100 bad habits learned at school

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

This text is in continuous incremental development. It has not yet been fully reviewed. This seemingly small project turned out to be pretty labor-intense. The feedback is rich, and there is simply too much mail and materials to process in one go. Apparently, schools are a breeding ground of bad habits. What was to be a short bullet list, turned out to be a longwinded article few will ever have patience to read. Please come back in the future to see a more up-to-date version. The list is far from complete

Are you at school?

If you do most of your learning at school these days, this article should shake you up a bit. Do not panic. You do not need to quit or run away from school. There is a simple remedy to all problems described in this text. Rely on yourself and do as much of your own learning as possible. The mere awareness of the threats should suffice as a reasonable protection. If your parents are open enough, ask about the possibility of homeschooling or better yet unschooling. Most of Nobel Prize winners went to school at some point in their lives. This text is not to scare you. It is to help you become a winner too. At worst, you may need to rebel against your current disciplinarian regimen (if any).

A simple remedy against bad habits acquired at school is self-learning

Wrong school model

Some of the greatest strengths of the human brain are seen as imperfections that should be eliminated. The school system is built on a wrong model of the brain. It does not tolerate biases, heuristics or bold generalizations that constitute brain's great strengths. The model is an idealization, and the school system is pestered by a quest for perfection in the name of misguided societal goals. As a result, school is a breeding ground for dozens of bad habits that literally destroy the intellectual potential of future generations.

At the core of the error of schooling is the quest to do more and to do it faster in defiance of the main decider: the brain

Human progress is largely driven by a small subset of great minds. Many of those minds survive the system of schooling unscathed. Survival seems more important than innate greatness. Invariably, the formula for success is based on a freedom to explore. I have never seen genius survive heavy drilling at school. All best minds around are free thinkers who forged their own educational paths. The survival is possible by lenient parenting, lenient schooling, rebellion, democratic schooling, unstructured homeschooling, unschooling, etc. On very rare occasions, coincidence of interests may make some kids survive school by being passionately involved in the learning process. If you are not happy with your school life, you know things are already going in the wrong direction!

Of the many bad school habits, I acquired quite a few too, despite unprecedented degree of freedom. I recovered within a few years by virtue of free exploration. Most of all, my job is all about effective learning. My path to recovery was relatively easy and fast. Most kids are scarred far deeper, and many will not recover their full self for life.

Today, I am often labelled as a radical critic of schooling. My words are seen as exaggerated and even unjust. Perhaps I have not yet fully recovered from my schooled quest for perfection. As much as I cannot stand a waste of natural resources, or lavish lifestyles, I am deeply affected by words of my young friends aged from 3 to 18, who tell me this a few times per day "I cannot do it because my mom wants to ..." or "because my school wants me to ...". I see that perfect summit of human greatness, and how great kids are being slowed down on a daily basis. This is nearly universal in my neighborhood. This is the root of my radical thinking.

School habits

Skills vs. habits

Schools stand in opposition to the efficient operation of the concept network of the brain. Schooling predates and continues the blind tradition of radical behaviorism in which the student obtains rewards for good performance or penalties for failing to pass the mandatory benchmarks. The ravages that occur in the concept network, crippled conceptualization, and feeble conceptual computation are of no interest to the majority of decision makers in education. They are of no interest because the ministers, administrators, and executives have no idea. If neural networks are a bit cryptic for an average reader. The effects of schooling are out there for everyone to see. This list of negative effects of schooling has been compiled for you to have a quick preview of the scale of the damage we inflict on young brains.

Schools instills dozens of bad habits. Many of those habits can become occasionally useful as skills. For example, it is a skill to dutifully submit to authority when necessary. It cannot be a habit. It is useful for the surgeon to shows up in time early in the morning. However, the use of the alarm clock cannot become a habit. It is useful to know how to read a precious book from cover to cover. However, some books are bad, and completing the book cannot be a goal and/or a habit. To toss away a bad book in time is an important skill too.

Countless bad habits

In late 2019, I received a very interesting e-mail from a high school dropout Allen (not a real name), who explained that it took him quite a while to recover from bad habits acquired at school. I was delighted to hear that my claims at SuperMemo Guru agreed pretty well with his own experience and observations. I asked for a permission to quote portions of his mail and decided to list all bad habits that we acquire via conditioning in the process of schooling. I sent out mail with request for feedback to my friends who are fresh in the "recovery" process. Those who move from school to incremental reading are usually most prolific in their observations. The contrast is so stark that some of conclusions seem almost universal. In two weeks, the list of bad habits grew to 42 (read: forty two). Even the routine violation of the 20 rules may expand the list by 10-15 more bad habits.

It became obvious I won't be able to discuss all individual habits. This is material for an entire book. This is why I decided to set up this page at guru to incrementally add most interesting observations and excerpts. The title of "forty habits" soon became "fifty habits". I am not sure what the ultimate number of habits will be, which habits overlap, and which need to be separate as independently harmful. I honestly admit that I slowly start getting lost in the volume. Should devaluation of knowledge and the suppression of the learn drive be counted as one? On Feb 1, 2021, using Split in SuperMemo, I counted 104 bad habits and I still have some 10-15 to describe. As a result, on Feb 16, 2021, I decided to change the title. We now have a neat set of 100 habits. The list of bad habits is staggering, and it could largely be avoided by the adherence to just one law: the Fundamental Law of Learning.

Most of bad school habits stem from the lack of understanding of the computational importance of the pleasure of learning

Universal habits

Many of bad habits on the list can be acquired outside school, esp. in professions where freedom is limited (often by necessity). However, a bad habit may become dangerous when the entire population acquires it. When an authoritarian figure comes to power, we need as least one brave Alexei Navalny who would swim against the rest of the school. An average unschooler may pick up dozens of bad habits below, however, his unique trajectory and the collection of habits will be determined by his unique interests. As a population, we benefit from diversity, incl. neurodiversity that is ruthelssly exterminated at school with "therapy". If I was to list my own worst habit, it would probably be "belief in intellectual perfectionism". I am slowly recovering, see: Value of wrong models. This site is helpful in my recovery. I break many standards of "good writing", and do it proudly each time my violations serve the pragmatic cause of efficient communication.

Good habits

Naturally, for balance, a symmetric question arises about good habits we learn at school. After a week of deliberations and feedback, I could not list even one.

Many of the submitted suggestions stem from school mythology:

  • socialization should occur in open systems, not at school (see: Optimal socialization)
  • knowledge is best achieved with self-learning, not at school
  • friendships are best born in real life, not at school

In nearly all other cases, when people speak of good habits acquired at school, they really mean good skills, not habits.

For example, if someone claims that self-discipline is a good habit, I disagree. Self-discipline makes sense only if the benefits outweigh the cost, and that calculus must have a form of an integral with an eye to long-term effects. If someone shows self-discipline in early rising, he may reap some benefits at school or at work, but may also hurt his own health, brain and longevity. A set of procedures that protect one from the harms of early rising can be considered a toolset that arms a skill. That skill may be in use in an emergency, e.g. early rising may help when there is a need to perform a high-priority surgery on a patient. That skill cannot be a habit (e.g. daily use of the alarm clock). Teenagers should get up from bed as late as they need to, and use their best brain power for learning. The skill of early rising may be mastered at the time when the brain is mature and less susceptible to injury. Most importantly, the skill should be mastered only by those who actually need it. I never use an alarm clock, and my early rising skills are dismal even though I know how to use chronotherapy to get up at 4 am without pain. My only condition is: I need to start today to be ready next month.

After a lot of thinking, I jokingly concede I developed one good habit at school: when I hear the word "lecture", I run away. I still like TED lectures on YouTube. YouTube never complains when I decide to leave or pause. It always waits patiently.

Incremental reading

Proliferation of bad habits in this text, and my opposition to compulsory schooling can be traced to the enlightening impact of two decades of using incremental reading as explained in this optional inset:

SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
Passive schooling is an antithesis of free learning. A great metaphor of free learning is incremental reading. It is eerie to see how the habits of incremental reading are the exact opposite of the habits listed in this text. That polarity stems from the antipodal opposition between behavioral reinforcement, and the reliance on the learn drive. See: Advantages of incremental reading

Problem solving

Mankind's progress is based on problem solving. Interestingly, we solve problems but seem to have a pretty poor understanding of the mechanics of problem solving. The main problem of schooling in that respect is that it models the brain as a perfectly deductive and a perfectly imitative computer. It seems to be blind to the fact that our brain is a concept network whose great power resides in taking imperfect heuristic shortcuts in achieving goals. The brain is all about cognitive biases and generalizations. It forms bad models all the time, fails to pay attention, and keeps forgetting for a greater cause. Instead of modeling the brain as an imperfectly powerful device, we look for error-free perfection. This perfectionistic vision of the brain underlies the model of a perfect school. As a result, schooling is a source of misery for millions of children.

A simple prevention of bad habits in problem solving is to let kids solve their own problems on their own.

Schools teach to solve fake problems with well-defined tools. Life offers real problems for which we may have no tools

Intolerance of heuristics

When a five-year-old whizzes through problems encountered in a computer game, a well-schooled adult will often worry about addiction, digital dementia, and the sloppiness with which a child tackles problem. The adult will say "she is only using her intuition. This kind of imprecision is unacceptable when building a bridge". The habit of deduction slows down the brain when it does not need to be slowed down. An algorithmic shortcut can introduce negligible error while cutting the time complexity by an order of magnitude. Solving problems fast with heuristics is one of the key weapons of human intelligence. The skill of deductive reasoning is useful in many contexts. The brain needs to choose the right tool for the job. Being sloppy can be beneficial too when speed is at a premium, or when taking shortcuts reduces the cognitive load and increases the chances of solving a problem.

Human intelligence relies on heuristic algorithms based on the conceptual computation

Intolerance of cognitive biases

We often hear a well-schooled adult speak with contempt about someone else's cognitive biases. However, those biases are an unavoidable norm, and result from the brain's effort to speed up reasoning. The brain likes to achieve more at the cost of an occasional error. After years of schooling, in a debate, you will often here words of utter disdain towards those who fall victim of natural cognitive biases: "oh, that's your same old tired projection". Those who like to sound smart will ridicule someone's claim by referring to "Dunning–Kruger effect". I am often justly accused of the optimism bias, and I enjoy being biased. I would rather lose on accuracy than to lose the energy or creativity that stems from being a tad optimistic.

There is always a balance between the accuracy and the cost of reasoning. The equilibrium will settle in response to one's needs. The brain will adapt and maximize the outcome. For someone who is about to send an expensive probe to another planet, accuracy is essential. For someone whose prime goals is to find new ways of increasing brain performance, wild creative theorizing has prime value. Biases are unavoidable and combatting them is often not worth the cost.

Intolerance of bad models

Schools instill a fetish of correctness. Allegedly, science is all about good models, and bad model should be eliminated and forgotten. This results in intolerance of dissenting voices and contempt to the opposition. For an efficient evolution of ideas, old models need to be studied, they should be preserved, if they have die-hard advocates, the advocate brains should be probed and understood. Untold number of precious models came well ahead of their time and would die promptly if schooled correctness of models was to be cultivated. In my own reasoning about the brain, I developed quite a number of wrong models that were later abolished by evidence. However, all those models provided a fantastic springboard to new better models. See: Value of wrong models

Restrictions on the evolution of models slow down the progress of science

Intolerance of daydreaming

Schools are good training grounds for improved attention. For a frolicsome kid, a school bench is a torture device. However, after a few years of being reprimanded for fidgeting, the child cools down, moves less, seems less joyful, and slowly reconciles with its bench-bound lifestyle. Improved attention is the main beneficiary. However, the quest for maximized attention can lead to lower self-esteem, anxiety, and more:

I got the idea that I have problems "focusing". This is because I couldn't read a book and think ONLY about it. This lead to me trying to suppress all thoughts not related to the book being read (even if it was a boring one). Every new thought was monitored, and when one not connected to the book inevitably came, I would get angry and use that as further proof that I can't focus. I understood "focusing" as not diverting from the book's contents, even for a second

The brain was designed to be innovative. To maximize intelligence, we keep switching between focus and creativity. We focus to absorb new information, and then we become inattentive while processing that information (see: Natural creativity cycle). By suppressing creativity, we cut down human intelligence. By asking kids to stop fidgeting, we take away one of the tools used in the neural control of the creative process. By labelling kids with ADHD, we often send them on a path to lower self-esteem or even medication.

By incessant training in focused attention, schools suppress one of the most powerful weapons of the human mind: creativity!

Creativity feeds on new knowledge of high retrievability. It is well known that schooling suppresses the learn drive (see: Schools suppress the learn drive). The inevitable side effect adds to suppressed creativity. The original assumption was that creativity drops with aging, however, the actual culprit has nothing to do with age. It is all about coercion in learning and learned helplessness. A vibrant septuagenarian is often more curious and more creative than your average schooled pupil.

In a Prussian school model, imitation in direct instruction predominates. There is much less room for exploration, discovery learning, problem solving, decision-making, etc. Some scientists even claim that direct instruction is superior to discovery learning (see: Horrible theory of minimal guidance learning). All those forces conspire to keep kids immobile and obedient in their benches.

Creativity underlies innovation that will dominate future human endeavors. In the meantime, schools feed outdated knowledge while suppressing the best qualities of the human mind

For more see:

Suppressed exploration

In problem solving, schools favor algorithmic approaches based on a well-memorized set of rules. In real world problem solving, all tools and techniques should be used to reach the goals. Heuristics, risky models, and creative explorations underlie efficient problem solving. In addition, a good problem solver has an extensive factual and abstract knowledge in the area of his expertise. An important component of problem solving toolset these days is exploratory search that may extend from the student's head to the web. Those exploratory skills are often suppressed by design. An average kid at school is not a patch on an unschooler in the ease and proficiency of using Google to answer questions that assist problem solving:

When taking an exam, you have to rely exclusively on memory. Reading from the textbook is forbidden and leads to punishment. In real life, when you don't remember something, you simply look it up. Being able to search for information is an invaluable skill. It is simple: problem solving is based on knowledge, so if you can't solve the problem, look for more relevant knowledge

It is easy to think that all kids get to know Google and find it easy to use it (see: Neuromythology). However, school conditioning may work against acquiring necessary skills:

A tragicomic inefficiency was not exposing myself to any new information when unable to solve a problem, so that I wouldn't "cheat"

The solution to a problem can be found in the problem search space. Tough problems require a great deal of exploration. Exploratory search is based on a set of metacognitive skills that can only be hone in actual problem solving.

By providing scrupulous guidance, schools undermine exploratory skills needed for efficient problem solving

Intolerance of creative abstraction

Intolerance of heuristics and cognitive biases leads to the intolerance of bad models, and even the intolerance of weak models. Combined with the intolerance on daydreaming and exploration, well-schooled approach to modeling the reality results in "multi-modeling". In a well-schooled approach, a bad model becomes a conspiracy, a weak model becomes a reason for shame for its proponents, an out-of-the-box paradigm challenge is taken with suspicion, and all "incomplete" models are thrown into a messy basket of data, which is a form of acceptable chaos until the day the "true" model emerges.

A natural approach to modeling leads to a speedy abstraction and strong preference for a favored model. The model may be wrong, which does not bother the theorizing brain. What might bother the brain is a non-obvious contradiction. When data arrives that seems to contradict the model, the brain will either dismiss the data (if the model is strong and data is weak) or seek explanation. The explanation is found in the source of information. How reliable it is, how strong the underlying models are, or how trustworthy the claimants are. The natural way to abolish a false model is to find (1) a strong piece of contradictory data, and (2) a new model that explains the reality with the inclusion of the new data. In the absence of new model, the brain will remain in the state of creative "anxiety" that often leads to a paradigm shift.

The well-schooled approach is intolerant of weak models. Before abstraction begins, before a model can be trusted, data flows in and results in unstructured chaos. While scientists propose their theories, a well-school brain is unbothered by the fact that there might be many contradictory models. It will attempt to cram the theories and all the data in favor or against all theories. There will be little room for preference until the data clearly favors the one and only scientifically valid model.

Rapid modelling dramatically reduces the cost of reasoning
Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
In my well-schooled approach, before I could decide if drinking coffee is good, I would collect all science data on the impact of coffee on the brain. Before the arrival of the web, there used to be pretty strong pro- and anti-coffee lobbies. Whatever I could find, I would memorize with SuperMemo. The chaos was hard to disentangle and see through. The resolution arrived spontaneously when I started drinking coffee (in 1996). I soon discovered its blessings. It was also easy to see what conditions are needed for the blessings to be consumed. Today, when I see "coffee is good for you" or "coffee is bad for you", I consider it tabloid press. I will pay attention only if one of the seven main action mechanisms are analysed in a new light. My simple model says: good creativity, good alertness, and good neuroprotective effect if ...the right dosage and timing are applied. My coffee is my healthy Ritalin or Adderall for my "ADHD". I will change my model only if strong data arrives indicating my model is incomplete or wrong. For example, a major finding on coffee causing cancer would sure jar my attention.

