Learning history: school vs. self-directed learning

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Do schools correct ignorance?

I hear this skeptical question quite often: What are the chances that self-directed learning will lead a student to a good coverage of areas of knowledge that would ensure a person's harmonious and healthy position in society?

This concern is understandable and universal. We all need to know that we need to wash our hands after leaving a public toilet. We need to know the dangers of environmental pollution and climate change. We need to understand basic rules of law and democracy. However, we also need to be aware that uniform thinking stifles creative breakthroughs.

Nearly everyone knows Donald Trump. Very few people know Donald Trump from school. Trump, God, or Hitler are themes that one cannot escape in modern world. It is hardly possible to focus on one's passions and miss on those tidbits of information from modern world.

At the same time, majority of people believe that colds are caused by cold. Half of Americans do not believe in biological evolution. No amount of schooling seems to be able to prevent harmful myths from spreading.

Knowledge spreads along the rules of memetics. True messages usually propagate better, but false messages have their own means of transmission. The best tool against myths and fake news is knowledge.

Throughout this article I try to show that self-directed learning powered by learn drive provides the fastest avenue towards rock-solid long-term reliable knowledge. If we try to micro-manage the direction of learning, we only slow down progress and increase chances of encroachments from fake knowledge.

In addition to arguments from science, and a couple of metaphors, I would like to illustrate my reasoning with a personal story. Here I illustrate how my own learning of history was suppressed by schooling and revived by freedom to learn without compulsion.

How I started liking history

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I wrote about my hail mary pass in Polish literature and my self-directed mini-venture into that realm with Quo Vadis. Here I would like to write a few words about my ignorance of human history. In one of my conversations, I heard from a retired teacher: "Self-directed learning is dangerous. The kid may opt to focus entirely on biology and never get any understanding of history. This is unbalanced knowledge. It is the school system that needs to come to help". This struck me powerfully. The teacher hit the nail on the head. She spoke about me! In my high school, apart from my interests in boxing and music, I was focused entirely on biology with a special interest in biochemistry. My interest in history was exactly zero. The only problem was that the school did not act as a corrector. My knowledge of history was as negligible as my interests. The school did not help. Not a bit.

I learned no history at school

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I have no recall of learning history in the primary school with just two exceptions. When I was eleven, in September 1973, I had my first class in history with a reticent unsmiling older lady teacher. She asked us to read a chapter in a book and focused her attention on her own things, which looked to me like reading press. The first chapter in the book was pretty interesting. It was all about early humans and their hunt for mammoths. After a couple of minutes, the teacher asked "Anybody finished reading? Who wants to get a good grade?". I raised my hand. I told her the story of mammoths and she praised me: "That's an A for you!". However, she forgot to bring the book with grades. "Next time I will record it". At the start of the next class, I told the lady she promised me an A. She was incredulous! Perhaps my looks or attitude did not match an A student? She refused! I was speechless! How could she have forgotten my stellar performance? I was done with history for the rest of the primary school! Really! When the older lady died of a heart attack a few weeks later, I was cruel. I did not shed a tear. I even thought this might be some sort of karma. Some kids have no heart!

At the end of the 8th grade, we used to have some memory contests with my friend Waldek. This led to a resolution: let's memorize 100 historical dates for the final test. I am not sure who won that contest, but this might be one of my first ventures into the area of memory. I recall that those early attempts illustrated to me clearly the following:

Memorization is easy. The hard part is to retain knowledge for years.

In other words, great feats of short-term memory are of little significance if they are not backed up by solid long-term memory.

Whatever, I learned about history in the primary school would quickly get forgotten. This was a futile process of "knowledge in one ear, knowledge out the other". My knowledge of history after the primary school was nearly zero. I might recall some incoherent snippets of facts from movies. The only piece of history I studied with interest at that time was the life of Muhammad Ali, the king of boxing. Kids with passions are ready for learning. Primary school did not spark any passions in reference to history. It was an accidental viewing of The Rumble in the Jungle that made an impact.

