That’s Hot!

The quintessential example—in fact, the utterly stereotypical example—of mechanical learning is touching a hot stove: we learn not to touch a hot stove by touching a hot stove & realizing how much we don’t like touching it.

I hate that example. Learning not to touch a hot stove doesn’t even compare to the complex living & thinking lessons I want to teach my students about analysis, evaluation, creativity, and the art of good judgment.

Not only that, but it’s cliché. It’s overused. It’s banal. A hot stove is to “learning” what a table is to “reality”: What is a table? How do we know this table exists? Do we call it a table because it contains a Platonic tableness? Or because we use it like a table? Table this. Table that. Blah, blah, blah.

Hot stove this. Hot stove that. Blah, blah, blah.

A couple of years ago my father-in-law was showing me how to change the brake pads on my car. He was meticulous about showing me the safest way to jack the car off the ground. He was adamant that I pay attention to how the brake assembly came apart so I could figure out how to put it back together again. He showed me all the little steps you go through and for every step he explained why.

But what’s the one thing I remember most from that learning experience? What’s the one thing that made the biggest impression on me as I was learning that mechanical skill? After we took the brake assembly apart I touched the brake disc while it was still hot. My finger burned as if I had touched a hot stove. And so I learned a lesson: never to touch a hot brake disc.

I guess I learned a second lesson, too: there’s a good reason why touching a hot stove is used as an example of learning.

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