In my unschooled approach, I conceived many incorrect models of memory. Early in my model building, I would favor a simple molecular two-component model of memory. I thought that rewiring the brain was expensive and slow, while tagging receptors would be fast, and inserting them in the membrane would be cheap. My bad model was easy to abolish. All it took was to see the speed of growth of dendritic spines and filopodia. Today, you can try to abolish my paradigm challenge: School causes dyslexia.

Why was I well-schooled and unschooled at the same time? Well-schooled habits I inherited from school, while the right approach to modeling was the effect of free exploration, passion, priority and unlimited time. The brain is my job and my passion

Suppressed sampling

Exploration is not limited to the process of acquiring declarative knowledge. Exploration is an algorithm with far wider implications in the adaptation to the environment. An important subset of exploration has a form of sampling, i.e. an exploratory selection by trial-end-error controlled by the learn drive. The term "sampling" is most often used in the context of finding one's own vocation (see: Ken Robinson: Finding your element). An unschooled child in the process of free learning will focus on those areas of activity that maximize the reward. It may start with a dream of being a YouTuber. When the dream appears moderately successful (e.g. due to limited audience), the child might modify the aspirations and want to become an artist that would present her talents on YouTube. This could then become a dream of becoming a footballer or a rock star. A huge wave of talent flows through youth soccer clubs, and there is a brutal selection based on simple factors such as injury, dislike of the coach, poor teamwork, or such trivial obstacles as putting on weight. In this process of sampling, over years, a child or a teen will find her place in life where she feels most rewarded. That reward is often strictly interwoven with the social factor. Even the purest mathematical mind may want to share his decades-long discoveries with others. Creativity is rarely asocial. In that sense, the optimality of the learn drive translates into a solid warranty of excellent social adaptation. For sampling to occur optimally, the child must be free. The process of finding one's vocation takes years, consumes a great deal of time, and is largely based on trial-and-error. Hence the saying that we learn best on our own errors. Given good health and absence of haphazard severe adversity, after dozens of sampling errors, a young human being inevitably finds a satisfactory place in life. The past experience rich in failure provides an excellent springboard into adulthood.

Schools suppress sampling by limiting child's time, by stealing the most creative times of day, by suggesting ready-made solutions or by literally making choices for the student. This deprives a young brain of decision-making opportunities. The adult world if full of well-intended suggestions. If parents were right, we would have a serious glut of lawyers and doctors. We would struggle to find a plumber and someone who would take care of garbage. In contrast, a 4-year-old in my family declared that his dream job is to be a garbage collector. This later evolved into a garbage truck driver, and other professions. In the same family, a close relative used a schooled threat towards her own child: "if you do not learn, you will grow up to be a garbage collector". Adults suppress samplings with their own visions for a child's life.

As children sample their pursuits and hobbies, they often arrive at a dream job and live happily ever after. In a schooled child, suppressed sampling may limit the sampling heuristic, and defer the process to adulthood. When a young man starts sampling for jobs at the age of 25, he may already carry a heavy luggage of biases, anxieties, and bad habits that make this process difficult. For some, adult sampling is sheer torture rooted in all bad school habits. For a creative individual, adult sampling may be complex for reasons unrelated to the skillset (see: Case study: Genius or Asperger).

Analogous to sampling of pursuits, hobbies and jobs, sampling skills extend to social life. We sample for friends, partners or sexual mates. For the schooled population, homeschooling inevitably raises a question: "What about socialization?". Those who ask this question have already been affected by suppressed sampling. After years of socialization in a closed system, it is easy to live with the illusion that school is the best place to meet friends. After all, a schooled individual may have a limited circle of friends peppered by old classmates. However, the biggest contributor to the illusion is the suppression of social sampling. I believe in a good strategy for life: love all people. Treat all strangers as potential friends. Everyone has something interesting to offer. With this approach, life quickly starts feeling rich and too short to get to know all interesting people. This attitude is actively destroyed by modern parenting and schooling. One of the first things for a child sent out to play outdoors is to instill the fear strangers. When I meet 7-10 year old kids, they often look at me with high suspicion. No wonder. A big barefoot guy in shorts in February must be a bit odd. We all inevitably become friends after a while, but why do we need to start from fear and anxiety? You can be cautious with a smile. After years of fraternizing in a closed system, the natural ability to strike casual friendships is destroyed. Many 30-40 years old are lonely and depressed for one reason only: their ability to mix with other people has been systematically suppressed. The tough solution is to gradually unlearn the years of schooling by employing incremental increase in social interaction (see: Incremental life for some hints).

The mechanism of poor social sampling ultimately contributes to the problem of Idiocracy. It is not that smart people do not reproduce well. It is more that heavily-schooled people appear smart and still socially inept and lonely. The best social ally in the healthy maintenance of the population is the natural quest for deeper friendships, romantic relationships, sex drive, and the love of children. With those instinct intact in place, all rational "obstacles" of housing, money, jobs, and careers start looking easy to overcome. In a healthy family setting, children and adults enter a positive feedback loop of love and productive energy. Fears of career collapse may quickly appear unfounded. This beautiful natural progression is destroyed by social inaptitude based on suppressed sampling skills. In addition, a schooled individual may want to micromanage the entire process, incl. the choice of the mate, by substituting natural instincts with rational planning based on another bad habit: perfectionism.

By limiting the scope of decision making, schools suppress a range of skills that include making friends and finding a mate

Micromanagement of reasoning

The best ideas come from connecting two remote areas of knowledge. The associations are generated in a process that is largely stochastic and uncontrollable (for explanation see: Creativity). For this process to work efficiently the brain needs peace, passion, knowledge, goals, and a great deal of time (see: How to solve any problem?). Schools provide students with an impression that creative ideas are like solutions to a problem. At the same time, at school, problem solving is a deductive process that proceeds from the premises via set of fixed rules and algorithms to the desired destination. School trains the brain to follow the algorithm. It promotes conscious decisions that can be micromanaged. Even correct but competing models of the same phenomenon should be trimmed for the sake of intellectual efficiency.

A recovering student observed the impact of schooled prescriptions on his thinking process:

My insights came from "fast thinking". "Manual thinking" was activated when "fast thinking" didn't produce the answer right away. I guess my manual thinking's purpose was to help me solve any problem, but was drastically less efficient. Maybe the best approach involves setting up the correct environment so that the brain can function optimally, while my approach was to disregard natural function and try to do everything consciously

In good learning, knowledge darwinism serves knowledge coherence, while "model darwinism" serves the applicability of abstract knowledge. At school, the rigid approach to brain micromanagement may have disastrous effects on the ability to solve problems. Schools undermine problem solving skills by serving ready-made procedures, limiting options in decision-making, and micromanaging the creative process.

Efficient problem solving comes from prolific problem solving in conditions of undisturbed freedom

Learning habits

Suppressed love of learning

Rich research shows that schools effectively kill curiosity in children. For example, Susan Engel noticed a dramatic decline in the number of questions asked in class.

Learn drive thrives in free learning. Each piece of knowledge adds to a person's curiosity about the world. In contrast, coercive learning leads to repeated suppression of choices made by the learn drive guidance system. As a result, the learn drive is suppressed. After many years of coercive schooling, children literally hate learning. They may say "I go out and do anything just to be away from the books". For details see: Schools suppress the learn drive

Schooling is the best known killer of curiosity in children

I believe I survived 22 years of schooling with my learn drive almost intact. I credit this survival to lenient schooling, total freedom at home, and being entirely focused on my passions such as music, biochemistry, boxing, sports, etc.

A similar pattern of preserved learn drive emerges among my colleagues. They are not a representative sample. We stay in touch for the creative value of our exchanges. We are the survivors. One wrote:

I think that my learn drive at school was protected by truancy, my mom's focus on my younger brother, and a good degree of freedom to make my own decisions. My dad told me I raised myself. At 13, I dismantled and reassembled my computer. When building our house, my father was always away, and I had to supervise people with the help of my grandfather

Learn drive can in part be restored in adulthood with rich learning. However, the progression of the conceptualization process makes the reversal difficult and/or incomplete. When neurons die, the process is largely irreversible. See: Harms of reversal learning

Fake rewards and micro-penalties may cripple knowledge valuation and result in a lasting injury to one's learning capacity

Suppressed creativity

Once the joy of learning is suppressed, and the learn drive is conditioned out, creativity is diminished due to a stifled inflow of new coherent knowledge that underlies new associations between remote areas of knowledge (see: Knowledge and creativity). This problems goes hand in hand with the intolerance of daydreaming. Once daydreaming is not welcome, spontaneous creativity is suppressed.

It is not only the school environment that stifles creativity. The same occurs in large corporations or government institutions. Each time the freedom to learn and communicate is restricted, creative thought suffers. This is how a user of SuperMemo described it:

Creativity can be an unbearable power in a toxic environment. Feeling like creativity alone wants to escape from toxic environment. If I sleep worse, creativity level is low, I can manage the toxicity i.e. I just do what needs to be done: task after task. However if I experience high creativity, my mood is down because I realize that I cannot escape due obligations

If new great ideas are like a bushfire, creativity is like a smoldering meadow. By showing intolerance to daydreaming, schools pour cold water on the undergrowth. With suppressed learn drive, there is insufficient biomass to start the fire. Late George Land observed that creativity drops by one measure from 98% to 2% in the first years of school.

Children lose most of their creative powers in the first three years of rigorous schooling

Suppressed exploratory learning

Best learning has a form of exploration. For example, in incremental reading, the learning process is controlled by needs and interests. It spreads dendritically from the material in focus to new areas via association. This how we used to learn for millennia (see: On the superiority of a rat over a schooled human). Children learn naturally in play. When they go to school, their exploratory quest is quickly suppressed. On one hand, they need to follow a prescribed direction. On the other, they have no time or energy to continue the quest in their own time.

I described many cases in which any conceptual activation can be conditioned to suppress memory and learning. The smell of school, or the color of the book can literally work as memory suppressors (see: How school turns off memory). For a great deal of kids, the mere word "learning" has bad associations. They will do anything just to avoid "learning" even if their favorite activity is a great way to learn (e.g. watching YouTube).

My school dropout Allen also noticed that his brain was conditioned to dislike learning:

In my childhood I was very interested in videogames. I was quite good in some of them (e.g. FIFA). Luckily I did not consider those as "learning" or maybe I would have applied bad habits to them and I wouldn't have been so good? I learned efficiently those things which I did not even regard as learning. But the moment I encountered "academic" knowledge, toxics kicked in

By constraining exploratory learning, schools affect the love of learning and suppress creativity

For more see: Education counteracts evolution.

Suppressed communication

In a classroom, the student is supposed to remain silent even if she feels a great urge to communicate or socialize. This continual suppression of the urge based on the pleasure of communication, may result in blunting the urge (by virtue of the war of the networks). The habit of suppressed communication may seem to be in conflict with the reliance on assistance. However, the "appropriate" communication channel is between the student and the teacher. As teacher channel is often occupied or closed, communication with authority becomes treasured, which in turn increases the value of assistance. Naturally, most students with healthy rebellious minds tend to condition the teacher out of the picture, and compensate their communication needs with social media or socializing after the class. In adult life, adults affected by the bad habit of suppressed communication may tend to keep their mouth shut until they are asked a question. They become shy to speak.

Sometimes, the introversion is a conscious façade set for various defensive purposes. For example:

I may have been negatively influenced by legends of social strangeness of Paul Dirac. Somehow I got the idea that "intelligent" people don't speak unless they have something important to say, so I frequently suppressed thoughts if I didn't think they were important enough, even when I really really wanted to express them. All to remain true to the façade

Instead, healthy curiosity and the pleasure of communication should make everyone talk to anyone at any time. In the days of commuting to office by taxi (three decades ago), I spent 90% of the rides chatting. I live a life in open spaces today, but I doubt I spent much time in elevators with my mouth shut in the presence of another person. If the trip was longer than 2 floors, I would accost even the grumpiest stranger. This can be annoying for those who lost their pleasure to communicate, so I know when to withdraw (I hope). However, I consider that habit healthy and I regret so many of us lose it at school.

Belief in one truth

We have no choice but to believe in one reality. We have to live by the axiomatic assumption that the reality we perceive via our senses is one. The brain naturally conceptualizes towards developing consistent models. However, schools take their perfectionist endeavors too far. They attempt to present one perfect truth in perfect textbooks that combine into a perfect curriculum delivered by omniscient God-like figures: the teachers. Occasionally, the textbook will ridicule bad models, e.g. flat earth models. Most of the time, however, textbooks focus on knowledge presented as the only truth. This has wide-ranging impact on our lives. This distorts the reality and favors contemptuous treatment of all dissenting voices. It also blunts skepticism needed in the survival of the truth. Belief in one truth leads to the intolerance of bad models


When creativity and exploration are suppressed, and when the belief in one truth is firmly set, the skill of imitation becomes a habit. Imitation is the opposite of innovation that we need in the transition from the industrial age to the information age. Anthropologists claim that human superiority over a chimpanzee rests in imitation. Our African cousins are too individualistic to scrupulously copy others. Chimps cannot develop a lasting culture or rich language. They are just not interested.

Imitation is a vital skill that helps one take useful shortcuts in the vast realm of human knowledge. Instead of memorizing the multiplication table, or mastering a slide rule, we can imitate others and use a calculator or Excel. The skill of imitation cannot become a habit though. Once we start imitating habitually, we begin to swim with the crowd, form social groups intolerant of diversity, and strengthen another bad habit: ungrudging submission to authority. Rather than stymying it, imitation should assist innovation.

Nicholas Christakis got a lot of great ideas. I like his phrase: "the arc of evolution is long but it bends towards goodness" (in agreement with my Goodness of knowledge). However, his diagnosis of human progress overestimates the value of imitation. Christakis says (my rendition): "Many animals learn. Few animals learn socially by imitation. We teach! We can teach a student calculus today and he would be the smartest mathematician if you could send him a few centuries back". It would be more precise to emphasize that we rather know how to preserve the record of innovation. This way, we easily let future generations take time-saving shortcuts. The greatest evolutionary innovation is not teaching. It is the learn drive mechanisms that makes us crave new knowledge, and make a good use of those past records. We had teachers 5000 years ago too. The progress was miserable. It exploded with books, then with radio, and now with the web. Those inventions serve self-learning. Books assisted teaching when they were scarce. Now when books are easily accessible, they replace the teacher.

Incidentally, if we teach a student calculus, he can solve some equations for a while (until forgetting takes it all away). He will not be the smartest mathematician. Great mathematicians are born by endless hours of free exploratory investigations. Newton did not need to learn calculus. He invented it. He got much better claim to the title of the smartest mathematician.

Imitation is a useful skill. When it becomes a habit, it holds down progress

Blunted skepticism

With an incessant stream of well-organized and allegedly well-considered knowledge flowing from teachers and textbooks, the mind's alertness to possible errors is lulled to sleep. Textbooks of all levels and in all countries are loaded up to the brim with errors, outdated theories, misrepresentation, and a heavy cargo of factual knowledge that is no longer relevant in the modern world. However, they are all presented as "the only truth". Students are rarely encouraged to question the teacher, the authority, and least of all, the textbook. This passive learning approach conditions the mind to blunt the skepticism. In contrast, in free learning, the minds is constantly bombarded with falsehoods. Skepticism is one of the most precious qualities of the mind that operates on knowledge derived from the web. The world of knowledge is now at the fingertips, it is cheap, and the largest selection cost may be related to sifting the good out from the bad. Fake news is like a virus, it tends to slowly induce immunity against itself in a healthy mind. That immunity is based on extensive coherent knowledge. For that skeptical framework to develop, a healthy learn drive is indispensable. However, the learn drive is one of the first qualities of the mind that is lost in the process of schooling. By the age of 13-15, most kids show vestigial interest in all areas of knowledge served at school. A mind with no skeptical framework is impotent in tackling the plethora of knowledge available on the web. This blunted skepticism is one of the key contributors to the impatient statement by John Holt: "Schools are places where children learn to be stupid".

Students exposed to omniscient schooling have diminished skills in handling diversity of knowledge

Lazy attention patterns

The habit of looking around for a helping hand is well documented in pedagogical research. I will then limit this point to a quote from David F. Lancy:

Children who must learn in and from the environment (as opposed to learning from teachers and books) develop characteristically different attention patterns (Gaskins & Paradise, 2010; Rogoff, Correa-Chávez, & Cotuc, 2005). Village children, as well as immigrant children whose mothers have little schooling - invited to learn to make something (e.g. Origami figures) - rely on observing the task as it is carried out by an expert or attempted by other children. A sample of more “schooled” individuals, on the other hand, pay little attention to the demonstration, waiting for (or soliciting) a teacher’s explanation and verbal guidance (Correa-Chavez & Rogoff, 2005)

Micromanagement of the learning process

Many bad habits listed in this text stem from an umbrella problem: lack of belief in the natural human learning powers. After years of schooling and being told what to learn and how to learn, the student attempts to develop a set of metacognitive skills that help to micromanage the process. This is a recurring theme in this article: a human idealized dream of improving upon nature. It ranges from helpful mnemonic techniques to disastrous cramming techniques.

