All kinds of chickens are coming home to roost in western societies these days. We’re seeing systemic failure in a number of different domains, one of which is the education system. The average person on the street no doubt still believes that this is all just the result of corona or the Ukraine war and everything will eventually settle back down to normal soon enough. I doubt it. But, then again, I wouldn’t mourn the loss of the school system in its current form. Like most institutions in modern society, schools primarily serve their internal purposes and the purposes of the state. The needs of the student are a secondary concern. This raises the question of what learning might look like if it was student focused. To get an understanding of this we need simply look at how we learn when we do it for ourselves rather than for others. Let me give an example of self-education from my own life.
I started learning music in my late teens. I’m not sure why I didn’t start sooner as a I had been a major music nerd from about twelve years of age and had an extensive music collection by that time. In any case, I decided to learn electric bass guitar as I had always found myself listening to the bass in music and seemed to have a penchant for styles of music with interesting bass parts. I went out and picked up a cheap bass, a small amplifier and a beginner’s bass instruction book and got to work.
One of the advantages of self-learning is that you tend to take a practical approach where you are throwing yourself in the deep end and trying to “solve problems” from day one. For a music learner, one of the problems to be solved is how to play some of your favourite songs. Another problem might be how to turn a song idea into a reality. The achievement of these goals is the standard by which you judge your progress. They also provide built-in motivation. The day you learn to play one of your favourite songs is the day you realise that you too might be able to become as good as one of your favourite players.
When you approach learning in this holistic, throw-yourself-in-the-deep-end manner, you quickly learn where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Although I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, I was already really good at rhythm when I started playing music, which was presumably why I was drawn to the bass; a rhythmic instrument. I was always able to work out new time signatures, accents and feels based on intuition alone. I got that for free.
On the other hand, I was woeful at pitch recognition and particularly melody. It was here that I had to spend the most amount of time developing my skills. The drawback of self-learning is that you often are only somewhat conscious of your weaknesses and you don’t know what’s the best way to address them. In hindsight, what I needed to do was use either a piano or guitar for pitch and melody training as trying to translate a melody down two octaves to the bass range is itself a more difficult task that only exacerbated my difficulties. I eventually figured this all out but wasted quite a lot of time before I did.
If you go to music school, they break down these kinds of skills into classes. There will be a unit on rhythm, a unit on pitch recognition, a unit on composition and so on. One of the problems with this is that your inherent strengths and weaknesses are not factored in. If you happen to be good at rhythm already, you’ll have to sit through that class bored out of your brain. Meanwhile, pitch recognition class might go too fast for you and you’ll fall behind and get demoralised. Wouldn’t it be better if you could just skip rhythm class and devote the time to pitch recognition?
It would be quite simple (although politically unfeasible) to adapt the current education system to account for this fact. One way to do it would be that you sit the final exam at the start of the semester. If you get above a certain grade, you get a credit for that class without having to show up to the lessons. If you get below a certain grade, you have to go to class and improve. Such a system would not only be better for students, it would also provide feedback on the quality of teaching. If students got an average 60% grade at the start of the semester but only a 63% at the end, it’s pretty clear the teacher isn’t doing a very good job.
But who cares about grades? These are another relic that serves the system and not the student. When you’re learning something for its own sake, you care about results, not about grades. I was learning music to be able to play music. Success was measured in terms of how well I could do that and learning abstract concepts was only helpful to the extent that it got me to that result faster.
In the real world, nobody cares about your grades either. The other members of the band don’t give a damn that you were top of your Pitch Recognition 101 class. They care that you can easily pick up a new piece of music by ear so that band rehearsals don’t take forever. In a society that cared about producing actual goods and services or just having educated people, we also wouldn’t care about grades. Clearly we are not that society.
Instead, we are a very well educated society; the most educated society ever. And while correlation is not causation, the correlation between education and societal outcomes looks to be inverse. We’re barely able to keep the power on these days, to touch on just one of the many problems confronting us. As circumstances in the world change, the highly educated are far less likely to be able to adjust their mental models to adapt. That seems to be another side effect of our education system. By contrast, if your learning was based on problem-solving from the beginning, you are by definition going to be better at solving problems and more able to adapt.
This is true even in the more abstract realms of mathematics and computer programming. You teach the student a basic conceptual framework and then give them a problem to solve within that framework. The student will have to solve it “the hard way”. Then, in the next lesson, you give them another concept which directly relates to the problem they have just solved. The student should realise that this concept lets them solve the problem quicker but now they understand the underlying conceptual domain much better because they have spent time working in it. What happens in most maths and computer programming education is that students are taught the high-level abstract concepts without any grounding in the underlying domain. When that higher level concept fails them for some reason, they cannot debug the error because they don’t have the foundation in doing it the hard way.
The other good thing about the problem-solving approach to learning is that it introduces the student to the idea of isomorphism or, to put it colloquially, the understanding that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Good engineers don’t talk about right and wrong ways to do something, only better or worse ways given a context. Bob Dylan’s pitch recognition abilities, at least in relation to his singing, are lacking but in the context of his music that’s not a problem because it’s the poetic nature of his lyrics that sets Dylan apart. Similarly, Mick Jagger is not a pitch perfect singer. But what would sound dreadful in a barbershop quartet can be chalked up to “personality” and “flair” in a loud rock band. There’s more than one way to strangle a cat (and make millions of dollars doing so).
When you take a pragmatic, practical approach to learning, you are focused on outcomes and not abstractions. Every abstraction is valuable or not to the extent that it helps you to an outcome or expands the scope of your work. This fosters an experimental approach where you tend to try something first to see if it works rather than deduce your way to the right answer. Fail fast is the mantra for this way of approaching things. You’re more likely to come up with some novel way of solving a problem where you have inadvertently relaxed some constraint that people who have learned all the rules would never try.
You also don’t lose track of the qualitative nature of the pursuit. To return to the musical example, if your goal is to make beautiful music, any new abstraction you learn on the way is evaluated according to whether it helps fulfil that goal. By contrast, our education system sets up a series of proximate goals which are only tangentially related to the thing anybody cares about. According to the concept of Goal Displacement, we would predict that those proximate goals become ends in themselves and that is exactly what happens. Everybody obsesses about grades even though in the “real world” grades are completely irrelevant. If a pilot crashes a plane, it’s no consolation to anybody that he came first in pilot class.
Thus, we get the hamster wheel of modern education. In one of my first year university classes, the professor sternly admonished several students for putting their own ideas into their essays. Your job is to learn the literature, he instructed. You can come up with your own ideas if you make it to a PhD. That’s our education system in a nutshell. For 15 years you learn nothing more than how to regurgitate abstractions. Then we tell you you’re now free to be creative and come up with your own ideas. Unsurprisingly, the creativity almost never comes.
The truth is that almost everybody that makes it through such a system has had the creativity sucked out of them by that time. That’s a big part of the reason why our society no longer produces any genuine innovations. The time the average person spends in education has been steadily advancing for decades while the levels of innovation have been steadily declining. This makes perfect sense when you look at how the system works.
To paraphrase an old Chinese saying, the best time to dismantle the education system was 50 years ago. The second best time is today.
It’s more than 50 years since Ivan Illich wrote Deschooling Society. Like many of the best ideas of the 70s, it would have been nice to put those ideas into practice in a conscious and thoughtful way. Instead, it looks like we’ll get to the same result in a more disorderly fashion. The education system is falling apart all by itself. People are going to have to go back to real learning again because we’re going to start needing to get actual results again. Those results are not going to come from the overeducated people running the show these days. They’re going to come from people who can adapt their mental models to a rapidly changing world. In other words, people who know how to learn.