In high school, we had a lovely teacher of history. The lady would focus her class on telling interesting stories from the past. She had solid skills in keeping kids interested. I was usually busy with my own stuff during her class, but I would listen on a rare occasion. The problem was that the stories never built into any context. I recall them as "a husband king was not too nice for his queen wife many many years ago". I am not sure when exactly. What role the king played in the history of his nation? I might have heard a dozen children stories or fairy tales about kings and queen and never build any knowledge of history as a result. I loved our teacher in history mostly for one final episode in high school. Before final exams, she told me: "You have done nothing this year. You do not have a single passing grade. No documented homework. I need to test your knowledge in front of the class. Please come and be ready next week". I was indeed tested in a week. However, my total preparation and reading time was zero. I was not able to answer any questions in reference to the political life in Poland in between world wars. I recall desperate attempts of help from my classmates trying to give me hints of answers. I could not put them into any coherent sentence. My good hearted teacher concluded that she would not want to stand on my way to final exams and possibly the university. I have no way of knowing if my reputation as "quite intelligent" or perhaps "strong interest in biology" helped. Some of my "school indoctrinated" colleagues were outraged with the attitude of the teacher. I praise her to the moon. Why stand in the way of kid's growth and passion? For the sake of grade justice? To enforce conformist attitudes. The Berlin Wall would have never collapsed with that communist conformity.

I left high school with no demonstrable knowledge of history. All I could know at that time were a few facts from World War II, which was abundantly depicted in Polish movies up to that time, and some details from Polish post-war history, abundantly distorted by communist propaganda that I soaked in eagerly from Polish TV.

Self-directed acceleration

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
One of my most preposterous conclusions coming from my knowledge of post-war history of Europe was my prediction on the emergence of the great, happy and prosperous European Union!

No. Not that Brexit-tormented European Union of today. This was the European Union of Socialist States with the integrated Soviet Union motherland. Stretching from the Atlantic east towards Kamchatka. My "knowledge" of history told me, this path was inevitable. People will want to unite and live in harmony. It would be the good forces of communism radiating from the east that would help that unification. That was the year 1980. I was 18 years old. I blame that error of judgment on two primary areas of ignorance: (1) ignorance of English and (2) ignorance of history. Did school make a correction? No! Could I have corrected that gap with self-directed learning? I am not sure. I can only hypothesize. These are my musings on what could have been:

My life in high school days would split into two distinctive modes:

  • school year: always sleepy, always tired, never energetic enough to expand my knowledge, even in my favorite subject of biochemistry. It seems my brain would easily handle "easy" interests in sports or in music. With early waking and all mental energy drained by the school, exercise, or playing instruments were the kind of activities that would easily absorb my entire focus
  • vacation: able to sleep till 10 am, I was eager to learn new things and hungry for new knowledge. I would devour biochemistry books. Make notes. I even had a plan to learn history at some point. This was during my first vacation in high school. This plan never came to fruition. However, the vacation was always a great energizer. It always reignited my natural hunger for knowledge. High school effectively quashed my interested in history. I never came back to my original plan from the first vacation

Would I have corrected my ignorance if all my life was run in "vacation mode"? I cannot be sure. However, the whole learning and development process in "vacation mode" would proceed much faster. I bet, 80% of my biochemistry knowledge I gained during summer time. In other words, a nice Pareto principle fit: 80% of knowledge gained in 20% of the time. This is just a wild guess taken decades later. Is the number stunning? If not, consider that it would indicate 16x better learning speed in conditions of freedom (four-fold increase in volume in a quarter of time). Yes. 1600%. The number does not surprise me at all. It was all about mental energy and passion. School was easily draining it all from me. Could my whole development be accelerated 16 times by just not sending me to school? The number looks steep and I am not sure it would apply to everyone. I see few kids spending their free time on learning (other than some web surfing with no specific educational goals in mind). However, few kids are truly free from the impact of schooling, authoritarian parenting, peers, etc. I cannot discount the impact of some of my personality traits, freedom at home, or the early influence of my brother who tried to explain some science to me.