This is a quote from an e-mail:

I lost the belief that internal learning algorithms work properly and tried to compensate by consciously directing learning. This leads to habits like over-focusing on visual representation, etc

Excessive focus on details

Tests and exams often rely on recall of minute details. This is supposed to make sure students do not take shortcuts and study the subject in depth. However, attention to detail with no respect to their importance may become a habit that adds to the stress load in learning. Best answers to questions about the value of learning individual facts comes from the knowledge valuation network. If in doubt, rely on your learn drive to make instinctive decisions.

Focus on detail may lead to an anxiety as explained in this e-mail extract:

My anxiety about having gaps in knowledge lead to memorizing minute details. Although remembering details may have benefits, like allowing generalizations to form, most of the time they were not applicable

When you compare a well-schooled adult and a child watching the same video with complex explanations of science, the adult will often attempt to register and retain all available detail. The child is more economical and will only enjoy the story behind the video. In the end, the adult will panic and possibly fail to answer simple questions about the video. In contrast, the kid may have loss all the names, numbers and other details, but will retell the general story or the general mechanism of the explained phenomena. A healthy brain unaffected by schooling will trade details for comprehension.

Schooling drives the brain from being an intelligently selective device to being an unreliable tape recorder

Excessive conscientiousness

The worship of a perfect textbook leads to a faithful obedience of author's prescriptions. The belief in the value of overlearning compounds the problem. This undermines the value of an important reading heuristic: skimming. At times, a mere change of processing speed and exactness are necessary to maximize learning efficiency. I am guilty of similar conscientiousness, however, I was never trapped by pouring over bad books. I processed a couple of top-shelf biochemistry books through all their punctuations. I have no regrets. However, this conscientiousness would make it impossible to "read a book per day" (as recommended by some self-help gurus). Efficient learning requires efficient processing and fluid transitions from being conscientious to being fast.

Doing hundreds of math drills is not exactly wasted time, but it carries a significant opportunity cost:

I would solve every problem at the end of chapters, no matter how boring. Some math books have hundreds of "drill" exercises, so I wasted a lot of time with this

Excessive focus on short-term memory

Absence of mind is often a reflection of a creative process. When people start having problems with short-term memory, e.g. "Where did I park my car?", they start worrying about possible degenerative process. Is it Alzheimer's? Instead, they should primarily invest in long-term memory, i.e. stable and highly applicable knowledge. My absence of mind verges on pathological. I may enter a shop and wonder why I came in there and what I have been doing for the last 10 minutes. Invariably, those situations are sparked by a problem to solve that lodged in my mind. Instead of being worried, I celebrate my ability to eliminate distraction (see: I have ADHD and I love it). It is schooling that puts that much weight on short-term memory. You are supposed to pay attention during a lecture. You are then supposed to be able to rattle in all back verbatim from memory. Short-term memory is there for show and pretense. At school, it is highly valued. Instead, we should only be using working memory for problem solving or communication, and short-term memory as a conduit to long-term memory. When I part with my computer after a dose of healthy incremental reading, I have no worries about not being able to tell anyone what I have actually learned. It really does not matter. All I care is the ability to employ the mastered knowledge when it is needed.

Intelligence relies on vast resources of highly applicable and stable knowledge that is abstract in nature. Short-term memory is just a temporary servant


Cramming is a form of massive low-quality learning in a hurry.

Cram and dump (or binge and purge) is a derogatory term for the ancient learning strategy employed at school: (1) cram before the exam (on the last night if need be), and (2) forget all that useless knowledge as soon as possible.

Students around the world are conditioned to employ Cram&Dump due to the excessive volume of knowledge required before exams. The strategy is also powered by minimal understanding of the relevance of the learned knowledge to their own life.

Cramming can help you pass exams, but it is also extremely harmful. It can literally hurt your brain or your health. It can affect your love of learning. It produces volatile memories that will quickly get forgotten via interference. If used repeatedly on the same tough learning material (e.g. abstruse math), cramming can lead to toxic memory.

Cramming quickly becomes a bad school habit and it can last a lifetime.

Many adults lose their ability to learn effectively. As a result they stop exploring. Habitual cramming at school is the leading cause of this intellectual setback

Tolerance of toxic memories

Toxic memory is a side effect of bad learning (e.g. cramming). Toxic memories are a norm in asemantic learning. A good student, e.g. well-versed in incremental reading will show high intolerance for bad quality learning material. When items become leeches, the brain should raise a red alert. After years of schooling, adults show incredible tolerance for bad quality learning materials and may ignore the emergence of toxic memories. See: Hating SuperMemo. The mechanism of that tolerance is based on learned helplessness, which develops as a result of the war of the networks, i.e. excitotoxic conflict in the neural control system of the learn drive.

Toxic memories live in positive feedback with knowledge deemed important by the curriculum, and deemed asemantic by the brain. In a vicious circle, the combination of the asemantic with the allegedly important conspires to make school the most universally hated institution among teenagers.

The feedback is explained by this quote:

If you have bad learning habits, learning is very inefficient, so the cost of doing it is much higher than it should be. The more important the subject, the greater the chance you will encounter it while studying. So the learning cost is also perceived to be higher than it ought to be. In other words toxic memories spread. If X is toxic and you need it to learn Y, Y may become toxic. If you have severe math anxiety, you may develop toxics to a lot of other fields because of math's great applicability

The importance of the 3Rs is a good example of the positive feedback loop that amplifies the toxicity. See: Tunnel vision of school letteracy

Tolerance of displeasure

When toxic memories keep accumulating in the learning process, the entire learning experience becomes unpleasant. This in turn leads to a tolerance of displeasure in general. The harmful thinking is "if it is painful, it must be good":

If I was reading a calculus textbook, for example, and saw an "algebra problem" I couldn't solve, I would literally reread my whole algebra book. This was extremely boring, because I already knew it pretty well. Still, I pushed through, believing that the pain was a sign of progress

My simple formula for happiness says that pain is an important contributor to a happy life, however, I speak about the pain that has its origins outside the brain (e.g. pain of jiu-jitsu injury). I am not aware of any pain or displeasure signal that originates in the brain itself that could be of any benefit in education. Some forms of emotional pain or stress may accelerate learning in one area, however, it is always done at the cost of future options for learning in other areas. Conceptualization via stress is like fire that burns all living things in the brain except for cells, concepts and connections that serve the currently active learning process. For example, a child transferred to a school in a foreign country may experience a great deal of stress that will accelerate the development of all skills needed for the adaptation in the new environment. For example, language learning via immersion may turn out particularly effective. However, all accelerated conceptualizations leave less neural substance to work with on unrelated skills, e.g. future abstract knowledge needed to master quantum mechanics.

All forms of displeasure in learning are a symptom of negative side effects with possible irreversible long-term consequences

Hate of school and learning

Suppressed learn drive contributes to the build up of toxic memories in the process of cramming. The inevitable outcome is the loss of love of learning that can become the hate of learning. When I ask 15-year-olds about their favorite subjects to learn, I often hear "I have no favorite subjects. I hate learning". They are wrong, they still like to learn street workout tricks from YouTube. However, the hate of learning becomes a conditioned reflex. See: Why kids hate school?

In the world where lifelong learning is essential for thriving, schools take away the most important weapon: the love of learning

Due to a positive feedback loop, schools tend to discourage those subjects that are most important. Important subjects are drilled harder, harder drilling involves more displeasure, displeasure reduces efficiency, bad learning calls for more drilling, and so on. The only escape from that vicious circle are passions based on needs that outpace the buildup of toxic memory. The net outcome is that for most kids, the most important subjects, such as math, are most hated:

No matter what school tries to teach, because of it's flawed model, there is a high chance the student will develop a toxic memory towards it. So the most ridiculous thing happens: we are conditioned to dislike the most important subjects!

Compulsory schooling results in the hate of learning that is often proportional to the importance of studied subjects

Worship of hard work

Once the association between learning and displeasure is made, and the tolerance for displeasure is developed, a lifelong habit may develop: worship of self-flagellation in learning, at work, in family life, and beyond. See: The grind is the glory

The worship of self-inflicted pain may be conditioned or may be a result of a conscious myth-based decision:

I thought: "Let's learn to function properly without feeling rewards and pleasure. This way I will grind much harder." The idea was to learn to suppress all reminders like STOP DOING THIS, YOU ARE WASTING YOUR LIFE

We may end up with a conscientious and hard working citizen who sacrifices her life for her family, willingly stays after hours at work, makes no complaints about a bad boss, pays an unfair electricity bills, and plods through life with very few smiles or laughter. If this kind of unhappy existence is glorified and a cause for being proud, we have a cultural prescription for an unhappy society.

Hard work is great as long as it is driven by passions. Joyless grind is unhealthy and ineffective

Futile grit

Pain of learning is a clear signal of erroneous strategies. When hard work is worshipped, the remedy for educational failure is harder work. This in turn leads to the worship of grit and self-discipline. I call it dumb stubbornness. See: Teru Clavel on Chinese school discipline.

When a student keeps failing, the right approach is to ease up and take a different angle. Without the necessary semantic framework, learning can become asemantic and lead to toxic memories. By working harder, the student can only make things unmemorizable and hated at the same time. When semantic learning is not possible, we can rely on mnemonic techniques to build an outline of memories that will later be reformed in use. For example, mnemonics can be used to memorize Chinese characters, which will later become naturally easy by forming its own semantic or pseudo-semantic framework through frequent reuse.

Futile grit only adds to the drudgery of school. Reading and re-reading the same abstruse passages is only an exercise in futile pain. The brain has natural defenses against such behaviors. It rejects unproductive efforts. Those defenses are systematically eradicated in the process of schooling. In the long run, futile grit can lead to learned helplessness.

One of the greatest sins of schooling is to incentivize the transition from failure to harder failure

Reliance on repetition

Schools tell you repetitio est matter studiorum. Unfortunately, this has nothing to do with spaced repetition. Schools require overlearning, and massive passive review. Before a test your are supposed to repeat "as often as possible", which is an absurd advice considering the spacing effect. For a repetition to be effective, it must be well spaced, it must be active, and it should focus on atomic memories (or a comprehensive semantic review if a great deal of time is available). The repetition we learn at school is nothing else but cramming. Massive passive repetition is a waste of time, and an awful time-wasting habit borne at school.

Schools refocus repetition from long-term knowledge to performance on tests

Reliance on testing

Schools make you think that testing is a good measure of progress in learning. Governments make you think that PISA is a measure of country's progress in education. In reality, there are no good comparative measures of learning, creativity or intelligence (see: IQ is a dismal measure of intelligence). Focus on testing favors cramming and poor appreciation of the importance of long-term memory. Testing makes kids learn to cram and dump.

Yong Zhao observed that test scores correlated negatively with more important assets such as the joy of learning, confidence, innovation, entrepreneurship, etc. Cevin Soling noticed that "testing demands that students view knowledge as a disposable commodity that is only relevant when it is tested. This contributes to the process of devaluing education". Alfie Kohn was more direct. He called testing a plague.

See: PISA fuels the education arms race

Tolerance of bad sleep

For a majority of the population in the western world, the power of good sleep remains hidden from view. Most of people tolerate messy sleep, irregular hours, insomnia, alarm clock, nocturnal awakenings, sleep deprivation, sleep inertia, sleep medication, disruption, noise, etc. Most of all, few people seem to be bothered with imperfect creativity, or imperfect learning due to imperfect sleep. The problem begins with "sleep management" at school. Parents wake up kids early to make sure they do not miss the class. Videogames and other hobbies steal sleep late in the night. Kids may wake up regularly at 6 am and claim they are ok. The truth comes out during the weekend when it is not unusual for them to get extra 4-5 hours showing the extent of sleep debt. What is worse, they may claim "I feel bad when I sleep too long". No wonder. That weekend recovery sleep is not without side effects. When the biological clock is out of whack, perfect sleep becomes impossible. Only during a weekend, a kid can notice that his head is heavy over a computer game. Instead of blaming school and the mess it introduces in his sleep cycles, he would blame long weekend sleep.

Most of citizens who need to get up early claim they need just 40-60 minutes to "wake up" and then they are "ok". If they were given creative jobs that provide solid cognitive load without a backup from acute stress, they might perhaps notice that their brains are half-useful. Good sleep provides exponential returns that often fly under the radar because good sleep is uncmommon. Good sleep is a precondition of creativity, problem solving, and productivity in general. Most people do not seem to know because they never truly experience that exponential effect. For that experience to arrive, a longer period of recovery may be needed. Circadian cycle needs to stabilized, chronic stress must be eliminated, and then there is an extremely important factor: a great deal of new coherent knowledge of high retrievability that powers the creative cycle (see: Knowledge and creativity).

This is what happened to one of my "recovering" colleagues:

I was free to introduce free-running sleep. Slowly I build some plan of my days. I introduced Plan from SuperMemo, I used SleepChart for a few months to check my sleep patterns. My entire days was discovering SuperMemo + reading SuperMemo Guru + reading other stuff. My goal was to assimilate everything I can to make life easier. After some time I noticed: 99% of things you say make sense [the remaining 1% I did not fully understand]

When sleep is imperfect, the learn drive is suppressed, the love of learning is suppressed, less learning occurs, learning is less coherent, the reserve of new knowledge is limited, this undermines creativity, and hides the power of good sleep. This in turn lowers the perceived importance of sleep, lowers the respect for sleep, and leads to more imperfect sleep. This is the vicious cycle of bad sleep and bad learning.

Bad learning and bad sleep live in positive feedback that undermines prospects for happier societies

For contrast see: Good sleep, good learning, good life

Disrespect for sleep

When a tolerance for sleep deprivation develops, the perceived value of sleep drops. In a modern lifestyle, sleep is often traded for other activities, e.g. socializing, TV, work, etc. At school, all nighters before exam are epidemic (I am guilty of those too).

Many yuppies claim to sleep little. Sleeping little is a badge of honor. It is a reason to be proud to trade sleep for work. Sleeping less is supposed to increase productivity. This leads to mad fads such as the polyphasic sleep, or the worship of early rising (which is great as long as it is natural).

Modern societies lose on their collective mood and intelligence by trading sleep for work

Disrespect for physiology

In theory, schools provide extra nutrition, sanitary conditions, and the toilet break should never be denied. In reality, food dispensers are often a first step towards introducing kids to junk food. School benches and school bags are horrible for the spinal health. The air in unventilated room promotes infections. For me, the quality of air and the temperature are just unbearable. I love fresh air and motion. If I was to sit in today's classroom, I would probably collapse or fall asleep in twenty minutes.

When kids are unhealthy, there is a great deal of pressure from different quarters to send them to school anyway. Viral epidemics often begin in a classroom (see: Daycare infections). Incomplete recovery leads to bacterial infections which propels the spiral of antibiotic use. Lice infections happen all the time.

I like to stay nicely rehydrated. 45 minutes might be too long for my bladder to stay patient. Kids who miss the break because of a slow teacher, may be denied toilet by another teacher who would cut the discussion short: "You had a break for that". In the authoritarian setting, the kid better stay silent or she might receive some extra graded questioning. No wonder they call schools a bladder training grounds. I am surprised that bladder infections and kidney stones are still in check despite all those violations. Probably kids instinctively drink less, and thus provide a sub-optimum conditions for the brain to operate in.

All the attempts to control the physiology may have adverse health effects. Self-control may be a useful skill, but it should not be a habit. Overall, at school we learn that health is important, but, at the same time, we get conditioned to disrespect our physiological needs.

The bad habits of overriding human physiology begin in daycare or at school. They are responsible for a significant cut in longevity

Extrinsic valuation of knowledge

The ability to estimate the value of knowledge is one of the most precious assets in a quest for effective lifelong learning. This asset is systematically eradicated at school. The knowledge to be learned at school is determined by the curriculum which is an expression of an extrinsic valuation. That valuation often disagrees with personal goals and leads to a conflict that undermines valuation skills.

The knowledge valuation network is a vital ingredient of the learn drive system that powers exploration in learning. When this network is put in conflict with extrinsic valuations, the school drive may override the learn drive.

Instead for the intrinsic quality of knowledge, valuations may be shaped by teachers, grades, awards, social pressure, and similar:

Since I am in a math school, in here we all have a desire to perform well on tests and examinations, not so much for the grades, but to stand out

At school, the student is conditioned to learn to please the teacher. In the future, the same student will learn to please the boss:

In school you are pressured by teachers. I generalized this to assume that at work I will be pressured by coworkers or boss. In school I am led to learn minute details, no matter how unimportant, to avoid the chance of being examined on those details and not knowing them, which leads to a penalty. Observe what happens when I am no longer at school but still using that school habit: I am learning about some concept of interest X. In the source from which I am learning about X, I see Y being mentioned. After observing Y, I valuate it as unimportant, so my first reaction is to ignore it. But then pressure kicks in: "What if I am examined on Y?". The entity doing the examination will no longer be a teacher, so my first guess is that it is going to be someone from my future work. I don't work yet, but I still visualize someone examining me on Y, me not knowing it, resulting in me being punished. So I start learning about Y based on imaginary pressure!

