Schools suppress the learn drive

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

Learn drive vs. age

The learn drive is a vital instinct that underlies the adaptive development of the central nervous system. Babies scan their environment for elements of novelty. This is a way of searching for and detecting things that are worth learning. A baby may randomly search the space above its head until it finds a moving object. This object may be classified as novelty from which a child can learn something. At a certain stage of development, the baby will taste all objects around it in order to learn what might be edible. A kid in a room of toys will zero in on a toy that he will deem as a best satisfier of young mind's curiosity. The learn drive is a powerful brain mechanism that gave babies their label of never-ceasing perfect learning machines.

Some scientists believe that we innately lose our novelty seeking and our learn drive with age. This claim is dangerously wrong. There are indeed many indicators of decline. An adult is no longer fascinated with all things that move. He will find a room of toys boring. He will spit out new tastes and often hate new dishes. Someone, who has never tasted a snail or a beetle, isn't likely to learn to love dishes based on snails or insects. Older people no longer show fascination with the world that is so typical to a young knowledge-hungry student. Older people's passions seem to be on a steady decline with age.

Understanding the learn drive and the mechanism by which it supposedly declines over time is essential for optimizing education

Learn drive vs. knowledge

The main factor that undermines the learn drive with age is the established knowledge. There are also secondary factors such as (1) declining "attractive power" of the current knowledge and (2) the actual aging of the brain. Aging may result in a decline in neural networks, synaptic pruning, lesser mental energy, etc. Those can be largely prevented with mental hygiene and learning itself. It is possible to retain the learn drive and passion for learning till the age of hundred. With healthy lifestyle, it is easier to retain vitality of the brain than it is to retain, for example, the vitality of the motor system.

Some of novelty seeking may be part of a developmental program (e.g. baby's taste-seeking stage). However, those programs would not play an essential part of explorations we tend to induce in the young generation in the course of their education.

Knowledge itself is the most powerful extinguisher of the learn drive. It can be illustrated with our interest in a particular book. A book is interesting in the first read. We are rarely interested in reading the book for the second time. Re-reading what we know is rarely exciting. Overtime, with some help from forgetting, the book may become interesting again. A forgotten book may reactivate reward circuits via the learn drive guidance system. Once the knowledge is established, it takes away the incentive to seek new knowledge. Forgetting is also helpful in other areas, e.g. the emotional effects of a song on the radio. The difference is that music is far less about declarative memory and far more about patterns and beauty. Like a nice sunset. You do not need to forget one to love another. This is why a catchy tune can stay addictive despite multiple replays, while a jazzy or classical masterpiece can retain its appeal for life if not played ad nauseam.

Knowledge undermines novelty. There is no novelty seeking brain center that would specifically decline with age. There is no novelty seeking extinguishing program activated in development. Novelty of an area of knowledge disappears once an area of ignorance is filled up.

The good news coming from our understanding of the learn drive is that it can be employed in lifelong passionate education. Learning can be as much fun at 80 as it is at 15.

Learn drive vs. learning

The main trick we can employ in keeping the learning passion alive is constant learning itself. Learning fills up the brain with new knowledge. However, it also identifies and magnifies the areas of ignorance. By an appropriate selection of the learning material, we can constantly look for new areas to fill up. This is best done with self-directed learning. Only a learner herself can effectively identify the areas of knowledge, the areas of ignorance, and the areas in-between that are suitable for learning.

Learning at school violates the principles of efficient learning by taking away the control from the learn drive guidance system. Passive learning at school will often hit the areas of established knowledge, which will make it boring. It will often hit areas of ignorance, which will make it incomprehensible. Rarely will it accurately hit the areas where new fascinating knowledge can expand the knowledge tree.

Passive pre-programmed learning at school suppresses the learn drive.

Metaphorically speaking, teachers throw pieces of knowledge at students and hope some of that knowledge sticks. Usually, it does not. Most of the courseware material is gone in a month. After a year, only repetition, review, duplication, and exams help a fraction of that knowledge survive in the brain. Self-directed learning based on the learn drive is extremely precise in rejecting unsuitable knowledge or finding those places in the knowledge tree that can adapt new portion of knowledge that fit the need.

This is one of the biggest ailments of schooling: students keep complaining that school is too boring or school is too hard. Students are not happy, and this works against the system. This problem cannot be effectively resolved if we retain the old classroom learning system. It is impossible to optimize learning in a group of students who will always diverge in their knowledge due to different passions, different interests, different talents, and different learning speeds. The only effective optimization solution is self-directed learning.

