Why A Person Learns

SUBHEAD: “You are just another brick in the wall” (Pink Floyd!). Setting up a system that insists that every student go through a common curriculum is a formula for failure. Image above: A Waldorf School classroom in Toronto, Cananda. A education system with a holistic learning philosophy. From (http://www.torontowaldorfschool.com/home/index.php). By George Mobus on 15 August 2010 in Question Everything - (http://questioneverything.typepad.com/question_everything/2010/08/why-a-person-learns-and-what-it-means-for-education.html)

What the Hell is Wrong with Education Now?

I must admit I am deeply troubled by the continuing conversation about education that is going on in the echelons of government (No Child Left Behind), the elite corporate heads (need for higher order technical and soft skills), and the science/math cognoscenti (America is falling behind in producing scientists and engineers).

The country as a whole seems to be self-flagellating over the fact that the vast majority of students in middle and high school don't go into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (known by the acronym STEM). There is a predominant myth floating about our society that the workers of tomorrow will be knowledge workers who need to have all the advanced knowledge and skills in order for the U.S. to compete in the global marketplace (see writings of Tom Friedman - The World Is Flat). The presumption is that everyone in a modern technological society needs to be STEM-enabled or else we will fail to compete globally.

Here is a wake up call America (and other OECDs* who think the same way). Not every human being is enthralled with STEM topics. There are, in fact, so many fallacies here that I hardly know where to begin. The big one, of course, is that technology (and science/engineering, etc) advanced in a world where ever more energy flowed to support growth and development and now that is coming to an end.

Energy flow is on the way down and so the amount of wealth production that can be diverted to technical advances will soon be declining as well. The era of progress is over or soon will be so.

Of course the majority of all these so-called leaders in government, business, and education are completely blind to this reality. They are thinking about a future world that is just like the one we have now. They want to prepare for a world that is based on our long history of growth in energy availability because that is all they can imagine. Pity.

But the more subtle (and operative) fallacy is the belief that all human beings have the same capacity to learn these subjects. And by capacity I do not mean intelligence per se. I mean that they have the predisposition to find STEM subjects, well, fun. In fact this idea completely ignores the majority of personality psychology research that shows clearly that different people have different interests and tendencies from very early ages (and is largely influenced by genetic propensities).

And here is the simple truth. Only a small number of people in the population find the content of what we call science and math curricula fascinating. The reason more people don't pursue STEM fields is really very simple. They don't like them and they don't, as a consequence, learn them. Yet in spite of how simple this fact is, our brilliant STEM practitioners and civil/government leaders wring their hands wondering why our education system is failing to produce yet more practitioners.

They note how foreign countries seem to be more successful at producing more scientists and engineers and 'by golly' we should be able to do the same. Of course what they forget to consider is the vast differences in cultures, the fact that some of these so-called 'successful' countries have vastly larger populations seeking ways out of low income (motivation) and other factors that if taken into account would show that they are really no more successful than are we in the US. I have numerous students from India, and many Asian countries who do well enough in our higher education system, especially on the rote fact learning side. But I don't see much difference in their ability to practice critical thinking or meta-learning than any native US students.

In spite of this very simple fact our STEM curricula are designed as if every student has the potential to become a STEM practitioner. In other words, we assume the they all need to learn the same basic content which would prepare them to enter a STEM major and become the oh-so wanted scientists and engineers who are going to save our way of life.

We literally shove STEM down students' throats from an early age (usually getting earnest in middle school). And what is the result? Not only do we turn most (and believe me I do mean MOST) students off on the whole education process, but I suspect a damaging side effect has been that even a few students who would learn to appreciate and dedicate themselves to STEM subjects are so turned off that they turn their backs on any further pursuit beyond what is absolutely required (e.g. Biology 101 in college for a general education subject). I wager that we actually end up losing students who might end up pursuing careers in STEM simply because of the heavy-handed, fact-learning way we pursue these topics.

Actually it really isn't much different for many other humanities subjects as well. Courses are pretty universally taught on the basis of ‘here is the factual information you need, now learn it’ basis. The possible exceptions are in the fine arts! And, ironically, at the same time we are talking about how to beef up STEM education we are talking about cutting fine arts programs. Why? Well because the energy-constrained economic downturn has decimated education budgets and, well, something has to go.

How Should We Design Education

Bear something in mind as you read what follows. I am not writing for you or the current society. I suffer no more illusions that the people of minimal sapience that make up the majority of our social milieu would ever be able to grasp these arguments (you might, but I doubt that there is much more than agree with me that you could do!) I write this with the expectation that one day, after the collapse of our society (and the potential evolutionary bottleneck), those who survive and want to build a better society will grasp that we (the current society) made horrendous mistakes in the way we approached education. With a little luck this will provide some guidance. Or maybe, if my hope for high sapient survivors comes to pass, they really won't need any guidance. It seems like an exercise is futility in some ways, but humor me.

The title of this blog entry says it all. If we understood why people (from the youngest child to the oldest adult) learn anything at all, they we would understand how to design education systems to assist them achieve their own goals and motivations without shoving so-called knowledge down their throats.

There have been some extraordinary advancements in both asking the question of why people learn at all (also how they learn) in the field of psychology (see, for example: Montessori method, Constructivism for several examples). In spite of some criticisms of some of this work (like the examples), the fact is that these investigations were asking the right questions and starting the investigation of how education should be designed to match the answers (if we had them).

There is a lot we know, thanks to these and many other investigations. We know that every human is a learning machine. You cannot prevent humans from learning. Humans are naturally and generally inquisitive, curious, and motivated to gather information that ‘might’ come in handy one day. Humans are informavores.