When I entered Adam Mickiewicz University of Poznan, my formal schooling in history ended. There was no sign that my ignorance would ever get corrected. Over the next 5 years, I would meander between my interest in music, philosophy, and biology. My knowledge of history remained negligible. There were two major advantages of that period though: (1) I was forced to become interested in learning English and (2) I started working with SuperMemo (on paper). It was SuperMemo that marked my slow, gradual, but relentless progress into acquiring knowledge. In the end, that process contributed to my growing interest in history as well.

History can be interesting

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
My first venture into "history" with a degree of interest came with reading about the "history of computing". For the first time ever, in 1985, aged 23, I was curious about specific steps in scientific and technological progress, and their timing: Babbage, ENIAC, Mark I, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, etc. When I first started using SuperMemo in MS DOS (1987, aged 25), questions about history of computing were my first self-directed steps into the area of history. This process of growing interest was very slow at first. Some acceleration came from better access to well-organized sources of knowledge. The true breakthrough was my purchase of an encyclopedia on CD-ROM in 1994 (aged 32)
Software toolworks grolier encyclopedia.jpg

Figure: Software Toolworks, Grolier Encyclopedia

Suddenly, I had easy access to knowledge, and found it immensely interesting to read about the lives of great philosophers or scientists. With interesting titbits stored in SuperMemo, I could now build a coherent picture of the past and it all seemed more and more interesting with each deeper insight and each new piece of knowledge stored in SuperMemo. Soon I became interested in general history of science and then the history of civilizations.

As for queens and kings, they would be of interest only if they had impact that changed the course of human history. All the boring details from the history class were still boring if dished out as a stream of facts. Watching a movie with a dramatic plot rooted in a particular period of time would always be interesting. I watched more and more movies. Mostly to learn English.

The key to growing interest: SuperMemo

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
With all my knowledge stored in SuperMemo, I can now track this whole progress back in time. All individual questions and answers. Item after item. The evolution of interest. From big picture to detail. From death toll of wars to their impact on the course of history, to individual battles, and leaders, and strategies. From rough outlines to specific dates. In SuperMemo, I can track all explosions of interest to their association with events of the day. When Sierra Leone dropped to the bottom of per capita income on the world list, I wanted to know why. This sucked me in into details of their civil war, independence, and then the story of Liberia, diamond trade, and so on. When I watched the blood curdling documentary Cry Freetown by Sorious Samura in 2000, Sierra Leone seemed like the most interesting country in the world. It might not have been had I not had all necessary context and the knowledge solidified with SuperMemo.

Those chains of interest are natural, they will wax and wane, and only SuperMemo keeps them all live in memory thus helping further expansion of the branches of knowledge. The opposite process of shriveling and death occurs in bland life with little learning, and may even be accelerated by compulsory schooling.

My interest in history revived and there was even a breakthrough in the area of queens and kings. Memorizing the succession of monarchs and dates is always boring. However, when I got down to watching 17 episodes of David Starkey's "Monarchy" on History Channel, even those succession details started being meaningful and interesting. I started delving into details that would never get my attention before. I am now probably at top 5% percentile when it comes to knowing or understanding history. I would still fail my primary and secondary school tests though. The thing is that we were all taught the succession of Polish monarchs, while "Monarchy" spoke of the history of England and the British Empire. My use of English in SuperMemo makes memetics drive my knowledge in the direction of world history, which is heavily biased by American and British perspectives.

Growth of my knowledge of history

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I made a quick estimate of my knowledge of history throughout the years. This job was pretty easy. Most of my knowledge has been gained with the help of SuperMemo. I have exact data for all history-related items. My knowledge before using SuperMemo was negligible and hardly registers in the graph. I tested Rafael and Tanya on their knowledge of history and believe that their ignorance is a good approximation of my own knowledge of history in the year 1980 (i.e. at the end of high school). This is the progression of my knowledge of history:
Piotr wozniak knowledge of history (in items).jpg

Figure: My knowledge of history (in SuperMemo items) over the years.