Devaluation of knowledge

With extrinsically imposed valuations, when knowledge is passively and indiscriminately acquired at school, the average valuation of the knowledge stream (learntropy) is less. This leads to an overall devaluation of knowledge. A vibrant learn drive leads to a prediction that sources of knowledge may provide nuggets of high-value knowledge at high probability. That drives natural curiosity. When knowledge is omnipresent but devalued, it is no longer attractive.

What is worse, when learn drive is suppressed by coercive learning, the entire knowledge valuation network is conditioned out of the picture. The brain accepts information "as is". Knowledge loses its shine.

Coercive learning leads to the loss of the joy of learning

One of the worst side effects of the devaluation of knowledge is the retrenchment of intelligence. See: School undermines intelligence

Indiscriminate learning

With low valuation of knowledge, prioritization skills are in decline. New users of incremental reading often struggle with a simple skill of determining items priority. They have truly lost the ability think in terms of how important knowledge is from the perspective of their goals. They understand the value of the priority queue but struggle to employ it. By my estimate, 60-80% of users of SuperMemo do not even use priorities! This is justified early in the process, when overloads are minimal, however, for a long-term advanced user, priorities are key to efficient learning. The following excerpt touches on a number of problems associated with schooling, not just indiscriminate learning:

When being examined in front of the whole class, failing to answer is very painful. Reasons aplenty. The teacher could yell at you, your classmates may laugh or think you are stupid or you could get a bad grade resulting in penalty at home. So to prevent this situation, I would try and learn EVERYTHING about a subject. I couldn't risk skipping even minute details. This approach would persist even after leaving school. There would be anxiety when skipping information. The learn drive guides me to skip it, old anxiety reflexes tell me to "learn it". Yet another war of the networks. The fact that the phenomena persists even after there is no one to punish me reminds me of how learned helplessness also persists even after the oppressors are no longer present

Injury of generalization skills

While generalization is natural, schools often lead to the injury of the process. Factual knowledge, or literal representation of abstract knowledge, are employed in the process of learning. This is most visible in cramming for a test, when time is of essence, and comprehension is secondary.

Free creative abstraction, accurate or erroneous, is essential for modeling and comprehension. Intense focus on factual knowledge at school may inhibit generalization. If a child's brain produces an abstraction that quarrels with the presented compulsory factual knowledge, she may be penalized. Instead, literal and accurate rendition of factual knowledge is rewarded.

For an illustrative example, a student may know that 2+2=4, but will not know that two apples and two pears add up to four fruits. He may be fluent in solving quadratic equations, but never able to use them in real life. After many years of bad conditioning, students disengage the power of generalization they used in childhood. They approach knowledge as a system of strings that need to be encoded in memory. This way schools condition children to give up on their intelligence, and become tape recorders. See: On the superiority of a rat over a schooled human

Tolerance of pointlessness

Many things we need to do at school are pointless. We see no goal and no value. However, when we are forced to persist, we are conditioned to be tolerant of pointless effort. Here is a mail excerpt:

I would see a concept X that wasn't interesting nor worth pursuing, so my first reaction would be to ignore it. But then I concocted a scenario in which I would have to learn it in some imaginary workplace. In that scenario, I would also experience the same displeasure, but would then have to learn it, or I would get fired. So I reasoned "I have to teach myself to learn despite displeasure, because at work not all things will be pleasurable, I must train myself to handle these situations." In other words, I reasoned that learning at work will be displeasurable, so I must teach myself to handle that displeasure, to train myself to push through it for the sake of a greater good (getting paid, which would lead to freedom, which would lead to good learning). So I would start learning X for those reasons. This raised the interest of X but not by much, and I had to grind to "learn it". What did not occur to me, was that concepts which are not interesting now may be when I have to learn them in order to solve a problem at work, because the info will be valuated differently. Work problems are connected to goals, so information which helps solve them is valuable, so learning it will feel good. When seeing X, it did not connect to current goals. But at work, the goals will be: solve work problem -> money -> freedom

Tolerance of inaction

A popular song says that the school with teach you to wait and stand in line. In the old communist times, patient people would often get rich fast. All they needed was some patience for nights of waiting in long queues for food or TV sets. In modern times, we should rather be impatient and hungry for action. Every minute of inaction is an opportunity lost. It is great to use long walks for creative brainstorming. Or use showers for daydreaming. However, a sleepy kid at school will often wait with his mind literally empty. He might be thinking about minor things, e.g. who stole his lunch. This habit of inactive patience may turn out useful on occasion (e.g. waiting in traffic jams), however, it should rather be replaced with creative thinking (which can be dangerous while driving), or with a podcast. I hear some people say that inactive patience is good for mental health. I hear it can be filled with meditation. I believe a better habit is to show impatience with inaction and replace it with creative thinking in conditions that favor thinking. A traffic jam, a waiting room in an airport, or a long queue in a supermarket are not such good places. They are rich in distractions and annoyances. A jogging in the woods provides better space for free thinking.

Serialization of reading

The habit of the "serialization" of reading is hard to measure in its impact and extent. When classrooms put emphasis on phonics in early reading (instead of the whole language approach), they teach children to convert print into sounds. This does not necessarily entail comprehension. The ability of fluent serial conversion of print to spoken words can become a habit and many adults are able to read smoothly while turning off their mental processor. They can rattle out texts and never stumble because of an unknown word or concept. High school hallways are often filled with students swaying over books like monks. They vocalize serialized written materials for a test. Their minds register little to nothing of the muttered texts. The reading becomes a kind of futile religious ritual.

In contrast, whole language readers will give comprehension the priority as it is often the context that determines the ability to recognize words via pattern recognition. In incremental reading, jumping back and forth in the text is a norm. Decoding the semantics on the basis of incomplete syntax combined with just a few words snapped up from just a few letters is a way to speed up reading with minimum injury to comprehension. Serial reading is a skill, but it is a kind of skill that handicaps reasoning. I believe that the bad habit of serial reading can easily be recovered from by just a great deal of reading with comprehension. Incremental reading might be the best therapy in existence as long as it can be made pleasurable. That last condition may be a big problem for a reader with a habit of text serialization. Incremental reading favors impatience and taking shortcuts, while focusing single-mindedly on comprehension (see: Advantages of incremental reading).


When kids learn to read with phonics, they often automate the process of reading. At some point, they can rattle out sounds without the need to focus on the meaning. As tests and exams always call for speed, they can lead to a habit of subvocalization (i.e. moving one's lips or whispering while reading). The student will push herself to read even if there is no meaning uncovered in the text. Moving lips forms a sort of physical inertia that prevents slowing down. As an alternative, a pupil can speed through required reading with a pen to make sure his speed is constant even if the meaning is hard to capture. There are even software apps that can enforce this kind of mindless regimen. This is fake reading for the sake of fake learning for the sake of fake tests that waste everyone's time and resources. Everyone gets hurt: the student, the parent, the teacher, and the taxpayer.

In contrast, an unschooler who naturally uses sight words and whole language may experience an entirely different problem. He may convert texts to semantics without actually being able to read them out. In a solo effort of self-learning, unschooler's interaction with texts combined with the need for the meaning, gives meaning the priority. Those free students need separate training in order to read for others. In free learning, the focus on pragmatic effects maximizes the benefit. In schooling, the push for volume and time leads to absurd time-wasting habits.

Free learning encourages single-minded focus on the meaning with the neglect to the art of reading aloud

Spaced repetition discomfort

I heard it from many users of SuperMemo. Early in their adventure with spaced repetition, they could only use it for mastering vocabulary of foreign languages. They could not use it to learn sciences or history, because they sensed they could not form or retain the big picture. They experienced an anxiety that separating coherent knowledge into its subcomponent would lead to a loss of memory coherence. Good use of SuperMemo will result with the opposite, i.e. improved coherence. The best coherence building tool is knowledge darwinism in incremental reading. I vividly recall my early lectures in spaced repetition at the University of Economics in Poznan. I was truly perplexed with the question "What about the big picture?". Before it was asked, I could not even see the problem. Apparently, I was free from the bad habit of coherence perfectionism. Knowledge does not need to be written down on a sheet of paper in one location to stick together. Brain does the job perfectly on its own. In the last 3 years of college I was free to explore. This was also the time I made my first steps in spaced repetition. I shaped my habits in the context of unconstrained exploration.

Incremental reading discomfort

I love the chaos of incremental reading. The tangle of knowledge in my collection breeds knew coherent knowledge via emergence. The impact of incremental multi-domain reading on creativity is astounding.

However, without a good understanding of that free learning process, new users are often inhibited by their perfectionism inherited from school. The chaos seems unacceptable. The big picture does not emerge. The formatting is unruly and even bad punctuation can be annoying. Colors distract, window layout is clunky, default font is awful and the fact that SuperMemo is based on the modules taken from Internet Explorer is unforgivable. In all that noise of distracting details, a perfectionist mind cannot function. In contrast, a passionate mind will focus on the core value: the flow of knowledge.

20 bad habits of representation

My 20 rules of knowledge formulation are all born from bad school habits. On the 20th anniversary of the 20 rules article, the count of bad habits, in one swoop, increases by 20. The proof for the origin of bad habits is simple. Schools focus on short-term learning. This focus destroys the feedback from long-term effects of learning. As soon as I started using spaced repetition, I could see bad effects of bad formulation. Freedom instantly refocuses the mind from "passing the exam" to "remembering for life". It does not take more than a few months of free learning to see what knowledge does not stick to memory. In my early months with SuperMemo, I made all mistakes in the book. I did not even need much user feedback to write my list of 20 rules. Three decades later, I still see beginners struggle with the same set of bad habits. At school, they never knew how to tackle knowledge efficiently because the way school incentivizes learning is all wrong. Some of the bad knowledge representation habits overlap with other points on this list. For example, instead of using the brain as an intelligent device, at school, we keep honing the habit of treating the brain like a tape recorder.

The majority of schooled students find it impossible to effectively formulate knowledge for long-term retention

The problem is resolved pretty fast with SuperMemo due to instant feedback. However, another bad habit may stand in the way: futile grit. For details see: Hating SuperMemo

Learning strategies

Reliance on assistance

During long years of schooling, kids learn to look up and ask for solutions. Their self-reliance gradually withers. It takes a while to understand the power of Google. An adult leaving school may need some time to "recover" from the reliance on assistance. With each Google search, he will gradually realize that assistance is virtually unnecessary. If there are answers to a problem, they can usually be found via Google. On occasion, some harder problems require some tinkering or extra research. It takes a while for young adults to realize that a teacher can actually be a hindrance. She will hardly ever know answers to difficult problems of interest, and yet she will stand in the way with an aura of omniscience. Like a tiny moon during an eclipse, the teacher can obstruct the view to the sun power of knowledge. A well-recovering student wrote to me via e-mail "I read a book called: How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. This is a great argument to become a self-learner":

When expert instructors are blind to the learning needs of novice students, it is known as expert blind spot (Nickerson, 1999; Hinds, 1999; Nathan & Koedinger, 2000; Nathan & Petrosino, 2003). To get a sense of the effect of expert blind spot on students, consider how master chefs might instruct novice cooks to “sauté the vegetables until they are done”, “cook until the sauce is a good consistency”, or “add spices to taste”. Whereas such instructions are clear to the chef, they do not illuminate matters to students, who do not know what “done” entails, what a “good consistency” is, or what spices would create a desired taste. Here we see the unconscious competence of the expert meeting the unconscious incompetence of the novice. The likely result is that students miss vital information, make unnecessary mistakes, and function inefficiently. They may also become confused and discouraged. Although they might muddle through on their own, it is unlikely that they will learn with optimal efficiency or thoroughness

Neglecting passions

Passions drive effective learning. Schools systematically suppress passions due to the needs to stick to the curriculum. Peter Gray noticed that unschooling correlates with work derived from childhood passions (source). 88% of unschoolers end up doing work that has roots in their childhood interests. In free learning, we are never conditioned to suppress passions. This increases likelihood of landing the right job, and living a happy life.

The role of passions is excellently illustrated by one's prospects for becoming a programmer.

I know dozens of great programmers and dozens of great people who wanted to be great programmers but always struggled. The main difference that I observed was not in inner smarts, education, knowledge of math, talent, etc. The main difference is how those prospective programmers started their adventure with programming. For many, being a programmer was a choice that would provide a well-paid job. From that remote goal they derived the need for learning programming languages. The approach was the same as the one drilled at school: take a textbook, read, understand, and try to do some programming as exercise. The textbook would be processed chapter by chapter until success. Sadly, many of those programmers failed and never learned to enjoy programming.

On the other end of the spectrum are programmers like myself. I was in love with the idea that computers could solve my problems. I wanted to solve mysteries of the brain. This pushed me towards programming. My first computer was ZX Spectrum (1986). It was not good enough for brain simulations, but I soon found a great deal of more fun things to do with Spectrum. I wanted to write programs for learning, composing music, predicting football tournament outcomes, play games, plot graphs, simulate or approximate, etc. My whole endeavor was driven by passion and curiosity. It was always a great deal of programming and a bit of theory to back it up. I did actually read the entire ZX Spectrum Basic manual cover to cover, however, that reading was largely powered by my interest in English and a great deal of programming in parallel (driven by goals, not by the book). Later, I learned a great deal of assembly language from the ROM content manual for Spectrum. Reading was powered by curiosity and the need for knowledge that could help me solve fascinating problems. The good habit of passion-driven explorations lead me to study PC computers (1987). I was mostly in love with SuperMemo, so I read the manuals of Turbo Pascal, Borland Pascal, and Delphi (1995). However, that reading was more for fun than for instant applicability. It was the actual programming and actual needs that provided the most important skills.

The above example is a good metaphor for the ailments of schooling. When learning is driven by passions, it nearly always comes out fantastic. When it is coerced, or pushed by urgent needs, or remote goals, it often becomes a drudgery and then a failure.

Without passion, learning rarely succeeds in the long run

See also: Childhood passions

Reliance on literal representation

Reasoning about the world is facilitated when we use familiar models to represent analyzed phenomena. This site frequently uses metaphors to explain things that are popularly misunderstood. This conceptualizing approach is a departure from the rigor of a typical schoolbook. While Einstein might imagine a beam of light like a train, a schoolbook is more likely to express the same with a mathematical formula. This literal presentation of knowledge may seem more rigorous, but it can also lead to a habit as explained in the following mail:

There was a period during which I rejected metaphors, mnemonics and other such "tricks". They felt dirty and unpure. Especially for mnemonics, it felt like I was not memorizing something the "right way". Somehow the more abstract and academic the concepts sounded, the more I believed they were the "correct" way to remember something, and all other approaches were useless. A benefit of looking for the "right way" might have been improving knowledge representation skills. However, by looking for only a single way to represent things, information related to other representations may have been devalued and hence not remembered

Fear of non-linearity

In incremental reading, dendritic learning is a norm. The brain jumps from topic to topic. It is guided by the learn drive and current needs. It has fantastic effects in the conceptualization process because a single missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle can block the use of many other pieces.

The concept of a book encourages systematic linear learning. Linear reading is great for excellent books that you love and need. Linear reading is awful for books that you hate. In the era of incremental reading, even the best book can hardly stand a chance to dominate the learning process. There are too many good books in existence to focus on reading just one or a few.

School encourages linear reading. The habit may become so ingrained that non-linearity may involve anxiety. Here is a mail excerpt that explains this:

I would become afraid of reading non-linearly. Skipping sections so that you get to more interesting parts basically guarantees encountering unknown concepts. My thinking was that encountering unknowns when you start from the beginning is not supposed to happen, and if it does, it is the author's fault for not understanding the "The One True Way". When an unknown concept arose despite linear reading, my reaction was to abandon the book, for it was obviously inferior to one which followed The One True Way

Fear of knowledge gaps

The habit of linear learning entails the habit of demanding flawless comprehension. Instead of naturally building knowledge like a jigsaw puzzle (see: Jigsaw puzzle metaphor), a linear student would ram forcefully through all obstacles on the way towards the goal. This process results in displeasure and anxiety at best. Its efficiency is illustrated by the following quote:

I wouldn't progress if I hadn't understood every sentence on a page. This would result in me reading the same page successively dozens of times with no different outcome after each read. This reminds me of that Einstein quote about insanity, although I would rather call it stupidity […] I tried this: read the first sentence, repeat it without looking. Read the second sentence, repeat the first two. Read the 3rd, repeat the first 3, etc. As you may imagine, this is O(n^2) complexity

Tolerance of poor comprehension

Tolerance of spotty knowledge is the opposite of the anxiety caused by knowledge gaps. Those opposite habits develop as coping strategies. The paradox can metaphorically be explained by the strategies taken by a biker who faces a trail that is above his current skill level. The biker can either walk the bike (wading through knowledge), or put a bike on a car (speed-cramming for a test).

Tolerance of poor comprehension develops as a form of helplessness in confronting exceedingly large volumes of knowledge served at high speed. While cramming for tests, comprehension may be secondary. Comprehension reduces the complexity of knowledge and provides a good basis for reasoning, however, those qualities may be secondary on a given test. Memorizing the study material in a verbatim form often suffices to get a passing grade. In contrast, fear of incomprehension is probably a more advanced habit that develops in older students in their quest for perfection.

