I have been musing for the past few years about the value of noise in learning. I don't mean loud volume, but rather noise in the system - the random fluctuations that are not considered part of the desired, useful information signal. Noise is distraction. Noise is time away from task. Noise is surfing the Internet. Noise is taking a bath.
Archimedes' famous story of bathtub is a great example of noise in the system. Archimedes was tasked with finding if a gold crown was indeed pure gold. He know the mass of the crown, but that wasn't enough data. He wanted to know the density in order to know if gold ad been swapped out.
Archimedes was thinking on this problem while he was getting ready to bathe. He placed himself in the tub and an amount of water flowed out over the rim. Archimedes realized that this volume of water was the same as his own volume and he could apply the submersion principle to finding the volume of irregular objects such as crowns.
As the story goes, Archimedes then screamed out "Eureka", and ran naked through the city to go tell the king. This part has no relevance to noise and learning, but I think that all good science anecdotes should end in streaking.
So, Archimedes' found a solution in the bathtub. Other stories abound of people realizing a solution to a problem while taking the dog for a walk, or playing with their kids. Taking a step back from a problem helps with the learning. But why?
I may not know why, but I have an idea about how. Noise in the system is a new experience, which provides new opportunities for analogical learning. The power of analogical learning lies in finding connections between two contexts or concepts. That connection can provide insight into similarities or differences. In both cases, the noise provides a new way to look at an issue, and even if it does not a fruitful comparison, it has made the learner examine a concept more thoroughly. so it has its inherent benefit.
My musing about noise is in response to people calling for education to be more efficient. I'm pretty sure that efficiency in education is a wrong headed idea. I think that good education, effective education, is harmed by valuing efficiency. Education is design for learning, and learning requires reflection, it requires a pace that relents and accelerates, it is essentially inefficient. There is noise in the system of learning, and that noise makes it stronger.