Teacher problem

A well-intentioned teacher may also contribute to the suppression of the learn drive even while facilitating self-directed learning.

If a child has a question "Where is New York? In which country?", a natural instinct of a parent or teacher is to provide the answer. If the child is exposed to the same question frequently enough, she will be able recall the answer on her own. Otherwise, she will need help again. Overall effect of such review would be similar to review in SuperMemo, except it would come naturally without the extra cost of the interaction with a computer, and it would come in a random manner without optimizing for the memory effect of each review. This type of interaction has both suppressive and enhancing effect on the learn drive. The interest in New York as part of the USA will gradually decline as the fact becomes known, i.e. no longer new. The interest in things related to the USA may increase in proportion to the interest in New York. The interest in things related to New York may increase in proportion to the interest in the USA.

A far more interesting interaction occurs when the child does not receive an instant feedback from a teacher. The question may remain unanswered, and knowledge will not increase. However, all questions asked that get no instant response contribute to the learn drive. The location of New York remains a mystery, which will get more interesting with each exposure. The increase in interest will progress along formulas similar to those that govern the increase in long-term memory stability (as predicted by the two component model). The increase in stability of interest does not have an immediate contribution to knowledge, but it has a powerful impact on the learn drive. The child will be curious to explore and find out on its own in a competitive process where all areas of interest will compete for child's focus that will be context dependent. For example, in the context of biology, New York might not even light up in memory. However, in the context of map inspection, or a geographic documentary, the question may pop up again and drive further explorations. Once the child finds answers to a burning question, i.e. a question with a high degree of relative importance burnt stable in memory, the reward of learning becomes magnified. The pleasure of learning increases. The reward propagates in associative memory and enhances positive associations related to knowing New York, knowing the US, and knowing things related to both. This is a reward propagation cascade whose depth depends on the level of reward and the original degree of curiosity. That cascade involves memory consolidation. This way, by not answering a question, a teacher may potentially increase consolidation in a larger areas of memory networks. By definition, this reduces the need for review of knowledge in the entire learning process.

Providing children with answers to their own questions can also be suppressive for the learn drive. In contrast, leaving questions unanswered may propel the young brain into rewarding explorations that will feed further progress.

This does not mean we should leave all questions unanswered. There are two factors that should prompt an answer from a teacher:

  1. the kid is absolutely crazy to know and his curiosity has been driven red hot. In terms of propagation and consolidation, there isn't much to gain. New branches of learn drive seeds will pop up and prompt further research
  2. the question is of highly fundamental nature in that in underlies many other vital pieces of knowledge that may be hard or slow to get on one's own. Fundamental questions are of universal nature and get re-consolidated by the sheer progression of learning into new areas. They simply come up in explorations over and over again

Learn drive distortions

There are dangers and inherent inefficiencies in the learn drive guidance system. It can easily be tricked into seeing novelty in areas which we would not classify as desirable. For an average student, the game of checkers quickly gets boring. To a sophisticated mind, a game of chess is more fun but it also may easily get boring. To a grandmaster, who can see chess as a colorful pattern of chessboard combinations with mnemonic stories that rival the most interesting book of history, chess may be a never-ending source of fascination. In other words, a chessboard and a few chess pieces can feed novelty seeking system with rewarding stimuli for eternity.

For a teen, a video game can easily employ the trick of a chess game by dragging a young mind into an endless labyrinth of new levels to explore and new combinations of tools or situations that never seem to get boring. With a competitive factor in teams, games can be addictive and dangerous.

In an adult, a passion for his favorite sport may also provide a never ending source of fascinating knowledge. One football league, from year to year, can provide all imaginable combination of outcomes, players, field combinations, strategies, personal stories, etc.

The above means that we cannot bank on self-directed learning to always feed our minds with useful knowledge. Social media thrives on gossip and trivia. Both teens and adults can sink untold hours in Facebook without coming up with useful goods. We seem to never get bored with social interaction and mobile phones keep buzzing with a chatter that satisfies our novelty cravings.