The quote below is probably a case of middle-ground strategy: rote memorization in hope of building comprehension at later time (deferred comprehension):

While reading a book, I memorized sentences word for word in the sense that I could recall them from memory, without reading, for a week or two after memorizing. I kept reiterating over the sentences every morning in my mind while walking the dog. Right now I can't, because all is forgotten

Overestimating memory capacity

With dozens of books to read, with overloaded curriculum, with tests passed using cram and dump method, the student is left with a harmful conviction drilled into his head by teachers across the board:

I know I should have learned it all. I did not only because I am lazy, or because my memory is bad

We can instantly see a pathological shift of the true guilt on the part of the education system to the innocently tormented student. Human memory cannot store the knowledge of the curriculum. It cannot even efficiently store a fraction of the curriculum. See: How much knowledge can human brain hold.

By drilling toxic myths into a student's mind we affect her self-esteem, and the energy for high accomplishment. Badly misinformed students become teachers, and keep promoting absurd claims about the importance and the role of the curriculum, or specific pieces of knowledge in abstraction of the true capacity of memory, the importance of memory coherence, memory stability, and the related applicability of knowledge.

Schools are guilty of overloading students, and then blaming students for being too weak to hold the load

Glorification of schooling

Glorification of schooling is a cognitive bias that develops in adulthood. It has its roots in generalization, survivorship bias, and in wishful thinking. It is also a coping strategy. Without glorification, parents would never have a heart to send their kids to school. However, glorification often begins early. It takes just 3-5 years of schooling for most kids to believe that the best way to learn is to listen to the teacher. Self-learning skills become weakened.

Here is a confession of a young student attending an elite high school:

I personally learned to understand things which I don't find interesting by listening to them. For example, we are studying how trees procreate. When listening to the teacher, I understand some things, but when reading at home, it is like everything is in Chinese

Despite knowing English, the student has never heard of Khan Academy. He never considered that things that I hard to understand are not inherently hard. He either needs prior knowledge or a bit of own exploration for better materials. However, exploration is not the default pathway at school. By default, there is a textbook material that is to be mastered. There is no time for supplementary learning and/or exploration. Naturally, even if there was time, students who are conditioned to hate learning will prefer to cram than to add extra time to an activity that they associate with displeasure.

Fetishization of the scientific method

At school we learn that the scientific method is an established algorithm that can be used to assert the truth or falsity of statements. Instead, we should look at science as the effect of conceptual computation extended from the concept network of the brain via the concept network of collective human intelligence, down to the concept network of the soon-to-be semantic web. The proverbial apple hitting the head can change the world, and should be seen as part of the scientific method. However, this interpretation is too loose for a well-schooled mind.

At school we learn a series of dogmas about the scientific method. We value observation over deduction, deduction over induction or abduction, formula over a metaphor, and experiment over an anecdote. Instead we should always look at the Bayesian impact of information on the probability of truth. The scientific method dogma leads to the worship of peer review, control sample, blinding (with triple blind superior to double blind), margin of error, statistical significance, falsifiability, large sample, reproducibility, and more. All those precious components of the scientific methods must be taken in the right context for the right purpose without dogma.

In a thread on the validity of the "theory" of evolution, I found a quote that looks provocatively dumb:

Can you use the Scientific Method to prove evolution in your lab tonight, so that I can duplicate it and get the same result in my lab TOMORROW?

Someone got justly impatient:

Ah, the replication trope. "Until you replicate the birth of the Solar System before my eyes, I will not believe in astronomy"

In 1985, I came up with a general formula for spaced repetition (see: Birthday of SuperMemo). I was driven by a simple need to preserve important things in memory. Of all the rich toolkit of the scientific method, I used just a simple measurement. I did not compute the error, or the statistical significance. My sample was tiny, my control was none, I was the sole experimental subject, and once I had a good approximation of the answer, I did not even wait for the experiment to end. My idea of spaced repetition was ridiculed. My mom memorably insisted: "nobody has ever learned a language by putting dots on paper". Luckily, I was a happy proponent of free learning, and could not care less about the well-schooled opinion. I got what I needed: a fantastic method to speed up my learning. In the years that followed, I was pestered with the demand to make a wide-ranging experiment with a control group to confirm the method worked indeed. Some researchers tried this approach, and amazingly got pretty unimpressive results. Again, I could not care less. Who would really want to do research to prove that cars are faster than bikes (because sometimes bikes win)? Boring! As long as it worked wonders for me, I would tell it to anyone who would listen. Before SuperMemo reached wider audiences, I already convinced quite a number of great brains to try (this is how SuperMemo World was born). Today, millions of users of spaced repetitions take a similar approach. They do not seek proof in literature. All they want to do is to download and learn (or just click and learn). I am glad.

Any fluctuation of the universe that makes one scream "Eureka!" is part of the scientific quest.

Schools drive the perfection of the scientific method to unpragmatic levels

Reliance on peer review

I used to think that science is the acme of reason and reliability. Today I see boatloads of misguided research that literally distorts the truth (see examples). I believed that peer review is a great system for filtering out bad ideas. All that reasoning was implanted in my mind at school. Years later, I struggled to publish my own texts on spaced repetition, and realized that peer review was an obstacle to presenting a great idea to the world. My 1994 paper is boring, emasculated, and rarely cited by others. Still I somehow managed to creep above 50 percentile at ResearchGate while never lifting a finger to help the process.

Today, people know spaced repetition from our application (SuperMemo), and many other products. They learn about it not from scientific literature but from thousands of blogs that explain the method. That belief in peer review leads to a bad habit of rejecting seminal ideas that do not have a reputable journal citation attached to their name. There is no better place in the world to read about the two component model of long-term memory than SuperMemo Guru. Well-schooled adults will say that this site is "just a blog". A good habit would be to have a look and make up one's own mind. All it takes is to weigh up the evidence in the light of one's own knowledge.

As one of my colleagues noticed:

School leads to a dogmatic valuation of sources: peer review is perfect, blogs are useless

The habit of limiting one's scope of inspiration to peer-reviewed literature may deprive a researcher of that one extra little idea that can change the world. There is no better filter of bad information that one's own skepticism based on extensive knowledge and good abstract models of the world.

Free exploration provides the reader with the armor of skepticism needed to see a bad paper in peer review, and a wonderful text in a blog

Reliance on degrees

School is arrogant. It claims that degrees it confers equate with expertise. In insists that without a degree there is no expertise. At work, I am often in touch with talented programmers. All of them admit that their expertise came from self-learning. Many of them have degrees in irrelevant fields, or have no degrees. If I did not take programming on my own, my computer science degree would be entirely useless for my programming expertise. If you want to be a programmer, get down to programming. A degree in computer science may turn out utterly useless.

When I criticize schools, I constantly get asked "Do you have a degree in pedagogy?". My forty years of hard work over the learning methods do not matter. After all, I did all that work on my own, in my own time, in my own lab (i.e. my home office). I did it with passion and diligence, but it does not matter to those who equate expertise with schooling.

I may not have a degree in pedagogy, but at least my degrees in biology and computer science provide a solid ground for studying the brain (I would think). That's not enough for a well-schooled critic. I have recently received the following criticism by mail: "I do not trust Dr Wozniak, the self-certified neuroscientist".

The mail criticizes 130-year-old grandmother cell theory attributing it to me. It says my arguments are "stale and circular" but does not address a single one on the long list. The excuse is that "arguing is a waste of time". For me, arguing is more sensible than delighting in ad hominem attacks, which satisfy some sad need to hurt the "opponent".

The reason for writing my grandmother cell text was precisely due to the fact that "expert neuroscientists" seem to have overlooked a whole host of observations from brain science (the overlook caused by the bias inherited from studying artificial neural networks). As one of the key finding stemming from spaced repetition] is the two component model of long-term memory, and few people seem to understand the model, I felt obliged to argue in favor of a theory that the model clearly supports. Incidentally, I see more kids with understanding of retrievability than I see scientists showing the same. The explanation is trivial: retrievability shows in a nice red color in SuperMemo. A child can grasp it!

Expertise comes from long hours of exploration, not from studying for a degree

Reliance on experts

Kids leave the school with an impression that every important problem in this world has a team of experts that work to solve it. Experts are well-educated, hold esteemed degrees, mastered the curriculum to the last syllable, keep reading wise books, and will likely save this planet from future debacles, incl. climate change.

With this line of reasoning, it is easy to think that if there was a problem that was solvable, it would have already been solved. I had to combat the claim that "everything has already been" many times. When I proudly announced at school that spaced repetition is a great invention that will change the world, few people believed me. The usual claim was "if it is so great, why has nobody ever come with this before" (see: example)? Luckily, the cool head of Krzysztof Biedalak saved the day. He recognized the power of SuperMemo 1.0 in a wink. Today, we can proudly report surviving nicely three decades in business (probably the first and the longest surviving software export company in Poland).

This ridiculous well-schooled and lazy "skepticism" lead to an absurd attribution of spaced repetition to Hermann Ebbinghaus. When we first tried to sell SuperMemo, we had to combat the image of kids (i.e. our young company) selling fake pseudoscience. This is why we had to desperately seek roots of spaced repetition in all scientific sources we could find. Hermann came to the rescue due to his fantastic memory research in the late 1880s. As a side effect of our efforts, he is now universally credited with the invention of spaced repetition (see: Who invented spaced repetition?).

To boost our credentials further, I opted to get a PhD in economics of learning and pushed two main ideas underlying spaced repetition to peer reviewed papers (Acta Neurobiologiae Experimentalis 1994 and 1995).

Instead of judging ideas, we label ideas by their author's expert credentials. This awful school habit is a lazy intellectual shortcut that will hopefully die with the new generation of self-styled experts and their blogs that will flood the earth with excellent creative output. The future belongs to true experts judged by their creative productivity.

See also: Misleading research in sociology and psychology

Reliance on curriculum

The way a student thinks about learning can be totally redefined by the mere fact that the whole program of study at school is governed by the curriculum. Instead of thinking "what is useful for me", students start thinking "what a man should know". Instead of thinking about the importance of neurons, or the sources of carbon dioxide, we think in terms of biology material or chemistry course. "Was that particular block of knowledge covered at school? Do I need to be ashamed for not knowing that part of the curriculum? Perhaps I need to retake the entire course as a form of repentance?"

When things go wrong in the economy or in society, politicians keep ranting "this subject should be compulsory at school"? It does not seem to matter that making things compulsory often leads to reactance and devaluation of the subject. When climate change is compulsory at school, it stops being interesting in real life. It gets the status of the "adult world drone". Boring, unpleasant and uninteresting.

A teacher friend told me:

A phrase I hear often in schools is "what do we want students to know?", as if putting it the curriculum is the same as putting it into people's brains. The thing is, once the students start believing that curriculum myth - and they eventually do - it becomes very hard (though not impossible) to wake anyone up. In no time, the myth becomes a reality. Students believe that knowledge can't come from anything but formal instruction, which may be true after while because of: 1) school using all their mental resources, and 2) students lose the skill of self directed learning

The same refers to "sex education", "internet technologies", learning tolerance, or "learning how to learn". Cramming national history or literature is one of the best ways to cure one from being patriotic (see: I stopped being patriotic). If schools started promoting spaced repetition, it would be a big toxic bomb for the concept. Leeches and toxic memories would be the only remnants of the idea once the smoke cleared. Pushing SuperMemo on kids is one of the most effective ways of making sure they will never appreciate the power of spaced repetition, let alone incremental reading.

When people say "I have no head for physics", or "I have no memory for history", we can always trace the origins of that claim to some toxic events at school. The origin of those lifelong pains or anxieties resides in the compulsory curriculum. We could even boldly claim that putting things in the curriculum adds to an overall dislike of the subject in a generation of students. Some students will become passionate, but most will be repelled. On average, placing things in the curriculum is net loss. This might be true even if we discount the opportunity costs.

Compulsory curriculum leads to a long-lasting dislike of drilled subjects

The reliance on the curriculum is a self-perpetuating habit. Children grown on the diet of the curriculum, become adults who claim with conviction: "children need direction in learning". As a result well-guided adults deprive their own children of choices needed to develop autonomy and intelligence.

A student friend told me:

I remember thinking how ignorant I was of philosophy because I had never touched a philosophy book. Only when I started reading a little, did I notice "Hey, I've been thinking about those things, I just didn't know they were philosophy". I also remember trying to make the decision on whether I should study about data structures or about operating systems. What I didn't consider was that learning about operating systems teaches you a great deal about data structures. This last example shows another bad habit: treating subjects as ends in themselves instead of having in mind some problem and basing decisions on that

The habit of being directed is transferred to new generations and leads to the emasculation of autonomy

For more see: Harms of the curriculum

Reliance on formulas

A student who studied physics using formulas will show little tolerance to a student who understands physics without being able to described it with a mathematical formula. PhET simulations are an example of physics that can be mastered in preschool. A child who keeps playing for hours with electromagnetic forces in all possible configurations of charges or sources of the magnetic field will have a good set of intuition of how the lines of the field shape in different contexts. This knowledge may provide a better insight into the physics of the studied phenomena than formulas that quickly become too complex to study situations beyond two charges attracting each other. In the age of Mathematica, a great deal of skills learned in calculus become as useful as the use of the slide rules.

Reliance on labels

Simple and precise terminology is a great asset in the effort to understand complex reality. There is a world of difference between entropy and learntropy. This is why I decided to use the latter to help re-focus the mind from the properties of the signal to the way it is perceived by the brain. It is hard to understand memory and intelligence without a precise separation between the stability and the retrievability of memory. This is why I always define new terms as precisely and as convincingly as possible. I realize that by taking this process too far, I reduce my chances of being understood. Too many complex terms in a short space discourage reading.

Terminology is a double-edged sword. It should be used judiciously to maximize the benefits of communication

The practice of labelling things is taken to new irrational levels at school. The bad habit shows clearly when a new adept of incremental reading gobbles up large swathes of new knowledge only to discover that most of his hardest knowledge items include lists, sets, numbers, and labels (see: 20 rules of knowledge formulation). It takes a while for a student to reprioritize away from asemantic learning that dominates school work, to semantic learning that underlies problem solving. To make efficient inroads into a new area of learning, labels are often secondary. Very often, passive understanding is all we need (as opposed to active recall). Sometimes, memorizing just a portion of the label will do the trick. Instead of memorizing the term "Ponto-geniculo-occipital waves", it is enough to passively recognize the term, or its abbreviation (PGO), and focus on the importance of the waves in sleep.

The impact of schooling on the way we processed labels can be visualized with a simple experiment. If you take a YouTube video that explains how an engine works, most people will grasp the general idea. However, if you take the same video and start labelling things: piston, injection, cycle, spark, fuel, etc, the same video will start causing difficulties. It appears that well-schooled minds tend to instinctively attempt to memorize all names in the process. While focusing on labels they lose the semantics. A simple video becomes difficult. The only difference in some people is how the brain perceives labels.

To a problem solver, describing the problem in words is secondary. Solving the problem is the priority

Reliance on books

When there is a problem to solve, a well-schooled adult will often look for ready-made solutions in books (or on-line manuals). Instead of employing discovery or problem solving, a schooled adult may feel helpless when the prescription is missing in the "book on the subject". When there is a problem with a computer, a schooled adult will meticulously study the manual instead of engaging in discovery learning. In contrast, my smart rebellious 12-year-old cousin declared "manuals are for idiots". What he meant is that user-friendly software should be usable out of the box (allegedly not true of SuperMemo for Windows?). He may be an extreme case, however, most answers can indeed be found today on Google. Good books can still be useful in a comprehensive study of a larger area of knowledge, however, I doubt I will ever engage in systematic book reading. My good habit is a polar opposite: I like increading.

Cover-to-cover reading

At school we read textbooks. We start on page 1, and by the end of the year, we end up on page "the end". The knowledge in the book is supposed to build a house of knowledge layer by layer (as envisaged by Sal Khan in his building site metaphor). This deterministic linear process fails most of the time, however, it also instills the habit of reading cover-to-cover. I left school in 1990 with the same habit! However, my brain was spared the damage by the fact that I was always extremely careful in my choice of books (see: How I invented perfect schooling).

In free learning, we explore the world in a dendritic manner. We jump from topic to topic, from link to link, and we jump between authors representing opposite points of view. A great metaphor for that process is incremental reading. The knowledge tree in a SuperMemo collection is a precious record of that process. It is a visual illustration of how the brain works and interests propagate under the guidance of the learn drive. This is analogous to spreading activation except the process is extended beyond the confines of the brain.

