Saturday, March 15, 2014

Gradual, Thorough, Incremental Learning is Obsolete

Given how I prefer to learn, as described in my previous posting (i.e. quick-and-dirty, then doubling back to fill in gaps as necessity requires), I obviously was not a happy camper in our educational system, which teaches exactly the way I hate: slowly and thoroughly. I kept finding myself alternately lulled by monotonous repetition of concepts I'd already grasped or jarred by demands that I cough up some random uninteresting fact which could just as easily have been looked up.

As with many things that bugged me as a kid, I see now that I was right! The idea of "thorough" learning is a strange and artificial concept without real world applicability. My knowledge is extremely spotty. But isn't that how the world works? We're not four billion microcosms of human knowledge, we're each specialists with a unique bundle of know-how and experience.

Of course, I wouldn't propose we go full-out Aspergers and encourage complete vapidity in all but one's favored realms. Children should be familiarized with a broad range of knowledge, but it's all about how they're asked to do it. There's no question that one can go further by learning playfully and filling in ex post facto than by trudging toward some apocryphal ideal of Complete Knowledge. Kids are born knowing how best to learn (i.e. via play), and teachers are taught to rewire that natural mechanism; to strip away the jubilant curiosity and impose a more formal, dry, adult style of learning. Decades of psychological proof that adults are extremely poor at learning has done nothing to shake the assumption that children need to be forced to learn in a grown-up manner.

This incredibly stupid and counterproductive philosophy of education is a product of the Victorian era. It's designed to produce uptight, starchy, blinkered little Victorians. But we're living in a completely different era. As I wrote a few months ago,
The Victorian era revered scholarship. Work having become grindingly inhuman, erudition became the ne plus ultra for humanity. Educators drilled facts into students, and the most respected scholars were walking encyclopedias of their subjects. Nowadays, with everyone carrying supercomputers in their pockets, it seems silly to locally store in one's brain data that can be instantly looked up. Walking encyclopedias now strike us as eerily inhuman; more akin to hard drives than people.
In this century, the critical intellectual faculty will be insight, not knowledge. Insight is what computers will never have - and what most people, having been educated to think algorithmically, lack, as well. Insight will flourish when kids are allowed to be kids...and when adults finally adopt for themselves a more child-like way of learning. Adult-style learning is responsible for adults' inability to learn!

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