[OT] Education Theory (was Re: Database Design Theory?)

Shane Hathaway shane at hathawaymix.org
Wed Nov 9 13:08:55 MST 2005

Tyler Strickland wrote:
> On 11/09/2005 08:20 AM, Ross Werner wrote:
>> That was the impression I was given of the BYU database classes. Now I 
>> want to make explicit that I think this is *exactly* what BYU database 
>> classes *should* be teaching. Theory theory theory. The mathematical 
>> models. Ideas and concepts.
>> However, I felt that the original poster was looking for something 
>> about real-world design concepts and ideas, not the theory and math 
>> behind databases. The latter may be helpful, of course, but I'm not 
>> sure *how* helpful.
> I'm glad that for the one BYU class I had, theory was the subject - from 
> there it was easier to branch out to learning individual databases than 
> it would have been to go the other way.

I've always wondered if I'm odd in the way I learn things, but I've 
always had far more success if I start with practical applications 
before moving into theory.  When I start with theory, I don't know why I 
need to learn it, so my rebellious nature ignores it.  However, when I 
start with applications, the importance is obvious and most of the 
theory is intuitive.  Later, I fill in the gaps in my theoretical 
understanding by talking to people or reading books.

People say this approach leads to misunderstandings, which is true for a 
time, but the misunderstandings cause me to appreciate the theory and 
dedicate serious time to learning the theory.  At this point the theory 
is exciting and easy to learn.  In the process, I also learn notable 
practical exceptions to the theory, helping me see some directions the 
theory needs to expand to become more useful.  Sometimes I try to expand 
the theory.

Nearly every time I've applied this method (practice before theory) and 
subsequently taken a class on the same topic, the class was a breeze; I 
felt like I could be teaching the class.  Nearly every time I've taken a 
theory-heavy class in something I haven't learned on my own, I struggled 
a lot.

I've changed the subject of this mail thread, since this is a tangent on 
education theory rather than database theory.  I don't know much about 
education theory and the research behind it, but my personal observation 
seems to condradict prevailing wisdom about the best way to teach. 
Surely there are others like me who learn faster and better when theory 
follows practice.

I think the ideal course for rebels like me would follow a structure 
something like this: spend a week and a half learning how to create 
something difficult, then a week and a half learning the theory behind 
it that makes it easy.  Repeat three or four times.  By the end of the 
course, expect to understand both the complete theory and current 
practice.  Don't expect the theory to be easy, but expect it to be 
exciting, because its importance is clear.

I don't know of any school trying such an approach.  Schools tend to 
teach either theory (thorough, but hard and slow) or practice (fast, but 
the usefulness of the skills diminishes quickly.)  I'd be interested in 
finding a graduate school that has the vision that theory is quite 
exciting if you first learn what it's good for.


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