More thoughts on education

A couple of months ago I posted about education, and I’ve been thinking of it more and more. The seeds of my misgivings go back to early grade school, but I didn’t start to really form ideas of my own until I started having science discussions on Facebook a few years ago that turned political, first with those on the right (basic evolutionary theory and climate science) and then with those on the left (sociobiology and GMOs). Something seems wrong with education in the US, as I mentioned in my recent screed on philosophy of knowledge, and the fact that science gets so easily and stubbornly politicized is a symptom, especially when professors spout nonsense like “Every categorical statement is political.”
Today I had a couple of good discussions on education with longtime friends, one a former high school teacher and the other college professor. I’ve recently become more interested in education because on the one hand I see it implicated in the dismal US response to the covid pandemic and on the other I’m fumbling my way along trying to improve my approach to teaching high school students computer programming.
This should probably be a couple of threads, but I’ll be lazy and mash topics up here, with the goals of getting ideas about how I might better teach and having you examine a few ideas I’ve recently gotten.
I have a hypothesis that the educational model we’ve adopted out of the industrial revolution has a serious sociobiological mismatch problem. We evolved our basic cognitive biases in small tribes of no more than, and usually significantly smaller than, Dunbar’s number, of 150 people, where we would necessarily find a useful place or risk expulsion. We evolved to jockey and find the best position to attain personal status among our tribal fellows, some of us by physical feats, others by diplomacy or what passed for scholarship. Standard classroom-lecture education favors a minority of students who learn to gain status through mental exercise and capitulation to an instructor. This used to be balanced by a fairly anarchic peer-group culture, where bullies would teach studious kids their place among their peer group. Maybe this is a foreign experience to students who grew up in the past few decades. It was common up through the eighties. By the time they reached the middle of high school, kids in my generation had sorted themselves by general strategies for gaining status with a minority of high academic achievers, a comparably small minority of antisocial students, and a majority with mobility between, conversant more or less with both their peer group and authority. The culture of school and the strategies students hit on to get through it translates into their relative esteem for education and institutional authority later on, whether it’s rational and best suits their interests or not.
So how could it be different? I was struggling to articulate an idea about how students largely aren’t taught to think creatively. Maybe they could be taught as if various hypothetical futures had already arrived. Maybe the class pretends that we live in a future of humanoid robots, advanced VR, and spaceship travel and we discuss the present technologies and how they evolved from earlier technologies. My idea was to give the students a sense of their coming place in the exciting future they’ll help build. But my professor friend had another idea, one he’s already implemented in his classes: discuss the plow. What did this invention do for humanity? How did it lead to agriculture and from there to settled societies, an abundance of food, and to job specialization that multiplied general wealth and opportunity? The plow is an important component of all those things, but is it key? What about language and the cooperation made possible by religions? Why ask the students to think about the plow?
The plow makes a good seed crystal for aligning facts into into branching patterns, to articulating data into information and information into knowledge… so long as the student is encouraged to think creatively. A conformist educational model would set up only one static version of the plow story, as settled knowledge. “Wow, I never realized the plow was the answer to everything!” It’s not, of course, neither is it the answer to everything nor is it education if it leaves out the student’s imaginative contributions: properly, they might next be asked to go on and center fire or animal husbandry (the plow’s better with the horse!) to learn how to articulate knowledge.

Students good at rote memorization along with their own idiosyncratic, usually unexamined, gift for self-storytelling are rewarded with positive feedback by a teacher who has to invest attention carefully.  “Hmm, let’s pick a student at random, Superintendent Chalmers. Can you answer the question, Lisa Simpson?” Those students who thrive on the predigested stories learn more what and not how to learn, and while they master some information, they must overcome the anti-education of a standard curriculum that’s more about keeping them in line. 

(Here’s where I make my customary plug for Dungeons & Dragons as an exercise that subverted the school model. Kids formed alliances in learning despite a school context driving them apart. Well, somewhat. D&D was often a nerd call sign, but not always. It offered peer connection and escape from grim reality for a lot of poor kids who didn’t get their identity from academic performance. And it brought kids of different racial groups together, too.)

So one assumption I have is that creativity is under-served in our schools, because of evolutionary mismatch, and in a lot of cases, The Lord of the Flies scenario might produce better outcomes.

Note how convenient the caste filter of modern education is to a ruling elite who can afford private schools and one-on-one tuition for their students. I’m reminded of the lyrics from the Rush song “Losing It”: “Some are born to move the world — / To live their fantasies,  / But most of us just dream about / The things we’d like to be.” This is not some conspiracy, I think. It just works out well that the resentments and shallow strategies most of us adopt for relevance in our school tribes happens to favor those above the fray, those really able to move the world. Marxists like to point out how identity politics serves this function, pitting poor blacks and whites against each other, focused on the crumbs spilled from the master’s table. The framing still works if we consider identity to include those who thrive in public education and those who don’t, regardless of their economic condition.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t proposed a solution here. Ideally, all kids would have the resources of the rich ones: with private tutors, good computers, stable homes, and scheduled, reliable study hours. I don’t have answers about how to best teach students, only ideas about what the problems are. Maybe sophisticated cooperation games in VR will help address the situation: where kids have to learn to develop skills in which they have less aptitude: the class clown needs to focus; the bully to negotiate peace; the scholar to fall back on his or her own authority rather than the approval of the teacher.

So 1) recognize that the classroom is a poor substitute for the tribe, is one idea.

Next, I was thinking about of our approach to education and career development as a bus you get on or you miss. A better metaphor would view educational goals as a mountain. You want to be a musician, or novelist, or software engineer? You have to move a mountain of information from general property to your own mental space, scoop by scoop, through study and practice. This may be daunting, but with this perspective, you always have the opportunity of returning to the work; and your old work is still done. I learned a little Spanish in high school, a little in college, a little reading books and Quora articles, a little on Duolingo, over four decades. Most people I know drop a foreign language after high school. Yes, your skills slip, you forget things, but it’s very easy to dwell on that. Often, they’re really still there, a foundation you can build on. The same goes for exercise as cognitive skill. I gave up heavy weightlifting in my twenties and then picked it up again in my thirties. I had old muscle memory that came back. By forty, I was stronger than I’d ever been in my life.

Why do we insist on getting one career-training bus and get off it before the age of thirty instead of moving multiple mountains throughout our lives, all at different rates, as our enthusiasm for each moves us? The total volume of knowledge moved will ultimately be greater, and we’ll be more mentally flexible.

And finally why don’t we use computers to create and tailor curricula for us? I’ve wondered this for a long time. Why don’t we have an application that builds us curricula of YouTube and other online training resources that have been proven by various performance metrics to best teach people with our goals and our learning styles (both established through test assessment)? What videos helped the most people get As in calculus, and why don’t we all know what they are? This is something that can and should be done!