In contrast, cover-to-cover reading is highly ineffective, and in a long run can even exert emotional harm:

I would only read books linearly, because I was anxious about encountering even a single detail which I didn't understand. I was afraid to start from the middle (even if things there seemed more interesting), because that would inevitably mean meeting some concept I don't understand

The exactly same sentiment can lead to extreme time waste, which may backfire with the hate of the learned subject:

I remember once trying to learn C from the book by Harbison and Steele "C: A Reference Manual". My approach was to literally memorize verbatim the first 30 pages. I think the idea was that if idea A is mentioned on page 5 and I don't understand it, but page 10 contains information which would help me understand it, I could simply memorize the text at page 5, and when I come to page 10 I would recall the text at 5 and maybe actually understand concept A. This sounds hilarious now that I think of it

Worship of spelling

Spelling Bee has traditionally been associated with a great intellect. It is a contest for honor students whose future has no limits. However, in reality, the art of spelling is also a reflection of self-discipline, rigor and parental ambitions (e.g. as presented in the hilarious movie "Bad Words" with immortal Jason Bateman). With omnipresent spell-checkers, the habit of learning to spell correctly starts becoming a bad habits that wastes a lot of time. There are still children on this planet who wake up hungry, while we keep pondering nuances of spelling.

Spelling drills are notorious for generating toxic memories and the hate of school. They are subject of wars at home, and a big contributor to the cost of homework. They are a major planetary waste of resources.

We need one language for the world, and English is naturally taking over that role. But English spelling must be simplified. The less attention we pay to correct spelling, the greater the chance the evolutionary process will accelerate naturally without a mediation of well-educated governing bodies. Kids texting have a major contribution. Texting is one of those good habits that schools want to eradicate. The joke says that more and more children at school smile while looking at their crotch. This is a good thing.

Worship of spelling may affect the pleasure of writing (compare: Fear of speaking out):

I am Spanish, and I don't fear speaking out (e.g. on YouTube), but I do experience a very short mild dose of fastidious displeasure when I see an obvious typo in my texts. That is for many times I "failed" an exam just for language mistakes, not really by its content


As cramming is often the most efficient method to past tests and schools rely on testing, bad school habits include worship of hard work, futile grit, and tolerance of displeasure. Those habits turn learning into a pretty unpleasant experience. This is why the term gamification is very popular in education these days. If learning is unpleasant, let's make it fun by adding a game factor, a funny picture, an attractive color, a funny voice tone, a break for a joke, or anything that is fun to sweeten the pain of learning. This results in the old soup problem. We mix pointless pleasure with a pain of learning. It is easy then to forget that good learning is always pleasurable (see: Fundamental law of learning).

I am not surprised that teens learn with YouTube on, with music in their headphones, or take dozens of breaks for Facebook or Instagram. Texting is more fun if it provides relief from the drudgery of homework. When learning is hell, all breaks are fun, even if they serve little value. This is how severe habit of procrastination is born. Little wonder that adults consider kids lazy and crank up the whip of discipline. School sows the bad seed, the kids get flogged for the bad harvest.

When schools demand bad learning, student's brain will naturally gobble pointless entertainment

Underuse of Wikipedia

Wikipedia is the best source of general knowledge in existence. In the same way as the brain undergoes the process of conceptualization in development, so does Wikipedia. It organizes knowledge, extracts key concepts and semantics, interlinks ideas, and even provides a mesh of multilingual equivalence. The conceptualization of Wikipedia is unfolding in front of our eyes and it is truly amazing.

At the same time, we can hear a teacher at school instruct children: "Do not get this from Wikipedia. This is a source of knowledge edited by random people. There are errors. This is dangerous!". Some teachers fear Wikipedia more than pornography as evidenced by their list of prime web concerns

Life strategies

Robotization of life

John Taylor Gatto views the entire school system as rooted in a conspiracy to convert society into a mass of obedient workers ready to do their 9-to-5 jobs. There is some historic truth to that reasoning. However, today, education systems are largely driven by well-intended teachers, administrators and educators who, despite their best intentions, themselves have been soaked in the mythology of schooling (see: Mythology of the archaic school system). If there was ever an attempt to trap the masses in a system that programs their lives from birth to retirement, that attempt had succeeded. We have optimized the system of education into a blind alley that is hard to escape because the system is constantly resupplied with new human workforce educated on the same mash of pedagogy that is entirely divorced from the progress of neuroscience. The system requires a never-ending increase in coercion and micromanagement under a veneer of customization and student-friendliness. It is getting progressively worse, and the collapse is near.

In a school system, we seem to know exactly how the education and careers should progress. We know how many years it takes to learn to read, to graduate from primary school, to pass high school exams, to get to college, and to get a job. The assembly line was nicely reflected in the words of Mussolini who claimed he knows exactly on which page of which book students in Italy get their well-programmed education at any given moment. This ideal robotization survived to this day despite lofty declarations of many schools in that they take individual interest into consideration.

The side effect of that factory production is that we also start viewing our lives in an algorithmic fashion: (1) get ready for school in preschool, (2) learn hard at school and get good grades, (3) graduate from college, (4) get a good job in a good company, (5) advance professionally to continue getting a better pay, and (6) live a happy life ever after (including retirement in Florida).

By providing curriculum, schools suppress exploratory learning. By providing ready-made algorithms, schools suppress exploratory approach to problem solving. This means that we lose sight of the most essential concept of life based on efficient adaptation. Instead of employing exploration, we see human life as an execution of a linear algorithm with predictable outcomes occurring at predictable points in time. Worst of all, we delegate responsibility and creative initiative to others. We live lives of apparent anesthetized comfort devoid of true elation that comes with discovery.

Metaphorically speaking, we see life as a climb up a high building in which we pass individual floors at specific times in hope of reaching some elusory top were best rewards await. Instead we should see life as a process in which we enter a jungle in order to find our best place in the ecosystem. We should enter life in society, and through optimum adaptation based on the optimality of the learn drive, we should find locally optimum place that maximizes the productivity (and the associated pleasure of living). Instead of living lives of robots, we should seek lives that maximize contentment through efficiency. Locally optimal adaptation will provide globally optimized progress for mankind.

Schools robotize life by constraining human adaptation skills


One of the worst effects of schooling is goallessness.

Due to the incessant conflict between own goals and the goals imposed by school, the brain gradually eliminates all mechanisms involved in the crystallization of own goals and passions. All changes are based on the war of the networks, i.e. a mechanism for resolving conflicts between signals in the brain. The resolution may range from simple unlearning to neuronal death and the elimination of major neuronal pathways in the white matter. In other words, changes can be easily reversible upon the restoration of freedom, or irreversible. In the latter case, we may end up with severe helplessness, goallessness and major risks of depression, suicide, addictions, etc.

As a result of the resolution of the signal conflict, knowledge valuation network is blunted or ignored. This means that the student is no longer able to discriminate between pieces of knowledge on the basis of their value, coherence, applicability, etc. By extension, problem valuation network is affected. This extinguishes passions and results in a state of goallessness in which the individual experiences overall dissatisfaction with life. When the authorities impose chores on the population, these are the goalless individuals that seems most compliant. They have been accustomed to being supplied with work goals during the long years of schooling. Goals imposed from above provide a sense productivity. When knowledge, problems and goals are eliminated as the source of reward, substitute goals take their place: salary, praise from the boss, sense of duty, sense of patriotism, sense of belonging, sense of being needed, etc.

The entire reward system of a goalless individual can easily be hijacked. The steal may serve good causes (e.g. hard work for better society), or sinister causes. There is a common denominator between the political success of Hitler and Donald Trump (see: Mystery of Donald Trump's brain). It is easy to impose ideologies and goals on individuals made goalless by ordnung, hardship, exclusion, or coercive schooling. Even the allegedly best school system in the world (Finland) can painlessly oil students into adopting societal goals for a higher cause (e.g. defending their own country with their own blood)(see: Finnish paradox).

By depriving students of the ability to choose and pursue own goals, we risk shaping societies vulnerable to populist rhetoric

Submission to authority

A direct effect of goallessness is one of the most crippling habits acquired at school: helpless submission to authority. We all must posses a skill of respectful submission when the need arises. However, submission cannot be a habit. Students forced to sit through boring lectures are perpetually conditioned to obey and survive. This habit takes away their autonomy, dignity, self-reliance, and initiative. It leads to learned helplessness, and may underlie the epidemic of depression and addictions.

The loss of the ability to rebel against injustice or unfair treatment is one of the worst habits acquired at school

Hate of authority

Submission to authority has little to do with building a well-structured harmonious society where everyone does his job and obeys the law.

If your contract is not voluntary, you may experience the sense of injustice. As your school contract is not voluntary, you will almost certainly experience the sense of injustice of compulsory schooling. As a result, all morality gets skewed. If they do it to you, you can do it to them. Teachers, principals, the government, even one's own parents can become "them". "Them" who needs to be obeyed and tricked in order to get to one's own goals. This attitude can become a habit. Many adults believe it is ok to be dishonest with the government. Stealing from "them" apparently hurts nobody. Schools condition students to be dishonest with those who extend power over their lives. The feelings were summarized concisely in one of my feedback e-mails:

My feelings for school? One word: hatred

Intolerance of diversity

When all students stick to the same curriculum, the slow evolution of their minds is subject to a pressure against diversification. School uniforms serve that homogenization too. As we keep undermining diversity, the tolerance for otherness keeps being eroded. As most people seem to develop similar models of how society should work, they tend to swat away all incursions into their peaceful set of models, esp. social models. When I mention to the elderly that compulsory schooling must end, their reactions are often violent. The outrage with my "wish to keep children ignorant" is almost instant. When I suggest to parents they should let their kids get their sleep out, they take my words as an accusation and get upset: "What about the discipline? Nobody will tolerate a worker who is tardy!". The uniformity of models takes away educational vigilance. Society keeps being busy with daily routines with less time for intellectual excursions. Uniformity is boring, favors mental stagnation, which in turn favors negative reactions to all forces that tend to break safe models.

Educational uniformity favores intolerance of diversity

Sense of fake duty

When a child is ordered to perform tasks under a threat of penalty, she will be conditioned to obey without questioning the purpose (see: Submission to authority). When the number of tasks exceeds a healthy processing capacity, the child may be conditioned to obedience associated with anxiety. After many years of such conditioning, she may develop a perpetual sense of duty that is a never-ending source of anxiety. Such a dutiful person worries about her duties at home, and duties at work, and self-imposed duties that stem from social appropriateness, or "reason". If that anxiety spirals into depression, a person may experience a dangerous loop in which depression makes one neglect the duties, and worsen the associated anxieties. A possible way out from such a feedback loop is simple living and freedom, incl. freedom from social pressure to perform. For everyone affected, my formula for happy life may seem like an utopian dream. In severe cases, a psychiatric intervention may be the last resort. Compare Excessive conscientiousness

Intolerance of procrastination

Procrastination is an emotional struggle with unwanted jobs, and the anxiety associated with having too many jobs to execute. Rational procrastination eliminates the problem of procrastination. In free learning, we quickly learn to distinguish between productive jobs, and futile jobs imposed by others (incl. culture). The first step in rationalizing procrastination is to eliminate all jobs that make little sense. We need to rely on the problem valuation network. The brain must be the boss of the process. The second step is the prioritization. We need to focus on top priority jobs (e.g. as estimated by value/cost). The rest of the list can linger (e.g. on a tasklist or in an incremental reading process). Rational procrastination eliminates an important source of stress for a modern man: excess and low valuation of tasks. Schooling suppress the reliance on the problem valuation network. It suppresses the reliance on self. As a result, it results in stunted valuation skills. Without an efficient ability to estimate the value of tasks, we live lives of never-ending anxiety sparked by the sense of low productivity. As long as the stress out population keeps procrastinating, it will hail intolerance of procrastination (compare Procrastination habit).

Schools are factories of procrastinators

Submission to uniformity

Intolerance of diversity and submission to uniformity live in a feedback loop. Intolerance of diversity increases social pressures. The more uniform the society, the greater the pressure to stay in line. If all workers in a corporation wear black suits, the one who comes in in a white variety might get ostracized. The one who is barefoot in shorts (like myself) may risk being fired. Uniformity increases the pressure to stay uniform.

Diverse free learning is essential for intelligence. For similar reasons, diverse societies are more adaptable and express improved collective intelligence. That collective intelligence is regularly undermined in collective homogenized education where all kids need to comply with the same curriculum, learn in classes of the same age, walk in columns, and often wear identical uniforms.

Diversity favors intelligence. Uniformity favors erring in unison

Disrespect for freedom

When a child is being pushed from the early ages, it develops an unhealthy tolerance for being pushed. Symmetrically, it develops insufficient appreciation of autonomy, freedom, and democracy. Schools teach democracy from a textbook, but when it comes to giving a child a voice, they teach that it does not count. There is no democracy at school. Even worse, there is no freedom at school. A child does not even have a vote in her own education that can be decided upon without affecting the life of other students.

In a mild case, a child deprived of autonomy will live a not-so-happy life of submission. She will accept irrational governmental regulations, or will tolerate an authoritarian boss. Very often, children raised with disrespect for freedom, become authoritarian parents. They do not even notice the analogy between school and slavery.

Depending on one's own ethical standards, the evil forces of disrespect for freedom may hit the individual himself or others.

After years of life based on the ruleset crafted by others, citizens may be eager to imprison or execute those who do not comply with social rules. They may tolerate or admire tyrants and dictators.

People raised with disrespect for freedom easily abuse power. A company boss will hire and fire without a wink. An officious clerk will shovel paperwork that determines other peoples' lives, and never lose her sleep over the fact. An unscrupulous bankster will suck the last dime from an ignorant customer.

By raising children in conditions of serfdom, we build a society that keeps its members in psychological prison for life

Tolerance of tedium

My own life is seen as very repetitive. People ask me if I do not find it boring. There is not a day I would miss my incremental reading, exercise, or incremental writing. I am a living example of how routine can be fun. It can be seen as a system for not missing the best things in life (see: Planning a perfect productive day without stress). Many kids have their life programmed to perfection too. However, instead of enjoying all individual activities, they literally wade through to survive one more day. Sometimes, the only reward is a chance to go to play football in the evening, or an hour with a game console. They wake up sleepy, survive many hours of boredom at school, tick off their homework to keep an inquisitive mom silent, and seek a tiny bit of time for being true selves. When an unschooler wakes up in the morning, she starts from dreaming about a great day ahead. When a schooler wakes up, it is usually too early, and all the brain can think of is the next step to make: out of bed, out to school, and so on. I see the best minds wither slowly and lose the passion for their hobbies and interests. This is true learned helplessness unfolding in front of my eyes. Those kids often disappear from view at twenty or so. When I meet them later in life, the youthful spark is usually missing. They may have kids, jobs, wives, etc. But I see too little joy, too few hobbies, too few passions, etc. It does not need to be like that. That tolerance of tedium has been learned!

By being raised in boredom as children, adults do not seem to resist boring lives

Intolerance of impulsivity

A rational mind should have a good grip on its emotions (see: Stoicism). However, the joy of learning may turn into enthusiasm or even euphoria. Joy of problem solving may turn into an impulsive quest for more problems to tackle. Those emotions may seem to indicate poor control, however, they can also power success in learning, creativity, and problem solving. This is why they should not be extinguished, but rather used wisely. Dr Ellen Winner noticed that the rage to master is a great indicator of future outcomes for children. This rage to master often disappears in the first 3 years of school. There is nothing wrong with going crazy with joy. Crazy joy is very healthy (see: Simple formula for happiness). Unfortunately, all forms of impulsivity must be suppressed in a school bench. An overenthusiastic student may be disruptive for the rest of the class. This is why a classroom can condition a habit of staying cool in face of success (or defeat). This takes away an important engine of intellectual progress.

Classrooms kill passions that power productive lives

Hiding emotions

At school, impulsivity is just one aspect of emotional life that should better be kept hidden from others. Schools suppress the expression of emotions. Emotional kids risk being bullied. Emotions are also seen as a form of interference in the learning process. A classroom is supposed to be a place of learning where communication or socialization are secondary. An objective scientist is a role model who is perfectly stoic and in control. The role model is a pensive introvert. An emotional display on a test may send one on a path to a psychiatric treatment. It is unlikely to move a teacher or change the test result.

In open system socialization, yelling or crying are part of the socialization game. When I play football with kids, I remain stoic in face of failure, but show loud joy at each success, esp. if younger kids exceed expectations. At school, I would be reprimanded for the breach of peace. Teachers are also expected to show poise even if a bully goes riot in a class.

Emotional outbursts are a norm in any healthy family. An appropriate use of emotions is part of one's social skillset. We naturally learn to smile or frown. At school, a smile is useful in an interaction with a teacher. However, a smile does not count if it is fake. The interaction with a teacher is usually an artifact of the system. The teacher is the powerful judge and the jury. Affection towards a teacher is often fake and well-conditioned. Only the best teachers can shake the yoke of rigid rules.

In addition to suppressed emotionality, loss of the learn drive, and the homogenization of thinking all contribute to the loss of the pleasure of communication. Beyond a narrow circle of peers, other children at school, or other members of society, gradually lose their appeal as individuals who each has something interesting to say.

Years of schooling tend to generate citizens who are less outgoing, less eager to communicate, and less happy in their social life.

Schooling tends to convert happy children into cold or unhappy individuals

Criticism of optimism

Schools insist that modeling of reality must be realistic. At school it is not acceptable for probability estimates to depend on the mood or on the disposition. School favors one truth and the scientific method that should always be mood-independent. Schools will tell you: "Optimism is not objective!".