  1. K-12 school years 1968-1980: I had negligible knowledge of history. There was a negligible contribution from schooling despite a great deal of tests. Forgetting would ravage that knowledge back to low level. I might have arrived at the equivalent of 150-400 long-interval items at the end of that K-12 period. This might have been an equivalent of 20-50 items per year
  2. my knowledge of history would not change much during the first 5 years of college, hovering at around a few hundred items until 1985 (aged 23)
  3. after 1985, I finally showed some interest in the wider world when contemplating a career in science
  4. first major acceleration occurred with SuperMemo in 1987 (aged 25). This started a postive feedback loop between knowledge and interests. Despite having no classes in history, the speed might have increased to 70-120 items per year
  5. I might have passed a shameful 1000 history items in SuperMemo around the year 2000 (aged 38). At this low level, there is always a significant proportion of knowledge retained from news, documentaries, press, work, etc. Only a small proportion of those would count in the "stable knowledge" set
  6. second acceleration occurred with incremental reading, which provided for an almost linear growth in knowledge. The speed of learning shot up to some 800-1000 items/year, i.e. far more knowledge annually than the total I learned during my 12 years of formal schooling. Further increase in the speed of learning is unlikely due to (1) the limits on time and (2) competition with other areas of interest. Some of the acceleration came with lower retention as compared with classical SuperMemo
  7. today my knowledge of history keeps increasing at a slow but steady rate of 2-3 items per day. The speed is determined by interests and the available time. The increase is governed by incremental learning and has not changed much in the last decade

Only my knowledge after 1987 can be estimated accurately. This was the time I started collecting it in SuperMemo. For earlier years, my estimates do not matter that much as they hardly register on the graph. I really knew very little. Rafael (below) and Tanya provide a good benchmark.

In summary, schooling again proved worthless. SuperMemo would help. However, in the end, only incremental learning ensured regular progress in gaining knowledge of history.

Schooling proved 16-50 times less efficient than self-directed learning.

High school history debacle

History knowledge of a high school graduate

To get some sense of knowledge kids come out with from high school, I tested a colleague on knowledge of history. I picked a friend, Rafael, who got some similar characteristics to my own back from 1980 when I was 18. Rafael is 20 and got 2 hours of history per week in his last year of high school. He is highly interested in architecture, and not too eager to learn things of lesser interest at school. Only recently, he realized that good architects are all characterized by extensive general knowledge with serves as the source of "renaissance-esque" inspiration.

Like myself, Rafael has some issues with school attendance. He also abhors getting up early, so he would often skip early classes in his early teens. I chose a history collection from SuperMemo Library and tried to make an estimate of his current knowledge using a random review of that material. At strict grading, his knowledge might even come short of my own estimate of my knowledge at 18. However, I noticed that the test collection was biased towards British and US history, while he would perform much better if I had a collection on Polish history. Of British or English monarchs, like most teens (incl. Tanya), he recalled only Elizabeth II. In contrast, he was able to list four Polish monarchs. He dismissed the rest with "Why would I learn the history of debauchery? Drunkards and revellers. There are more interesting things in life". That's exactly my own sentiment from the age of 18.

Interestingly, Rafael showed more extensive knowledge of details in subjects that he learned at school not so long ago. This part I might have underestimated by looking back. For example, his knowledge of the Battle of Stalingrad (1942-1943) was good enough to boost his statistic by a few percentage points. Interestingly, he claimed to learn about the battle 3 years earlier. I was sure he had to undergo some form of review at school, in a movie, book, or in other contexts. Even the name of Stalin might bring back some of those memories. Later, over e-mail, Rafael confirmed he indeed remembered two recently-watched war movies with a mention of Stalingrad.

