But the other way to develop concepts is by deduction, and this is what most students learn. Here, the premises provide the ground for a logical and certain truth. In deduction you learn to organize your thoughts and put the several pieces of the puzzle in their rightful place into order to understand the puzzle of reality. Remember Sherlock Holmes and how any series involving this character fascinates us with the power of deduction from reconstructing the truth through an acute observation of small details.

When we ask students to demonstrate their knowledge of concepts through deduction, its a problem. They simply don’t like them. But more serious than that, they think it’s not even useful to deduce concepts. Maybe I’m wrong and deducing concepts is a waste of time and our minds. Or maybe I’m not wrong…

The Bicycle Metaphor

Learning concepts and how to deduce them is like learning to ride a bike. If you learn well, there no terrain which can stop you from riding. You dominate the bike, you dominate every terrain, every challenge, and thrive. But if you dedicate yourself in learning how to ride in one terrain, and do not try to dominate the bike, you change terrain, and you longer know how to ride. Even if you have a repertoire of terrains, there’s always a new one because life has more imagination than we carry in our dreams (C. Columbus).

Finding joy in learning concepts

There are reasons for disliking to learn concepts and they are related with our brain activity. I once saw an interesting video made from the content in Daniel Coleman’s Thinking fast and slow explaining we have two basic brain activities. The expedite and fast thinking which solve problems based on our experience in a glimpse of an eye, and then we have the slow part of our brain activity. The slow part is more reflective, conscious, and… lazy, obviously. The slow mode is more demanding, and it takes time to arrive at a conclusion. 

So, now you see the problem with deductions. They work the slow part of our brain and give it muscle, so to say. And the only way we can fin joy in learning concepts is if we find it rewarding. That’s a challenge. 

Once I deduced a new method to cool mold inserts. I repeated the deduction 4 to 5 times. By the third time, I was a little frustrated, but like a ship within a storm I kept going because my thought was – “what do I have to loose?” And when I finally arrived at a conclusion, and join all the pieces of the puzzle, my God, the joy! It’s like climbing a mountain and reaching the top.

You have the extraordinary ability of fascinating the world around you through the power of deduction. The power of uncovering the truth. If you are a student, learn to grasp that power and YOU will thrive. The reward of grasping this power is confidence in yourself and in what you are capable of. If you welcome this inside you and find meaning in it, you’ll go far. 

How can you start? Start small. Start by looking at the deductions in your disciplines with new eyes. As a training in grasping the power of deduction.

QUESTION: Any other ideas on how can we find deductions rewarding?

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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