The importance of learning how to learn

Today I interviewed a friend of mine, Denny, who has been a Radio Ham since 1986. The purpose of the interview was to build up some material for a talk that I am designing to be given to secondary schools about technology and mobile phones.

I was looking for some material to insert into the early part of an hour-long talk that I am designing for schools. The talk is about the technology that makes mobile phones work, and at this particular point in the talk I want to highlight the importance of infrastructure. So I interviewed Denny who is a Radio Ham to get a bit of a perspective on how big an aerial you need, how much power you need to transmit with, and how far you can get. The hope is to contrast this against the very low power requirements of a mobile phone, and therefore explain the need for infrastructure – base stations, networks, databases, and other technology that makes a global network possible.

Always learning

Denny is a really interesting character, and has had many “lifes” as a professional musician, ┬áhe worked on the buses for many years as inspector, and in later life he took up computing and amateur radio when he retired in order to keep his mind active. He is now in his mid 80′s but still has a very active mind and is always interested in learning new things.

Denny’s Rig

Denny has a 2M 100W rig, with some very large aerials on the roof. With this rig, he can cover most of the country either directly or via repeaters. He also has a HF setup, and with this he has “worked” much of the world, Portugal, Spain, and even America.

Here is a picture of the very large aerial on his roof:

The point of taking a picture of a very large aerial, and understanding that you need a rig with 100W of transmit power, is to contrast this with the very low power requirements of a mobile phone, that has to run off of a tiny battery for nearly 5 days, and yet can communicate with anyone in the world. For this, you need infrastructure.


To use an amateur radio rig, you need a license. You can’t just transmit at 100W without interfering with nearby equipment – you need to know what you are doing. There is much technical detail in the manuals that accompany the training course to become a Radio Ham:

A lot of the theory you learn is about circuit design, aerials, propagation, radio design and use. There is a lot to learn and a lot of it is very detailed. The GSM mobile network is truly a wonderful thing – to enable billions of people on the planet to communicate with each other wherever they are, without having to take any training course at all and without having to pass an exam or have a license.


Another thing that struck me about being a Radio Ham is that you have to understand a lot of protocols – rules for how you operate the radio, how you make calls, how you hand over to the other person, how you invite people to the party, and how you conduct yourself. A lot of this is defined in “Q” codes.

Protocols are wonderful things, just like the rules associated with traffic lights on the road system, a protocol gives great benefits if everyone follows it. Without them, you have chaos. It is in everyone’s benefit to follow protocols. The GSM mobile network encapsulates all of the necessary protocols in software, so all you as a user have to do is dial a number, and talk.

So, on to the talk

There are many interesting things I learnt today about how a licensed radio operator has to conduct themselves on the airwaves, and it is going to be interesting to edit this all into a section of the talk that compares and contrasts a system of operation that requires a license, that requires a training course and an exam to use it, that requires 100W of power, and a huge aerial on your roof, many complex protocols on how to use it.

Compare this against a device that is small enough to sit in your pocket, runs off a battery that lasts 5 days, can make a high quality call to anyone in the world, wherever they are, providing they are near a base station (the infrastructure), and even children are allowed to use this wonderful system without taking a training course first.

The power of learning new things

With my work I am doing with STEM engagement in schools, I realised that although there are many years between Denny and some of the kids that I will be talking to, Denny in fact sets a very good example. If someone at 86 can still be very inquisitive and always willing to learn new things, then it shows how the desire to learn and always question how things around you work, can keep your mind very active. Denny has clearly learnt that one of the most valuable things in the world, is the ability to learn new things.

I came to a bit of a conclusion from this, that if there is one thing that kids should learn from school, it should be how to learn. If you can teach children how to learn new things, then they are set up for life – anything they need to learn to get a job done, they can learn when they need to. Knowledge, skills, and understanding come from that ability to always learn new things.

I am slightly saddened at the thought that it took me until I was nearly 22 to realise how important learning is – and it was at the end of my first year of my degree course where I had 7 huge folders of revision to do, that I thought “there must be a better way”. By the time I got to my final year, I had learnt how to learn, and I was taking revision notes of 1 page per lesson while the lesson was going on. I had a single thin folder of pre-rolled revision notes at the end of the year. I had learnt the most important skill in the world – how to learn.

If only I had learnt this skill more carefully when I was at school?


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