For many kids with talents, self-directed learning is all that is needed to soar. The universal formula for all kids for a drive in the quest for valuable knowledge is self-directed learning with a dose of trajectory-nudging guidance from any corrector system. This corrector can come from a parent, from a teacher, or from a peer (incl. older peers). The trajectory corrector needs to be placed in the optimum push zone to ensure correct trajectory without upsetting the system. Naturally, there is no better corrector than mature self-awareness with a pinch of self-discipline. An educated adult should understand the need for lifelong learning and understand the right direction for his learning to progress. Ideally, life itself is the best corrector of the learning trajectory.

School enthusiasm

School suppresses the learn drive and it may result in dangerous long-term neural adaptation that may skew young personalities for life. I write about it in the following section.

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
With an amazing regularity, I started all my schools with great expectations and in happy anticipation. That was the case in the primary school, high school, and both my colleges. In all cases, the enthusiasm was gone fast. Often after the first day or the first lecture! However, there were moments when the opposite process occurred. When I was thrown away from one school, on disciplinary grounds, I came to a new one with lowest expectations. This actually helped me rise for a while. With a help of a good teacher, I had a few months of a great school adventure. Similarly, a great teacher or freedom of self-directed learning helped me extract some fun from schools later on. If I was to simulate my own life over and over again in conditions of Polish schools, it would be loss of love of learning most of the time. The opposite happy process is reserved for a lucky few who hit lucky circumstances or lucky own predispositions.

Powering learn drive with SuperMemo

Enhancing the learn drive

SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
The most powerful artificial activator of the learn drive I know is incremental learning. Spaced repetition in SuperMemo tends to bring up the same old material over and over again. Leeches in learning can poison the fun of review. Incremental learning makes it possible to dose in novelty with the inflow of new material interleaved with the review of the old material. The never-ending consolidation of the knowledge tree provides a constant growth of the "unfinished" leaves. Those act as attractors of novelty. In classical learning, forgetting tends to disintegrate the fabric of knowledge and leads to an asymptotic stagnation of the "surface of the tree". In incremental learning, that surface keeps increasing providing an ever increasing potential in novelty discovery. If your passion for learning is in decline, consider incremental learning. Slowly! Alternatively, inspirational reading can play a similar role.

If you encounter a boring or incomprehensible subject at school, you may need to suffer 45 minutes of inaction. In incremental learning, you can switch subjects in seconds, change priorities, reschedule learning, or suffer the pain of excess complexity in the optimum window of time in hope of finding some fruit of knowledge (see: Push zone). In incremental learning, you are likely to stay in your comfort zone, enter the push zone on occasion, and stay away from regressive areas that waste your time. A subject that seems too hard today will become easy tomorrow. You do not ever need to suffer complexity in vain. You can venture into the same field once you are ready. In incremental learning, you optimize your choices using your learn drive as a powerful guidance.

Incremental learning is the most powerful activator of the learn drive

Stunting the learn drive

SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
Conversely, the learn drive can be suppressed with SuperMemo. If the student stops learning new things and only keeps retaining old knowledge in SuperMemo, forgetting will prune all attractive surfaces on the knowledge tree. Only the dry core will remain in SuperMemo. While knowledge maintained with active learning and incremental learning resembles a lively tree full of hungry tendrils, dead knowledge maintained with SuperMemo is like a rejected Christmas tree with ever decreasing number of dried out branch endings. For an advanced learner, the effort that comes with spaced repetition may still evoke the pleasure of knowing. However, this kind of pleasure is best ignited with the actual use of the learned knowledge. Regurgitating old knowledge with no new material has the same suppressive effect as schooling. Similarly, it undermines the love of learning. If you happen to experience a decline of your love of repetitions, add new value to your collection, and redistribute old material in manageable portions into the future. This should apply primarily to old unused exam material that you retain half-heartedly without a true conviction about its usefulness.
SuperMemo with no new material is similar to boring classes at school. Both suppress the learn drive

Learn drive at middle age

Instead of noticing a decline in my own learning passions, I observe the reverse. This is why I violently disagree with researchers who tend to attribute the decline in learn drive to chronological age. I employ incremental learning to keep my passion for learning alive. I explain how it works for me in a personal note below.

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I was never too interested in history, in a chapter devoted to self-directed learning, I explain that my learning can be divided into three stages:
  1. learning at school with zero efficiency,
  2. learning with SuperMemo with some progress, and
  3. employment of incremental reading that truly exploded my understanding of history.

This is a good example how a subject that is boring to a teen, given the adverse schooling circumstances, may be re-awakened into a nice passion at middle age.

