Let’s Rethink Learning

Writers BlockI guess I could call myself smart. I can usually get good grades. Sometimes, I worry that I am just a tape recorder…I worry that once I’m out of college  and people don’t keep handing me information with questions in another job, I’ll be lost.  – Person A

The things I’m scared of is, say I got fired, I’ve got nothing, nothing to help me get another job..I’ve got no other skill.  – Person B

These were the exact words of two youngsters among others who answered to my inquiries with them and I wouldn’t like to take the names of these two people: one who is pondering over leaving his current job, and the other who is about to graduate from college which says not only a lot about themselves but also about the sad state of education in India.

There are 2 good reasons for reconfiguring 21st century education: economic and personal. The well-rehearsed economic argument says that knowledge is changing so fast that we cannot give young people what they will need to know, because we do not know what it will be. Instead, we should be helping them develop supple minds, so that they will be able to learn whatever they will need  to. If we can achieve that, we will have a world class workforce comprising people who are innovative and resourceful.

My personal argument converges on the same conclusion. Many young people are floundering in the face of all the complexities and uncertainties of modern life: the relatively successful children of the middle class, like Person B, as much as the more conspicuous, traditional failures of the education system such as Person B. Person A sees himself as ready for a life of tests, but not the tests of life. Person B doesn’t even believe that he has it in him to master a new skill. Now people like Person B are labelled the “losers of the system. These are the people for whom the system isn’t working!

They differ greatly in how ‘literate’ and ‘numerate’, but Person A & B are both, in their different ways different! They think that school hasn’t only failed to give them what they need; it has actually compounded the problem, and they are right again. Many young people live in a Matrix world in which there is often no consensual ‘reality’, no agreement about what to do when they don’t know what to do. Their public culture of ‘cool’ is, in part, a reaction to their sense of inadequacy and a sense of extreme insecurity in the face of real difficulty. Young people want more real-life gumption, initiative, just as their prospective employers and anxious governments do. More fundamental even than the concern with literacy is the need to protect and develop young people’s ‘learn-ability’ (A word that I’m throwing around). That the need is personal and social, even more, than it is economic.

Government reforms have tinkered with existing provisions and structures in dozens of ways: the timetable, the curriculum, the methods of assessment and so on. Such tinkering has been going on for a long time, and it hasn’t addressed the hole in the heart of education which is leading young people to make statements like the ones mentioned above and these are a result of what they are experiencing so keenly. However, recent progress in the human sciences is beginning to fire people’s imagination with new possibilities. Science cannot tell a society what its schools should be aiming to achieve, but it can suggest new avenues of thought. One of these is that its actually possible to help young people become better learners – not just in the sense of getting better degrees, but in real-life terms. One contributory line of thought comes from cognitive science, one from neuroscience, and one from a Russian psychologist Lev Zygotsky. Let me address the first two as the last one has been addressed before here.

P.S. There is another worldview / model that I’ll present in the coming months which is a hush hush secret for now!

In cognitive science, a revolution has taken place in the way we think of ‘intelligence’. For a while, people believed that it was a blob of mental resource that God or your genes gave you when you were born; that it didn’t change much over the course of one’s life; that if followed you around from place to place and didn’t vary with the situation; that it’s main effect was to set a ceiling on what you could achieve; that when you struggled or failed, that was evidence that you had got to the limit of your ‘ability’; and that you could make a reliable measure of the size of someone’s reservoir of intelligence by asking them to solve abstract puzzles under intense pressure. We now know that this model is scientifically vulnerable, factually incorrect, and educationally insidious. It is vulnerable because, you cannot separate ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’  in that way. Its incorrect because intelligence varies enormously across time and place, and IQ bears no relation to being real-life smart.

Its dangerous because it leads people to feel ashamed (rather than challenged) when they find things difficult, and therefore it undermines their ambition and determination. Here is a wonderful online service that I have been following for the last one year and now it’s available for people. They can create their own memory banks online and for free! It’s called Cerego. Check out their awesome learning platform here.

In fact, there is enormous room for everyone to get smarter by developing their ‘learn-ability’. Even if there were some hypothetical limit on my ability, in practice I am nowhere near it. True, I am never going to be as fit and strong as Micheal Phelps, nor as fast and tough as Usain Bolt, but that doesn’t mean that it is therefore a waste of time of me hitting the gym. And when I don’t go, the whole point is to get sweaty and find it ‘hard’. Pushing myself needn’t mean ‘I’m hopelessly unfit – and that’s that: it just shows that I’m in the process of getting fitter.