The mood affects valuations, while valuations determine the behavior. This is why optimism is often seen as a mis-representation of reality. An optimist may overestimate his chances of success. That increases motivation. This in turn may increase productivity. This feedback loop may lead to the phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy. The same loop works in a depressed mood when the brain tends to prophesize failure.

In this text, I claim that the bias introduced by the optimistic mind is more likely to err on the side of the truth. Moreover, as much as schools induce learned helplessness, free learning favors learned optimism. In other words, freedom is good for mood, and for learning. In the long run, a happy frame of mind favors speedy conceptualization, which favors the convergence of models towards the truth.

A well-schooled mind is coldly objective, while a free mind is more likely to happily achieve

Political correctness

Hiding emotions is just part of a larger problem of being politically correct. A well-schooled adult will often be political when presenting his opinions. Supporters of Donald Trump enjoy his ability to be ruthlessly direct (even though he can be pretty secretive or dishonest too, e.g. about his taxes). Perhaps Trump, in combination with the web, will have some good impact on the future of politics? My own political correctness has been well-schooled. I will bend over backwards to avoid words that might hurt someone, while still being truthful. In my discussions about education, I am as self-deprecating as possible, esp. when talking to people whose whole life and livelihood might be undermined by my thinking. Perhaps I am doing a dis-service to the cause of change? At the same time, this attitude helps me garner more information, esp. about people's knowledge and motivations. Few things can shut down a conversation faster than hinting at one's interlocutor's ignorance. Presenting myself as an "expert" is unpalatable to my well-schooled mind. However, it would be easier for me to change if the entire society was a bit more open, esp. more ready to admit ignorance. That fear of looking stupid is one of the worst habits conditioned at school.

It is hard to be open in society that has a well-schooled cultural imprint of "appropriateness"

Zero-sum gamesmanship

The system of rewards that emerges in market economies seems to work pretty well for the smart and the healthy. However, it is marred by bad habits inherited from school. The system of rewards and penalties at school incentivizes horrible learning practices that undermine student's intelligence. However, it also incentivizes self-centered reasoning, in which life is seen as a zero-sum game where winner takes all.

One of the key weapons used by parents and teachers is the comparison. The best student is used as an example to follow, and the rest of the class or school is made to feel inferior by not being able to live up to the glorious standard. This leads to low self-esteem, learned helplessness or depression (as discussed elsewhere in this text). This also leads to an obsessive habit of comparing oneself with fellow students. Those comparisons fade in a close circle of friends in a playground, but get revived on a daily basis by the competition at school. Alfie Kohn considers competition at school one of its worst practices.

I got an undeserved pass in Polish at the end of high school. I passed because I showed some promise in the area of interest: biology. One of my closest friends remarked that the pass was unfair for the remaining students who had to work hard for their grades. This is the type of reasoning that have been inculcated at school. Obsession with grades and fake rewards makes my pass inflict some imaginary injury on the remaining students. I received an unfair handicap that let me pass the finishing line in a race where overall societal benefit is secondary. The gamesmanship is habituated as vital and even honorary.

We can now see the habit of zero-sum gamesmanship permeate society. We envy the neighbor. We gossip about celebrity rise and downfall. We put fake vacation photos on Facebook to make our FB friends green with envy. We aim at the flashiest car that would make heads turn in the neighborhood. This perpetual effort at keeping up with the Joneses takes away from one's true ability to creatively contribute to society. I consider this habit a mental pollutant.

Incidentally, I disagree with Alfie Kohn. I believe that all competition can be made into win-win efforts (see: The case for competition). However, for a competition to work for everyone, we need to approach it with a win-win mindset. A majority of students lose this mindset at school. Little wonder then that depression, violence, and addictions are rampant in western societies. Stress is caused by the departure of reality from dreams, and dreams are defined by wasteful comparisons.

The game of comparisons played by teachers becomes a destructive zero-sum game of life in adulthood

For more on the subject see: Zero-sum gamesmanship


Envy is a direct consequence of zero-sum gamesmanship. In a class, we are constantly graded and compared. The winners will be a subject of envy. Their life seems easy, why is ours so hard?

I would think “ooh this guy has crammed less time than I did and had a better grade, that is unfair”. I have been the “second best grade student” during multiple years. I had the second-best stigma for years during the undergraduate and the first graduate. I still felt that the person with better grades than I did not worth it, in the sense that that person was just memorizing and throwing up without almost no understanding. I couldn't keep a conversation about the topics we cover with him unless I asked multiple choice questions

The problem disappears in free learning when there are no comparisons with others. The only focus is beautiful knowledge and the pleasure of learning. On occasion we may boast or enter into a shinning knowledge contest, but soon this fades too. When a free student meets another free student, he knows infinitely more in his own field than the friend, and the friend knows infinitely more in his own area of passion. They exchange fruitful ideas. If they happen to have the same passion, this is a super-happy coincidence. They can talk till the early morning hours. Envy is endemic to well-schooled populations. It is rather not extinct among unschoolers, but it is not an integral part of their day-to-day functioning.

In Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke of envy in science. He hinted that it is normal and it should not detract from the image of a scientist. I disagree. Like students in compulsory schooling, scientist are often not free. They fight for grants, peer review rankings, popularity, accolades, etc. The envy instilled at school can easily be enhanced within the academic world. It does not detract from a Nobel Prize, but it is undesirable, even as a motivator. In my own field, I have no guillotine of publish-or-perish. I do not fight for grants. This is liberating. I celebrate all scientific discoveries and love to boast of my own ideas. There is no room or need for envy. Envy seems alien to a mind who cares about learning, discovery, and the future of the planet that belongs to all of us. Envy is a product of a system based on coercion, and is just one more limiting factor that poisons a creative mind.

Love of money

We are biologically programmed to fight for a high status in a social group. A great deal of that fight is conditioned through a set of rewards associated with status privileges. Schooling intensifies the rank competition among peers (see: zero-sum gamesmanship). One of the key motivators in schooling are the prospects for a good job, and the associated social status. For a student whose learn drive is suppressed due to schooling, social status can easily dominate the input to the reward system. The status may at first be expressed as good grades and praise. Passions and interests become secondary. The choice of the major in college is often dictated by the earning potential. Very quickly, the brain learns to associate good things in life with money. Because of the ubiquitous conversion of all measurable value to money, love of money becomes conditioned in. In the state of goallessness, the money itself becomes a goal.

As we all know, money cannot buy happiness. The love of money is driven by mechanisms analogous to drug addiction: high wanting without sufficient liking. When creative passions are extinguished, the brain seeks new rewards. Gaming, money, or drugs are frequent substitutes. In contrast, an unschooler is more likely to develop thriving passions. A simple solution against the mechanism that habituates the love of money would be to institute basic income. If a young man is free from worry about his future, he may be free from money-driven valuations, and more focused on the value of knowledge, creativity, productivity, and the value of a utilitarian contribution.

Schooling and the rat race train the brain to crave money and contribute to breeding unhappy societies

Worship of orderliness

Kids are told from the early age to keep their toys in order, to keep their room clean, to keep their clothes in a perfect fold, etc. Life at school is perfectly organized with kids kept warm and safe indoors, and fed candy or soda from vending machines.

This quest for perfection can be a major problem for a housewife whose house needs to shine for an unexpected visit. Instead of being productive and happy, the lady of the house keeps spending long hours on cleaning, organizing, and keeping things in perfect order. She got no time to read a book that would add some pleasure of learning to her life. Her own cleanliness gets transferred on the kids by virtue of yelling for the slightest violation, and for the slightest spot of dirt.

The problem of cleanliness has compounded our fears of dirt and bugs (see: Daycare infections). We started building houses of glass and concrete surrounded by perfect sidewalks and perfectly trimmed grass. This resulted in an epidemic of allergies and weakened immunity. The full extent of the problem is still to be fully appreciated. Some neurological problems may also have their origins in weakened immunity or in erroneous autoimmune responses. We have engineered a perfect world, for perfect kids, who become perfectly vulnerable to the adversities of the world.

Instead, kids should be allowed to stay dirty, to roll over in mud, to play football in rain, to run wild through forests, to swim in cold water infested with algae, to keep their room the way they like it, to make their school notes the way they like it, and to live by the rules of pragmatic productivity. Some precautions against parasitic infections or injury are welcome, but life in agreement with nature is simpler and fun.

The quest for perfect order can be pretty stressful. We should replace it with a quest for being practical

Worship of perfect models

Worship of orderliness and cleanliness have the same common denominator: perfectionism. The attitude extended to abstract knowledge can lead to a quest for flawless models of perfect truth. The real world of complexity and contradictory theories might then seem ugly and tough to harness or handle. As in all the remaining cases of perfectionism, the idealizations may generate anxiety when confronted with the real world:

Math can be learned in a linear fashion. You can supposedly start from axioms and build everything up from them. So in theory I could learn it without encountering unknowns. As I already said, seeing an unknown concept which I could not decode generated anxiety. As I was learning math in this linear way, I tried to convinced myself I don't care about real-world applications or problems, just for pure mathematics. This was because the real world is much more chaotic, which guarantees encountering unknowns during exploration. I would say to everyone how pure mathematics is beautiful, but real world problems are ugly. In truth, I was simply afraid of taking on real world problems for aforementioned reasons

Worship of utilitarianism

It is a great pleasure to know that what I do can be useful for others. I am happy to see spaced repetition conquer the world. I am happy when my texts help young people find their footing in the chaos of the world. However, the joy of being useful cannot be marred by a demand for being useful. The concept of hikikomori was born in the utilitarian culture of Japanese society. It is a sad and guilty life for an individual who struggles to find its place in society that worships utility. This guilt can begin long before the brain reaches its maturity, or before the young man gets a chance to accomplish anything remotely useful. Modern societies will rely on creativity and innovation, and the high bar of achievement will keep being raised. To retain our sanity, we need to learn patience and let people ready themselves for greatness for decades. We cannot spurn lives that did not bring tangible fruit. A scientist can pursue a theory for his whole life only to realize he was stuck in a blind valley. Instead of worshiping utilitarianism, we need to praise the quest. Each healthy young brain is equipped with a powerful learn drive that meets all the conditions of optimality. We cannot criticize a young man for unusual interests, obsessions, gaming, stamp collecting, etc. These all diversions pave a path to future greatness. To live optimum lives we just need to let that drive go. For more see: Universal basic income will explode human creativity

It is nice to be useful, but it is important to be free in the quest of one's own goals

Confusing noise with learning

I used to live by the principle "use every second of life for learning". This seemingly noble principle I took away from school. Schools keep extolling the importance of knowledge. I am not sure if I got the memo or just arrived to this conclusion independently. The claim that "knowledge is power" is universal and probably inevitable for any brain with a minute to pause. However, I took that principle to the extreme. I did not want to waste a second. So it seemingly made sense for me to read anything, or listen to anything or anyone. I would do it before sleep, upon waking, and in the toilet. It took me a bit of experience to understand the limits of what we can learn (see: How much knowledge can human brain hold). It took me a while to value peaceful time for processing what has already been learned (see: How to solve any problem?). It took even longer to understand the importance of coherence, and applicability. Last but not least, understanding the pleasure of learning, and the conceptualization process in learning (and development) cast the final light on the ultimate verdict. The power of the brain rests in a few golden pieces of knowledge that are usable and re-usable in dozens of contexts. To turn those pieces into powerful creative weapons, the learning process must account for the nature of conceptualization. In other words, it is not possible to write down those nuggets in a book, read, and accommodate by rote. The universal applicability must be honed over years of generalization, and creative elaboration. Those years must be filled with good sleep, a great deal of new learning, and a great deal of problem solving in the protected mode (i.e. in the time when nobody can disrupt the brain with a tweet, e-mail, phone call, door knock, or a doorbell).

Knowledge is power by its applicability, not volume

Wasting the morning

In free running sleep, morning is best for creative achievement (see: Optimum timing of brainwork). A student attending school will never discover the power of the morning. On a school day, the morning rush wastes that precious window of optimum brain time. On weekends, the student might be catching up with sleep debt, which partly nullifies the power of the morning. In contrast, an unschooler will wake up with dreams for the day. Free mind will plan something exciting or will ponder a problem to solve. This free thinking is alien to a large proportion of the population due to the enslavement by the rigid demands of time: school, 9-5 work, little children to take care of, etc.

The habit of a busy morning schedule makes it impossible to discover the power of the morning in brainwork

Tolerance of commuting

For more than two decades now, I have worked from home. The idea of commuting seems painfully wasteful. We waste tons of time and energy to move masses of people while, in many cases, we could just move electrons on the web. In addition, commuting usually consumes the most productive part of the day. The best learning and the best creativity arrive in the morning after natural waking. If we had more kids homeschooled, their learning results would improve, they would get a natural lesson in free learning, and they would also develop a healthy intolerance of commuting. Having not entered a car for 8 years now (2020), I start struggling with the notion that people prefer the confines of a box over a refreshing walk or a jogging.

In the era of ubiquitous e-learning, children should have a choice of telecommuting

Suppression of fidgeting

A cultural imprint says that fidgeting is impolite, distractive for others, and an indicator of poor self-control. As a result, fidgeting is one of the first natural behaviors that is habitually extinguished by school discipline.

In reality, fidgeting is healthy. Vascular system does not like immobility. In particular, prolonged limb immobility is unhealthy. In addition, fidgeting facilitates creative thinking. Creative individuals are often habitual fidgeters. Fidgeting is then one of the contributors to the confusion between creative thinking and ADHD.

Fidgeting is healthy, and it may be used by the brain to facilitate a creative process

See also: I have ADHD and I love it


In free development, we naturally develop a contempt for cheating that leads to someone's harm. In contrast, we are also frequently conditioned to employ a white lie. Schools are renowned for the set of incentives that encourage cheating.

Cheating is a norm for a large subset of kids. This habit may transfer to adulthood. I cheated on an exam too. The mechanism is simple: if you think the subject makes no sense, if you think the teacher is not fair, if you have better things to do, your cost-vs-benefit analysis will encourage cheating. After all, this is your life and your knowledge. Cheating in a standard school test does not hurt anyone. It can be the fastest way to the desired outcome: getting a passing grade. After a good dose of conditioning, you may be desensitized to the possibility that cheating may give you unfair gains (e.g. monetary awards for school results), or that it may hurt others (e.g. in a competition for entry to college). Life is full of temptations, and it takes a while to develop a brain that is resistant to the temptation of unfair cheating. However, if we provide a temptation early in development, if we encourage bad behaviors by a set of incentives, conditioning may consolidate and stabilize and became a lifelong habit.

One of my friends wrote with no shadow of guilt:

Through these years I learned no math. I was only cramming for exams. I cheated a lot on exams. I turned to be a king of it. Especially in high school when I was a first person in the class who introduced the Internet and mobile phones which in turn helped me to pass exams because I could find solved exercises on the Internet

When cheating serves a noble cause, it may advance to the level of "acceptable" felony:

I liked mathematics and wanted to go to university to study it exclusively. I wanted to be a professor! However, in my country you can't go to Uni without HS diploma, so I paid a friend to create a fake one. I took the university exam and got 5.5 out of 6

In the quest for freedom, the cheating habit may extend to one's own home and family with a cascade of negative emotional side effects that can produce deep scars for years to come:

Failing means repeating the grade and trying again next year. My mother knew that I wouldn't pass next year's exams as well, she saw that I was determined to quit. Since I was studying programming on my own at the time, I convinced her that I can get a job without a degree. I did this by lying that I have friends dropouts who are programmers

A young man may know instinctively that dropping out is a great pathway to greatness in programming (see: School dropouts). However, school mythology makes it hard or impossible to convey the message to others. This can generate a toxic environment that may thwart the best plan and the best brain. I was entangled in a similar dilemma upon graduation, however, I was lucky enough to never have needed to resort to lying to my mom.

If you worry about the dropout student in the story, here comes the power of the exploratory drive in free learning:

After I quit, I wanted to get into programming, but someone must have told me that in order to learn to program, you must have math knowledge. My math skills were dismal, so I started learning from scratch (literally first grade stuff). After a couple of years of self-studying, I liked mathematics so much that I wanted to go to university to study it

Health micromanagement

After many years of cramming at school, we develop a habit of simple algorithmic reasoning based on dry facts. Instead of modeling reality to produce applicable conclusions, we tend to develop a set of simple if-then rules that can be memorized like entries in the multiplication table. One of the prime victims of superficial reasoning is our health. We tend to overreact, overly rely on health services, abuse diagnostic tools, over-diagnose, and, worst of all, micromanage health. Dietary fads and supplementation are prime examples of health micromanagement.

A collection of simple if-then rules may easily lead to false conclusions. The rules may say: (1) vitamin A is important for health, (2) if a supplement is good for health, take it, (3) if something is good for you, the more of that something is better for you. In reference to vitamin A intake, those rules can lead to death. Even water can kill a marathoner (see: water intoxication).

Famous explorers Mawson and Mertz were among the victims of hypervitaminosis A. However, they ate dog liver to survive their Antarctic trip. Schooling inhibits exploration. This is why explorers rarely exhibit a schooled mindset.