Rafael surprised me most by not knowing anything about Hannibal and his iconic traversal of the Alps on elephants. I think this is a type of story that if you hear it once (e.g. at school), it always stays with you. Instead, Rafael thought that Hannibal "eats people". He was not sure if the confusion came from cannibals or Hannibal Lecter.

When trying to imagine the differences between my and Rafael's knowledge at the age of 18, we would probably mostly differ by the fact that we lived at different times. He did not remember mujahideens and Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and placed German reunification in the 1960s. On the other hand, he seems to be very knowledgeable about recent history, esp. history of technology. I attribute that to his being privileged in growing with all the tools of the web and social media.

Last but not least, unlike current Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo (video), he was able to remember the date of Polish entry to the European Union. Where she confused decades, Rafael was correct to within a month!

In my interviews, I conclude that in the long-term, most kids gain just about one item of history knowledge per week. This may naturally increase dramatically in kids with interests in history or in kids who study history hard for grades. The inflow of knowledge is comparable to what intellectually curious adults build at middle age without schooling assuming no special interests in history.

Convergence of knowledge

People tend to converge on the knowledge of major memes of the day. At the moment of writing, Donald Trump is the focus of most memes. Even preschoolers know the name. It is hard to find anyone who does not know Donald. Even among those who finished school half-a-century ago.

The same is true of knowledge of history. Most people know the names of Hitler, Jesus or Napoleon. Attending school is hardly important for knowing the name of Napoleon, as he will show up in movies, books, news and documentaries. A well-educated person will know more about Napoleon than a person who never completed the primary school, however, the causation comes less from the years of school and more from the innate talent, personality, and learn drive. As shown above, kids learn very little history at school, and those who struggle, learn even less.

If so, we really do not need to learn about Napoleon at school. Whatever we learn is unlikely to be retained. Some spicy details may stay with us for ever, but those are just a handful. If we let kids self-direct and just reward learning in general, they are more likely to know more about Napoleon. They will simply know more in total.

5 year old child might have seen a mockup of HMS Victory, or perhaps saw Battle of Trafalgar in some movie, or was just interested in naval battles having played some computer game. He will learn the name on his own. Those context might also be good to introduce kids to Napoleon as long as the intervention is not too intrusive (i.e. within the push zone).

Adults will benefit from knowing who Napoleon was. So it won't hurt explaining Napoleon the first time his names shows up in any context.

Both 5 year old and 50 year old need to recognize the name Napoleon and link it with just 4-5 basic facts, e.g. short, leader, on horse, early 1800s. If need be, other facts can be filled up later.

Forcing kids to read long passages about the Battle of Waterloo will only increase the dislike of history for most. It will only increase the dislike of school. This is is one of the reasons why kids hate school.

Explaining the role of Napoleon would mitigate the pain in short-term, but practise shows it usually does not work for long-term retention. The best formula comes from learn drive, and life-long learning.

The importance of passion

There is a universal misconception that, through their incompetence, teachers fail to build the understanding of the importance of knowledge. The failure is real, but the fault is not with teachers. The fault is systemic and rooted in human cognition.

Young teachers, fresh out of teacher's college, come to school with a rosy belief that all they need to do is to instill passion in kids. All they need to do is to explain, for example, how monumental a role Napoleon played in human history, and how many lessons we can draw from his life. Very soon, even the most enthusiastic and the most talented teachers get disillusioned. They hit the wall of indifference. It is almost impossible to find optimum learning hooks in the learn drive of kids in a class of twenty. Every kid carries different knowledge. For one kid, colorful battlefield simulations will be fascinating. For many others, they only deepen the dislike of history. It only gets worse from year to year.

We can theorize nicely about deep knowledge, student passion, and teacher talent. However, when we look at results, they are invariably dismal. There will always be a kid or two who will shine in her class of history or even become a historian. The rest will continue stunting their learn drive.