I was always interested in human biology. Here again I claim to have learned little at school, a lot at home, even more with SuperMemo, and a truly great deal with incremental learning.

I keep saying "the greater the clearing the greater the perimeter". The more I know, the more I know I don't know. Understanding one's ignorance is the best drive for more learning, and the more I know, the more painful the ignorance is. Forgetting plays a role too. I keep getting angry with realizations that even a kid in primary school knows things I do not know. Even a 5-year-old can ask better questions. I think those realizations will keep my passion for learning alive for as long as I retain my solid mental faculties.

As for food tastes, I am not sure how much of that is really programmed into the brain, and how much comes from the same mechanism as knowledge in a conservative brain. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, I had my first ever chance to taste mussels. I was 28. That's the age when we are supposed to have lost our ability to expand our taste range. When taking in my first nibble, I was pretty sure I would vomit. It felt like torture. I could say to myself a dozen times "this is just healthy food, many people enjoy it, use your reason, why get emotional...", it did not help much. I managed to swallow a few pieces and was relieved when my portion was over. However, I did not give up. I tried again. I tried to fit my optimum push zone that got very narrow. If I tried too hard or too early, I would hate mussels for life. If I tried too late, I would have forgotten what I had learned in my first experience. My second take at mussels was a bit more relaxed. I was able to find some nice tastes in there despite suffering a lot. A few months later, I enjoyed mussels as much as anyone introduced to the food at earlier stages. There was no novelty seeking in that experience. However, my tastes have been reshaped. Today, I love mussels. Delicious! Am I really deprived of novelty seeking in the area of foods? Not entirely, I love experimenting with various spices and spice combinations. My friend ate a scorpion in Thailand yesterday, his happy face made me intrigued. If I was in Thailand...

As for boredom, my own professional life is subject to the same mechanisms of saturation and boredom.

As a student, I tried out dozens of programming languages. The more exotic the language the greater the fascination. SuperMemo was developed in Pascal in 1987. Since then I settled on Pascal and stopped my explorations. A cynic would attribute that to aging. My interpretation is different. I use the tool that works best for me. I reserve my exploration time for other things. I do not explore less. I explore differently. My learn drive in the area of programming languages has been satisfied, however, my overall learn drive is still pretty hungry.

Like an immature student, I also got bored with spaced repetition and memory saying "there is not much to learn or discover in the field". My colleagues, esp. Krzysztof Biedalak and Janusz Murakowski, gave me a tiny corrector push saying "The two-variable model of memory could make the algorithm simpler and easier to implement, license, and promote". Once I started exploring the dried up area, I have discovered a million things I did not know, and re-ignited my passion for spaced repetition. Ironically, the algorithm did not get that much simpler, but the truth is that dead passions can be re-awakened.

Perpetual learn drive

Passions come and wane. This process is controllable. Self-directed learning is the best expression of that control. Spaced repetition helps retain gains from waning passions. This, in turn, helps passion re-awakening in need.

Love of learning can be suppressed quite effectively, and then it can also be restored and revived

The process of building up enthusiasm for learning is easily trainable and easily suppressed. There is a strong neural component. Damage done by bad schooling is reversible, and one can go well above his or her original baseline. Some of the original potential, however, may be lost for ever.

Summary: Changes to the learn drive

  • learn drive is not subject to aging beyond natural aging of the brain
  • learn drive can stay vibrant at the age of hundred
  • loss of learn drive in development is most often caused by schooling or lifestyle. It is not an inherent part of the life cycle
  • healthy learn drive is the basis of good learning
  • self-directed learning grounds its efficiency in the learn drive
  • one of the main goals of any modern education system should be to help learn drive flourish
  • established knowledge undermines the learn drive
  • lifelong learning keeps the learn drive vibrant
  • passive learning at school undermines the learn drive and contributes to the dislike of learning
  • providing children with answers to their own questions can also be suppressive for the learn drive
  • learn drive corrections within the optimum push zone can improve learning and its direction
  • incremental learning is the most powerful tool for developing a strong learn drive
  • poor employment of SuperMemo can undermine the learn drive (the mechanisms is similar to schooling)
  • in conducive conditions, learn drive and learning can form a positive feedback loop that leads to maximization of the love of learning
  • schools have been extremely efficient in destroying my enthusiasm for schooling (at all levels of education)