Learning to Learn

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.

11 thoughts on “Learning to Learn”

  1. Simon – Are you aware of the SuperMemo Guru webpage (https://supermemo.guru/wiki/SuperMemo_Guru) ? A large part of its content is related to free learning. I immidiately thought about it when I read your article. I recommend to have a look at the content. I remember that I have read some article by the SuperMemo Guru which also argues that the school system is draining the pupils/students of their creativity. However, he is pretty excited of using the internet for free learning, as you can learn basically anything there.

  2. Secretface – interesting. That’s a pretty thorough catalogue of all the things wrong with school. I’d like to believe his idea that school will become redundant when the kids refuse to play along anymore. That doesn’t look true to me. I see a lot more blind obedience these days but I might be misremembering things.

  3. Hey! What do you have against cats?! How about: “there’s more than one way to catch a mouse.” There. Far better. 🙂

    Anyway, of course the school system serves itself and the state. Systems always serve themselves, and serving the state is a byproduct of the fact that the state pays for the system. Are there better ways to serve students? Of course there are, but the downside is that those tend to be a lot more expensive. Individual attention is great, but who’s going to pay for it? If you expect teachers to provide individualized instruction to students, then you better be willing to reduce class size (to something like 3-5 students; who’s going to pay for this?), or expect the teacher to ignore most of the class while giving individual attention to Johnny. As a compromise, you can form student groups according to interest and ability, but how do you deal with the social/political consequences of that? (“Mr. Jones, are you trying to tell me that my little Johnny is a lazy dimwit? No? So why is he in the lazy dimwit class?”)

    So, you make financial and political compromises, and you wind up with a situation in which most kids are mostly bored in school, either because what they’re studying is too easy for them, or because they’re so hopelessly behind that none of it makes any sense anyway, or because they’re forced to learn stuff they have zero interest in (mind you, some – not all – of that stuff is actually really important to learn, regardless of the student’s feelings at the time). Sometimes, the system still gives good enough results in the sense that society still somehow gets enough competent engineers, doctors, journalists, etc. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

  4. BTW, I semi-agree about math/CS (make students do it the hard way first, and then show them how to do it the easy way), but there’s a problem of essentially psychological nature in there: students will quickly figure out that you’ll show them the easy way next time and will save themselves the effort of trying the hard way. What you could do is make them do it the hard way in (say) 6th grade as a part of problem solving, and then show them the easy way in 7th grade, with a reminder of how they did it last time.

    However, this takes time. Problem solving is fantastic: nobody gets legitimately good at math without it. But it takes time and effort, and it tends not to work unless you’ve done some drill (fairly boring, sorry) beforehand to get the hang of the basic framework. If you just replace drills with problem solving (which is what some math philosophies would have you do), you can generally expect failure: most kids just won’t get it, and those who do probably won’t go about it the optimal way. If you want to do both (drill + problems), then you need more time, which means less time for something else.

    Then there’s the Eastern European style compromise: teach boring drills to everyone in school, and then do lots of problem solving with the select (talented/motivated) few in various after-school and weekend programs, and subsequently in specialized (highly selective) high schools. That produces a sufficient number of excellent mathematicians (computer scientists, engineers…), while most of the population is even less numerate than your typical Westerner.

  5. Irena – oh, no. You’ve let the cat out of the bag. I’ll use mouse metaphors next time.

    I’m not disagreeing about the practical/economic issues involved in modern schools. In fact, I think schools are a write-off and I wouldn’t even bother trying to reform them. My advice to any teenager would be do the bare minimum to get by and spend your time outside of school doing what you’re interested in. That’s the best way to learn to learn.

    In relation to the maths/CS, the best book I ever used on the subject was based around a series of problems that were interesting in themselves. That made it more intrinsically motivating for the student because they would have been curious to figure out the solution. If the student is not motivated or is only motivated to play the game of getting good grades, that style of learning is not going to work.

    So, maybe there are two types of student and two types of learning. One for students who are motivated and want to solve problems. One for students who just care about grades and need to be taught against their will. For the latter, rote learning is good enough.

  6. I guess we think about education the way we think about everything. As a purely mechanical process with clearly measurably inputs and outputs.

  7. Roland – I once worked at a company where the head of IT wanted to manage all the teams through Jira reports. In order to make that even appear to be possible, teams had to update Jira with information that everybody knew to be useless. And, of course, it never worked in the sense of producing accurate figures. But I guess from the manager’s point of view the numbers and reports gave the illusion of control.

  8. The machine metaphor never works too well. It is a useful approximation whe applied to machines. Applied to humans and their interactions it fails laughably.
    Unfortunately it seems the only template for our thinking we have left.
    I wonder if that’s par for the course in declining civilisations.

  9. Roland – I also think there’s a scale problem there. It wouldn’t have been hard for the manager to walk around to the different teams and find out the real status of the work. In doing so, he might have been told what problems the teams were having. As the manager, he would be expected to try and fix those problems. But those problems are probably not solvable, or at least not in a way that would advance his career. Similarly, a teacher could find out in more detail the needs of her 30 students, but she doesn’t have the time or resources to provide those needs. In those cases, hiding behind metrics makes sense.

  10. @Simon

    There’s definitely a scale issue. The optimal way to tutor a student is very different from the optimal way of teaching a class of 30 students. And teaching a class of 10 students is more like teaching a class of 30 students than it is like tutoring. As I see it, a major problem with school reformers of various stripes is that they’d like to make school teaching more like tutoring, but without actually reducing class size to a size that would make that sort of instruction work (again, classes would have to be absolutely tiny: 5 students may already be too many). So, you have 20-30 students (depending on the region/country), you tell teachers to “individualize” instruction, and you wind up with results that are inferior to what you would have gotten if you, you know, *hadn’t* individualized instruction.

    But anyway, school will never make you excellent at anything. (Well… Maybe if it’s a narrowly focused school that has the ability to select students who have both the talent and the motivation for the particular thing the school teaches. That’s not your local school, though.) A good school will make you good enough at things that matter. (Alas, many schools cannot even do that.) Excellence takes something extra. Your advice (“do the bare minimum [in school] to get by and spend your time outside of school doing what you’re interested in”) is pretty good advice for a particular kind of person. But keep in mind that most people are mostly interested in stuff like video games and Instagram.

  11. Irena – that’s a fair point. I remember Jordan Peterson saying how most people (or maybe he meant most young men) should be treated like beasts of burden as that’s what they need to become disciplined enough to achieve anything in life. Presumably that was the philosophy behind the rote learning/industrial style teaching methodology of the old days and that seems to have worked better than what happens now. If you’re gonna have large classes, it’s probably the best approach.

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