Every kid has an optimum knowledge-gain trajectory to understanding the importance of Napoleon. This trajectory can be astoundingly short. For the sake of further learning, the awareness does not need to be rational. An emotional hook is all a kid needs. One scene from an influential movie can set a kid for a lifelong interest in Napoleon. The problem is that all kids have their own sets of hooks. Finding them in a class of twenty is impossible. Finding hooks for all subjects all the time is an exercise in futility. Self-directed learning employs the learn drive that provides an automatic solution to that complex optimization. We cannot expect an average teen to have an adult understanding of Napoleon. For that he would need some grounding in democracy, law, science, European Union, Hitler, French history, European geography, military technology, Catholicism, psychology, and more.

Futility of instilling passion

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?

Teacher's impossible job:

I can argue futility of schooling to death and still keep my audience skeptical. I have a powerful hint coming from my own life that should serve as comfort to all teachers. Since mid 1980s, I have argued for the need to establish official lingua franca for the world. I wrote letters to leaders and organizations in hope of making order in this messy multilingual status quo. Today, I see that English is establishing its leadership through natural linguistic competition. We finally have a language for universal global communication. As this monopolization process is irreversible, my obsession has waned, but I still have not seen a more obsessed individual than myself. I pushed our company to use English internally. I adopted English as my prime language three decades ago. In that context, you might think that I was the best teen candidate in the world to get convinced that English is important. My lovely high school English teacher Wanda Dabrowska tried and she failed. I could not speak English after high school. It was not her fault. It was not my fault. It is just how the brain works. If one can't make the most passionate student passionate, what are the chances the effort will succeed for the rest of the group?
Instilling passion in kids is a noble exercise. However, compulsory education carries inherent flaws that overwhelmingly work against that effort. Explaining the importance of knowledge is vital but it generally does not work. Even the best teachers keep failing.

National bias

Why do Polish kids focus on Polish history, while American kids focus on the US history? Local and national interests are natural, however, the proportions are not. British kids know no American History. Teenagers in Poland cannot name a single English or British monarch (except for Elizabeth II). This ignorance is nearly universal. Polish kids do not even know Henry VIII, who I remotely recall from some 6-wives movie in my childhood. The gory details of beheading one's own wife easily stayed with me for years.

Now a question to the reader: Can you say what happened in 1410? Most Poles consider that date iconic. Very often it is the only major date that stays in their memory from their school history courses pre-WW2. That was the date the Poles beat the Teutonic Order (read: Germans). It is beneficial that some people in the world, the Poles (and perhaps the Lithuanians), can say stories from that time. However, for the Poles to ruminate that particular battle only adds to nationalist sentiments. Add to that obsessive preoccupation with World World II, and I am not surprised that one of the most prominent and successful nations in Europe got low favorability ratings in the eyes of the Poles. I blame those courses in history, those nationalist curricula, and labor camps of cramming: schools.

The politicians battle hard for the influence over the young brain. They believe that school programs can prepare fertile grounds for winning future elections. Lenin said "Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted". Self-directed learning would help spread those inevitable prejudices and biases more evenly. That would make for a better balance of forces in the battle of the memes.

The potential of self-directed learning

My ultimate conclusion is that self-directed learning can lead to a richer world view as long as it is driven by unconstrained interests. If this view is biased to a degree, it should be well-compensated by the interaction with other members of society whose biases should form differently. Incremental learning was a decisive factor in my own case. Temperament and personality matter too, however, unconstrained learn drive is the best accelerator and warranty of richness.

The freedom to explore is the best accelerator of good learning.


  • I learned no history at school
  • average high school graduate knows little history
  • most kids gain just about one item of history knowledge per week
  • SuperMemo accelerated my learning of history
  • there is a positive feedback loop: learning feeds interest, interest feeds learning
  • long-term memories established by SuperMemo keep interests survive a lifetime
  • self-learning based on incremental learning proved to be the fastest way to acquire knowledge
  • self-directed learning leads to faster learning and to richer knowledge
  • self-learning leads to no communication breakdown due to convergence of knowledge
  • instilling passions in a class of students is rarely effective
  • at high school, I would learn 16 times faster during summer vacation
  • national curricula often feed nationalist sentiments that harm global communication