On the superiority of a rat over a schooled human

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

Value of forgetting

Most of forgetting occurs via interference and, usually, forgetting is a good thing. Imagine a rat exploring a new island. It has just been moved from one environment to another. Most of knowledge about the old environment needs to be forgotten. The exploration is incremental. The rat will poke its face cautiously in every nook and cranny of the new island, and be rewarded or punished depending on its luck. Sometimes it will find a tasty seed. At other times it will get stung by an insect. At each valuating stimulus (i.e. penalty or reward), it will be encoding the contextual pattern: how much green around, what smells, what tastes, what sounds, degree of lighting, textures, etc. At each stimulus, associations will form by enhanced connectivity or neuronal competitive inhibition. Patterns will be associated with stimuli. All old and inaccurate memories will be obliterated through interference. New connections would form. Soon the rat will know its island to perfection. It will know all places that are likely to bring food and also places were a snake might be hiding. After a longer while, less learning occurs as the rat knows all it needs in the new environment.

Interference at school

A similar thing happens to kids at school. However, in the old Prussian system of schooling, this is rarely a good thing. In a typical classroom with a blackboard and benches, the flow of information is largely unidirectional. All student own explorations are met with penalties ("Stop fidgeting!"). If he gets up - he gets penalized. If he looks back - he gets penalized. If he speaks up - he gets penalized. All creativity and exploration meets with the wall of discipline and school rigor. Only own thinking is permitted to a degree, but not for too long. After all, the kid must not lose focus and must not fail to pay attention to what is being said. There are a few rebellious kids who would still want to explore, but their impulses will quickly be labelled as ADHD, and possibly medicated out of their behavioral repertoire. All neural connections that lead to exploration and creativity will be inhibited and gradually obliterated. The entire creative knowledge tree becomes blunted and loses its leaves. The learn drive is withering. New happy connections to new ideas need to be extinguished for the mind to focus on the flow of information from the teacher.

Then another teacher comes in with the demand of more learning. However, there is nothing incremental or explorative about that learning. New knowledge is not carefully matched to the old knowledge. Good match would minimize interference and maximize coherence. That would preserve the results of learning. Instead, the new teacher brings in a knowledge ax and chops in the path through the forest of knowledge obliterating old memories: happy play of childhood, smell of flowers, physics experiments with a beer can, chemistry experiments with kitchen chemicals, math experiments with a stick, architecture knowledge gained with Lego bricks, etc. Obviously, the first victim of interference are those fresh memories from the class before. They are equally incoherent, and they do not mesh with the inflow of new information. New knowledge path axed by the teacher is filled with incoherent knowledge that does not stick well, esp. that in hours or even minutes, another teacher comes with another ax, and starts chopping a new pathway. It does not matter that the kid has no idea about the Roman Empire timeline. It is Odoacer and Zeno, dates and battles, more knowledge (the example is taken from a real case of 17-year-old Tanya). Speedy, varied and pre-planned progression through the curriculum leads to less comprehension, less coherence, and less memory. Day after day, in a zombified state of learned helplessness, kids pour in more meaningless knowledge, and delete what they have learned a day before.

Schooling destroys new knowledge via interference. More speed and volume translate to less learning

On occasion, with a bit of luck, massive cramming before a test puts a bit of coherence in the learned knowledge. This new knowledge can last for a week or two. And again it falls victim to the teacher's interference axe.

If you add to this sleep deprivation or stress, you can be sure that the new pathway gets forged brutally, ruthlessly and efficiently. If you add to this disrupted night sleep cut short with an alarm clock, you can be sure that memory optimization in sleep cannot rescue and organize whatever has been learned during the day. Instead of a well organized optimization process, in sleep, synapses will get deleted indiscriminately. Finally, add to this the perpetually unhappy state of mind, and you will make sure that learning sculpts the architecture of the brain primed for depression and unhappy life.

Memory or reason?

There is a false dichotomy about schooling: one between memory and reason. One between shallow learning and deep learning. The kid is pushed to memorize things, and at the same time, he is pushed to reason things out. Both forces come from good sources and good intent. Without memory we won't remember that math formula that makes reasoning easy. Without reasoning, we won't do multi-digit multiplication without memorization. If an exploring rat never gets to the level of calculus, it is only for the architecture and processing power of its brain. It does not detract from the superiority of its learning method.

The right way to learn

The only efficient way of learning is based on an incremental, explorative, coherent, and non-interfering build up of new memories that underlie reasoning. There are many methods of achieving effective learning. Educators may use different forms and different terms such as learning by doing, learning by play, hands-on-learning, creative learning, discovery learning, active learning, deep learning, constructivist learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning, emphasis on reasoning, escape from rote learning, and many more. I like to keep it simple: nothing beats self-paced self-directed self-learning.

The explorative nature of self-directed learning has nothing to do with diminishing the role of memory. It only emphasizes the mode in which new layers of knowledge should build up in a natural self-learning process powered by the learn drive and efficiently guided by the pleasure of learning.

Surviving at school

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
How could I have survived 22 years of schooling considering the above black scenario? I survived primarily by paying no attention. With minor exceptions, I don't recall paying attention to the teacher in primary or secondary schools. With minor exceptions I did not attend lectures during my biology college years. I also quickly gave up lectures during my computer science college years. I was able to leave school with a healthy learn drive.

With present trends in schooling, with higher performance standards, surviving school without injury to the learn drive can be getting harder and harder. Paradoxically, the better the school (on paper), the harder it may be to escape its clutches.