Lauren Resnick, the doyenne of educational psychologists in the US, now defines intelligence as ‘the sum total of your habits in mind.’ And habits grow, change, and can be broken.”

This work is also showing that growing more intelligent isn’t just a matter of learning a few techniques, or even mastering some new skills like ‘critical thinking’. Its as much to do with attributes, beliefs, emotional tolerances and values. And these change more slowly. You can’t change someone’s interest in learning overnight. But schools and classrooms have systematic, cumulative, influence. For example when teachers change their way of talking with their students about learning, those students’ attitudes change, in turn, within a term (and by the way, their results go up). To get a deeper insight into this, I’d highly recommend Parker Palmer’s book – The Courage To Teach & The Heart of A Teacher.

The second discipline is neuroscience. One has to tread carefully here, for a great deal of B.S is being talked about the implications of brain science for education. It isn’t true that playing your baby Mozart will make him/her smarter, nor that your child’s brain will dry up if your kid isn’t drip-fed water from a fancy bottle, though some people will try to tell you otherwise. What is important is the understanding that the brain is built to distil the world’s hidden regularities into practical expertise, fueled only by interest and attention. It does so continually, without any supervision, either internal or external, and often in the absence of any conscious comprehension of what is going on. Indeed, the effort to seek or maintain conscious comprehension can get in the way of this brilliant ‘natural learning ability’. Something I learnt myself and have seen it in action from another one of my sources. His name is Jinan and he runs a natural learning initiative around India and blogs about it. Check out his radical insights here.

Thinking too much can decrease your intelligence. Being explicit and strategic are not always the smartest ways to learn, and people who become too addicted to conscious clarity undermine their creativity. We are discovering that, during early life, this natural learning ability, placed in an adequate setting, develops itself by discovering and exploiting a range of ‘learning amplifiers’. There are many cells in the human brain – the ‘mirror neurons’ – that automatically get ready to initiate an action that they have just seen someone else do: so many, that it begins to look as if we are hard-wired to pick up the habits of those around us.

As the brain builds up a stock of mental models of different people, so we become able to ‘put ourselves in others shoes’ which is another ability that is activated only after the age of 7, and lets us explore different scenarios. We can sometimes benefit from turning down the ego control, and become quietly receptive to the internal pattern-seeking and metaphor making that is latent in the brain’s modulus operandi, and this intuitive receptivity, if we cultivate it, becomes central to creativity. And, with language, we develop a whole new toolkit of ways of thinking and learning.

Each of these ways of learning –

  • through Experiential Learning
  • through Imitation
  • through Imagination
  • through Intuition
  • through the Intellect

We never grow out of the need for any of them, nor do we ever cease being able to refine and develop their power further.

Yet education has tended to treat intellectual learning as the tops, and to neglect the continuing development of others!! If a teacher never lets her students see her being a learner, but only a ‘know-er’, s/he is depriving them of the vital experience which their brains are built to pickup, and to turn into more effective ways of learning for themselves. Helping young people, become better learners means daring to give up the old-fashioned belief that a teacher’s top professional responsibility is to be omniscient.

There are, in short, many lines of educational exploration that are being opened up by the new learning sciences. Already dozens of practical methods for building young people’s ‘learning power’ have been devised, and ingenious teachers throughout the world are developing more by the day. Some of these are quite unusual or challenging, while others add depth and coherence to more familiar aspects of ‘good teaching’. Many more questions have been raised that we are yet to solve – but that, or course, is the essence of learning.

  1. What kinds of topics are best for developing different kinds of learning muscles?
  2. How are minds stretched differently by hard and soft sciences?
  3. How is resilience, say, different for a 4 and 15 year old?
  4. How widely do people vary as learners, and can we help them import their best learning habits from sports or the dance class into school and the other way round as well?
  5. What ways of organizing schools will be the most successful for both developing learn-ability and mastering important bodies of knowledge at the right age and facilitated by the right person with a correct understanding of the child?

As I say, we do not yet have the answers to all these questions. The realization that learning is learnable, and that learning is a much more complex and variegated process than schooling has traditionally assumed, will underpin innovation and changes in the field of educational research going ahead. Stay tuned to my further posts in the coming months, I’m working on something crazy along with my mentor and friend Glen to address this issue.

P.S. (If it’s knowledge you want, it’s usually easier now to get it from the Internet, anyway.)