We also know that every individual operates at their own given pace. The insistence on an age-based grade level system is ludicrous; a pure invention of the industrial revolution applied to schools (Alvin Toffler describes this phenomenon as part of the Second Wave, the ideas implicit in the industrial revolution applied to all areas of society). But, perhaps most important is that we know that different humans have vastly different interests and they are most motivated to learn the details of those subjects in life that interest them the most.

Setting up a system that insists that every student go through a common curriculum is a formula for failure. As we have experienced. There are so many different dimensions to personalities that make it literally impossible to force every type through a common pipe. Yet this is exactly what our current design of education attempts to do. It insists on conformance even as it supposedly offers so much ‘choice’ for students.

What so many educators, and more particularly education administrators and society in general, don't seem to grasp is that the early insistence on conformance systematically teaches students one thing. Don't think, even while verbally telling them that that is what they are supposed to be learning. When you force a student to take a course they are not interested in, and especially before they are ready, you have lost them. Sure they can flunk the course and take it again, but then what have you told them? That they are failures and ‘different’. You have begun the process of de-education.

What about the ‘successful’ students? The ones who make it through high school with a high GPA and go on to college, where they may continue to perform well. Well, the answer is in that word ‘perform’. All too many of these students have, in fact, learned the rules of the game and have figured out that the name of the game is perform the tricks. Find out what the teacher thinks you are supposed to know (no matter how trivial or rote), learn it, regurgitate it on an exam. They are especially successful on multiple choice, or supposedly ‘objective’ tests.

Now I must hasten to say I have had the somewhat unique (and very gratifying) experience of teaching a Global Honors class (the subject was Global Challenges) in which the majority of students were not of this ilk at all. They were genuinely intellectual beings with a continuing thirst for knowledge and a desire to actively guide their own education. We had explicit conversations about the nature of education and what they had experienced so far.

They were uniformly critical of their general educational experiences to that date (except for their other honors classes), and given my approach to pedagogy, which let them explore their interests while still being rigorous, were feeling the freedom of genuine exploration for the first time in their lives (OK, a few had had other teachers that gave them a similar treatment, but I like to think I punctuated those rare cases!)

The way I would generally characterize such students is that they had somehow survived the education system with their thirst for learning in tact! Believe me, as an educator who has long lamented the seeming lack of motivation of students to understand and not just memorize, working with this group was a cherished experience. I continue to keep in touch with some of them even today and it gives me a thrill when they question everything!

What genuinely amazes me is that the education profession does, in fact, understand this need to let students follow their own interests. We've set up so-called magnet schools that specialize in various areas (while still requiring students to go through the standard STEM-type curricula). Generally these schools are pretty successful in terms of enrollments and graduations. You would think that somebody in high places would wonder why this is, think it through, and realize this is what we should do generally.

Here is the key to a successful general education that would inspire those who naturally are inclined toward STEM subjects while not turning off everyone else (and some STEM candidates). What is the central question that every human being asks (themselves or God or...) all of their lives? Why is psychology the most favorite initial degree declaration among undergraduates? It is just stupidly simple. Every person wants to know who they are, why they are here, and how do they relate to the rest of the world. It is the fundamental nature of autonomous, conscious beings (even if they are not super sapient!) to want to sort out these kinds of questions before worrying about what an atom's valence electron cloud is.

Where and when in the modern education system do these kinds of questions get addressed? I'm not suggesting that we educators have the answers and should just give them to students. We don't. In fact, our current system indirectly answers these existential questions with the answer: “you are just another brick in the wall” (Pink Floyd!). Oh sure, it isn't explicitly given. But the whole experience of education imparts that answer along with another dictum: “don't worry about those other questions, just earn a good living so you can have lots of stuff and you will be happy.”

What we do have is the knowledge that these are the most important questions that all of us ever ask. Just acknowledging these questions early in the education process would help a great deal. The rest is about framing these questions in the context of all the knowledge that we humans have garnered over all these millennia. If you can work in the fact that a great deal of why we are here is tied up in the valence cloud of carbon atoms you will find students are a great deal more interested in chemistry! You have to connect the knowledge of all the various areas to these fundamental existential questions. You have to help students discover that the world works in a certain way and that that way is what helps explain their being here in the first place.

In the end every individual has to find their own meaning and purpose in this world. That is what they are attempting to find from the very beginning of their lives (even in the womb!) Education shouldn't be forcing answers on them, it should be providing the background knowledge that allows them to construct their own interpretation of reality and their own place in that reality. In simple terms, education should be about supporting humans to self actualize.

Human contribution to society, productivity, and all of these social attributes that we strain to produce are natural outcomes of each human being being themselves. We do not have to frantically pound them into the skulls of our children and young adults. Given the right educational environment, they will work it out themselves. They start out as seekers and their whole lives are lived on their own pathways. But along the way they do glimpse bits and pieces of the truth that give them purpose and happiness. They contribute to society by simply following their own paths. We are not meant to be bricks in a wall. But as things stand, that is exactly what we are producing under the current system. Only a minority of people manage to get through education without being molded and shoved into miserable lives that only find the illusion of happiness in a materialist existence.

I must admit that my own belief is that a curriculum based on systems science (see my series on this subject; last series in the index) but centered on the key existential questions, appropriate to the stage of development, of course, would provide a basis for allowing those students who will naturally gravitate toward STEM subjects to do so while allowing all others to follow their own paths. Done right I strongly believe that even students of the traditional humanities would be more informed in the sense that they would be prepared to deal with more technical issues (like the truth of global warming) as citizens than is currently the case.

Of course, as I said, this is for the future. For more background and links to my ideas on the University of Noesis see A Dream of Education for the Future.

* Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development members


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