An ignorant farmer may exhibit better health than a well-schooled hypochondriac

For more see:

Conditioned responses

Conditioned responses are not habits. They will determine how you feel about yourself, about a school subject, about a teacher, about school, or about learning in general. However, those responses will also affect your behavior, your habits and your strategies. For example, if the school lowers your self-esteem you may develop a whole set of harmful habits aimed at protecting or boosting your self-esteem. Among those, you can develop a habit of lying about yourself.

Learned helplessness

When the brain is regularly conditioned to sense the futility of efforts, it responds with no effort. The helplessness can be learned. Students can literally learn not to learn. The voice of a teacher becomes an empty sound wave that induces no learning, while possibly eliciting an occasional nod of sham agreement. Individuals affected with learned helplessness show little initiative, easily give up upon encountering difficulties, and have diminished problem valuation skills. Learned helplessness develops when an individual is not in control of her circumstances. It is the first step to depression caused by reward deprivation. An individual powered by a vibrant learn drive will thrive in all environments. Her main reward is productivity and continual progress stemming from brain's natural adaptability. See this picture

Learn helplessness stands in seeming opposition to another bad school habit futile grit. While a helpless student gives up easily, gritty student may persist for unreasonably long time despite lack of success. Both helplessness and futile grit stem from insufficient or erroneous signaling from the problem valuation network. The network can only build accurate knowledge about problems to solve in free problem solving. Problems must be self-chosen. They cannot be imposed from above.

Futile grit may be a predecessor to learned helplessness. When stubborn problem solving leads to no solution and no reward, the motivation system can wear down.

Learned helplessness may result from either (1) external pressure or (2) futile grit

For more see: Learned helplessness vs. learn drive.


Several bad habits from school contribute to a conditioned response and the habit of procrastination. Students are never lazy (see: Myth: Students are lazy). If they develop tolerance for displeasure in learning, if they worship hard work, their brain's natural defense against those bad habits is procrastination. A healthy brain equipped with a healthy learn drive will instinctively know which forms of learning make no sense. Bad learning is not just a waste of time, it can lead to toxic memories, hate of learning, or even neuronal injury (see: Bad learning contributes to Alzheimer's). This is why natural defenses will trigger behaviors that give students their lazy label. It is just their brains screaming "No!" to the absurdity of coercive learning. When a student is forced to repeat bad learning, his defenses can become etched in the brain as a conditioned response. Once this happens, even a good book with high quality content may trigger a reaction: "Perhaps I will read that book later?". It does not take long for procrastination to become a habit. No learning seems interesting, and no learning seems worth to take place "right now". By pushing it for later, the brain gets the reward of peace. Instead, we should remove coercion from schooling and let kids learn things they love. Compulsory schooling must end

The habit of procrastination is a direct consequence of learning induced by threats and bribes of schooling

Compare: Rational procrastination and Intolerance of procrastination

Low self-esteem

There is a whole cohort of children unjustly labelled as inferior due to ADHD, dyslexia, stuttering, etc. Those labels can mark kids for life. When things go wrong at school, highly intelligent kids may self-diagnose and call themselves ADHD, dyslexic, or an "aspie". An infection that affects speech centers may result in classifying a super-smart individual as "intellectually disabled". There is nothing wrong with diagnosis and therapy as long as we keep extolling the plasticity of the neocortex that can help overcome very steep adversities.

A more systematic and widespread problem arises from compulsory schooling. School forces you to do many things you do not want to do. When you refuse or do it half-heartedly, school will imply you are lazy or stupid. On occasion, this is exactly what you will hear from a teacher. Don't hold it against her. Her reaction is natural. She wants you to work by the rules, so that the school system could work for you. She will use emotional manipulation to make you do things. When your parents care too much, they will do the exactly same error. If you keep hearing you are lazy and stupid, if affection is conditional, your self-esteem may plummet.

Nearly all teens I know label themselves as lazy. When I investigate, it appears to be untrue. Many kids do not hesitate to disclaim talent or intelligence. When I investigate, the opposite is true.

Finally, when bad learning habits set in, the student may blame himself for the failure instead of blaming errors in strategy, such as the tolerance of displeasure:

There is an endless amount of study algorithms to come up with, but displeasure guides you against the bad ones. It is a defense mechanism. But when you are conditioned to ignore that mechanism, you don't know if your current algorithm is not working because it is bad, or because you are stupid. With the belief that displeasure is simply the pain you have to go through to really learn, you abandon wrong algorithms more slowly, and you persist longer

The good news is that free learning can restore that lost self-confidence. In particular, properly managed incremental reading has well-documented powers:

I started incremental reading very early. I never told you but I dropped my college because SuperMemo promised to be a fantastic personal "Knowledge Machine". I never regret. SuperMemo gave me confidence. I bought Advanced English. I memorized until now only about 5k items, however incremental reading was more interesting for me than memorizing words. Right now, thanks to (user: Alexis.Inco) I can read books incrementally using his Plugin

By the nature of their design, schools are natural destroyers of self-esteem. Recovery is possible with free learning

Fear of looking foolish

From the age of 3 until college, or later, we are incessantly exposed to extrinsic motivational phrases: "it is a shame not to know it", "at your age, all kids know it", etc. An average teacher and an average parent have it conditioned to the level of a instant reflex. We do it all the time, and that motivation strategy is extremely harmful. Instead of contributing to enlightened societies, we produce societies with constant fear of appearing foolish in social contexts. Those fears can be distractive and lead to wildly unjust self-diagnosis:

I remember that I always had [attention] problems when someone talked to me. I hypothesized that it could be something with phonological loop or central executive or stress or attention or whatever

The whole idea of stage fright is born at school. An unschooler could not care less (until he intermingles with "fear of disgrace" culture). Each time a student is supposed to present her knowledge in front of the class, she is conditioned to appear perfect at the risk of feeling painfully shamed:

My anxiety in problem solving comes mainly from standing in front of a class and kids laughing at me due to my stupid answer. Next time even if I knew the correct answer I was paralyzed. This is probably uncorrectable. I experience this till today. Asemantic processing due to stress which is associated with "what do they think of me", "did my answer was appropriate?" "I know the words he/she told me but I do know the meaning". I recall getting a red face. Soon people in a class spotted it. It got worse

Decades of conditioning shape the culture and the imprint is intergenerational. Those tormented kids usually become tormentors themselves for their own children. They just do not know any better.

Ignorance is a natural side effect of the limited size of human memory. We all have areas of expertise, and many more areas of abysmal ignorance. Many a housewife will avoid the term "housewife" for it feels like an occupation characterized by ignorance. However, housewife knowledge can often be compared to that of lawyers or doctors. It only focuses on different areas of expertise. There are no degrees in housekeeping because every household is different and the knowledge is multidisciplinary: from baby food brands, via nutrition to cleaning agent chemistry. Most housewives succeed because instead of being schooled in the art, they emply free learning and their natural instincts to motivate the performance.

Few people are as ignorant about car mechanics as myself. I simply declared in youth I would never use a car, and this leaves me with stunted interests. All my long hours with incremental reading did not help fix the gaps in knowledge of Polish literature, which can easily lead to some awkward social situations. I would still find it hard to admit ignorance of science fact in areas of memory or sleep, but ignorance is inevitable and normal.

School-borne fear of being foolish is one of the main causes of social misery

Fear of speaking out

Fear of looking foolish results in a fear of speaking out, which is also associated with low self-esteem. If speaking out involves the stress of opposition to the mainstream view, it qualifies also as submission to uniformity. One of the most characteristic expressions of the fear of speaking out is the suppression of speech in learning foreign languages. A large proportion of speakers who have spent a great deal of time learning a foreign language at school can be instantly recognized by their manner of speaking. Those schooled speakers are fearful, extremely careful about the choice of words, hesitant about grammar, and clearly relieved when they do not have to speak. This is a typical blackboard-fright syndrome of students tested in a language in front of a class. This fear is also associated with excessive conscientiousness. Only at school, minor language mistakes result in major penalties. In life, we rarely pay attention to errors of a speaking party in an engaging conversation (unless we are air traffic controllers or so). We pay attention to errors only when the conversation itself is of no interest. Usually we terminate boring conversations. However, suffering through boring conversations is also a habit developed at school (see: tolerance of pointlessness). You can instantly recognize a well-schooled individual in comments sections on the web. Instead of providing an argument in a debate, a schooled individual will engage in ad hominem attacks using spelling or grammar errors in the text of an opponent. A typical well-practiced phrase might be: "You need to go back to Grade X". The lower the X, the greater the offence, and the greater the supposed attacker's self-satisfaction.

Fear of speaking a foreign language is typically a product of toxic memories developed at school

Fear of being tested

Dramatic changes in personality and emotional life induced by schooling are in large part due to grading, comparisons, and never-ending series of tests.

Fear of appearing foolish generalizes into a fear of all forms of testing. From a driver's license test, to the fear of appearing in public, to basic tests of life such as: Are my kids smart enough?, Is my salary better than the neighbor's?, Does my car make me look good?, Is my house flashy enough (at least on the outside)?, Does my marriage look perfect?, etc.

Facebook and Instagram become ultimate tests of who we are and how the world can see us. We are being tested at each step, and for most of us, this is a pretty tiring experience. Those toxic pressures are best relieved with simple living, friendship, honesty, and focusing on a big cause. Once we are a part of a bigger ecosystem, individual tests lose their toxicity.

Once we unlearn the habit of mutual comparisons, life becomes more bearable and fun

Fear of public speaking

The fear of public speaking is a direct consequence of low self-esteem, fear of looking foolish, fear of being tested, and more.

Each time a student is put in front of the class and graded for performance, she can associate public speaking with anxiety induced by the risk of failure, i.e. the bad consequences that follow a bad grade. This is strangely absent from unschoolers or homeschoolers who never attach that much importance to the public perception of their performance.

I have social anxiety. Like it would doubtlessly be useful to have a video describing the terrifyingly Orwellian stuff that takes place in my school but whenever I'm in front of a camera I roll over my words so much. I recorded my speech video many times. Oddly the fear of stumbling doesn't occur when speaking in person

To an unschooler, a fellow citizen is not that different from a friend. When you speak to a friend, you wake up a different kind of conditioning that stems from friendship, curiosity, common interest, social bonds, etc. The issue of perception and grading is secondary.

The fear of public speaking can be mitigated incrementally by engaging in a great deal of public speaking that should be easy enough to prevent failure that might reinforce the fear. It may start with a camera or with a friend or a parent, and gradually expanded to larger circles. If an actor cannot get rid of her stage fright till the end of her life, it is only due to the difficulty of managing the degree of challenge, which isn't always dependent on the performer herself.

Fear of problem solving

After decades of being guided by hand, generalization, creativity and problem solving skills wither. The mere presence of a teacher may diminish or block those vital skills. Teachers rarely have time or patience to depart form the beaten track of the curriculum. Generalizations may be too bold, creativity too distractive, and own problem solving too time consuming (see: The double-edged sword of pedagogy).

An algorithmic prescription delivered on a math class is often devoid of a true problem solving challenge. The students get a ready outline of the solution. All they are about to do is to apply the algorithm to a specific problem instance. This approach is great for perfecting the fluency of solving that particular problem class. There is far more fact learning than actual problem solving. We memorize formulas that need to be applied, special cases when they may fail, special cases when a trick or tweak is needed, etc. If we combine this approach with fast forgetting based on minimal engagement, the value of this approach for intelligence is dramatically limited. This is fractionally beneficial when compared with solving similar problems in conditions of free learning.

I recall the incredible joy of discovering the way we solve quadratic equations. I wanted to compute the power of a boxing punch, but my primary school knowledge was still at the level of linear equations. My lovely late cousin Edzio Pliszka was at college at the time and told me that there are formulas for "that kind of problems". I needed those formulas badly, and they were as precious as gold. In contrast, one of my colleagues at work, blessed with a great brain for math, confessed:

I recall solving pages of quadratic equations at school. You would be surprised to know that only 25 years later, I found out where those calculations can be used

As schools relentlessly raise the bar along the dogma of the curriculum, a great deal of students fall behind. Problem solving may turn into cramming, cheating on exams, or just surviving the class by virtue of a good will of a nice teacher. When true problem solving dies, facing more and more problems of greater difficulty may lead to anxiety (math anxiety is notorious). This in turn may transform into a fear of challenges.

All educators dream of schools that produce great problem solvers. They do produce a few and the true credit usually goes to the brains in question. Some kids just love math, or physics, or engineering, and they will thrive with or without school. However, what schools seem to produce in far greater numbers are students who fear problem solving, who shiver at the mere sight of a math formula, who would rather dig a ditch than go to that horrible class in physics.

And yet, even when skills are not lacking, the mere thought that the chosen method may be sub-optimum can result in a mental block:

I sometimes experienced paralysis because of fear of taking an approach I could not immediately evaluate as the perfect one. I imagined how "smart" people immediately and magically knew which approach to take. The fear from taking an approach resulted from not wanting to learn I was dumb after finding out that the approach was not the best one

Coercive schooling destroys two qualities needed in problem solving: the learn drive and the self-esteem. In combination with poor recall of algorithms and poor abstract knowledge, schools have a dismal record in fostering efficient problem solving.

Prussian school model takes a horrible toll in human creativity and intelligence

Asemantic processing

Fear or looking foolish, volume of learning, speed of learning, social pressure, and other factors contribute to asemantic processing of knowledge. The brain becomes record-reproduce device (like a tape recorder) instead of being an intelligent processor. I spoke to one of the young users of SuperMemo. He is smart like a whip and creative to the point of distraction (like myself). However, he is Polish and the fact that I spoke English to him became instantly stressful. He explained the problem in detail, and we could easily trace it back to school. I know dozens of people who know English well, and yet then cannot utter a single sentence in my presence. They experience speech anxiety, and trouble with focusing attention. They work on individual sentences by dismantling them according to grammar rules, deflections, inclinations, and imagining the exact spelling in front of their eyes. They are thrown back to the days when they had to confront a gaze of the class while standing in front of the teacher. The times were each step felt like the days of toddlerhood. The times were the audience was attentive but dismissive or derisive (in real or in student's own imagination).

Sometimes when people speak to me in English I listen only syntactically. I am not semantic. I blame school. I recall that school gave me anxiety due to stress when teacher called me to the blackboard. In other words, it sounds like I am super stupid

Imaginary indolence

If you keep being told that you are lazy, you soon start believing it. I have no recall of meeting a teenager who would speak of his conscientiousness. In contrast, I heard it dozens of time "I am lazy". The term is often used as an excuse. However, it also often entails guilt, which affects self-esteem. I keep telling young men they are wrong (see: Myth: Students are lazy). Russ Walsh made it blunt in his blog (source):

There are no lazy children. In my forty-five years as an educator, I never met a lazy child. What we call laziness or lack of effort is a symptom. As educators we need to look behind the symptoms to find the root causes

There are no lazy people. People are called lazy when they are reluctant to do things they are forced to do

Domain-specific anxieties

Math anxiety is one of the best known conditioned fears associated with school. Fear conditioning may lead to exaggerated responses and have a contribution to depression. It is not exactly a habit, but it can be a ground for developing associated habits. Math anxiety developed at school may transfer to become a fear of jobs associated with the use of Excel. This in turn can lead to development of bad habits at work. The chain of negative behavioral consequences may be endless. You can still hear the echo of bad schools when talking to septuagenarians.

The transfer of math anxiety may reach beyond domains associated with math. This is a quote from a 15-year-old book worm with extensive love of literature and an authoritarian math teacher:

My school is really terrible. The other day I was reading a book for pleasure, and I saw a maths equation in it, and my heart rate picked up. It tends to do that a lot. My breath gets shallower when I remember school. I wonder how long it will last

Peer pressure anxieties

Having friends is great for longevity. Loneliness is one of the greatest health risk factors. However, the artificially concocted closed socialization system at school is the opposite of a healthy open social ecosystem. Friendships from school can last a lifetime. This gives an impression that schools are great for making friends. In reality, it is our natural quest for social interaction that brings those fruits. School is just a coercive system to keep kids together under a lid. Open systems are far better for making friends. If you ask a homeschooling mom "What about socialization?", you are likely to make her red-hot mad. The myth of socialization is so pervasive that it stings repeatedly leading to sensitization. Homeschoolers often complain that the only problem with making friends is the fact that most of friend around are locked at school and with homework for most of their days. "Socialization" at school is a perfect incubator for bullying. On a playground, bullies die abandoned. At school, they thrive. Socialization anxieties acquired at school may also need recovery as explained in the following mail:

Leaving school and being "socially isolated" has decreased social anxiety enormously! If anything, in terms of anxieties, right now it may be quite below the average. If I experience a situation which elicits social anxiety, when out of that situation I spend time analyzing the reasons for the anxiety. This may require long intervals of alone time. If I had to go to school very often I am not sure that time would have been available. When out with friends, these low anxiety levels this may reach a point of me doing "embarrassing" (for them, not for me) things. Not going out much has allowed me to attain value systems which are virtually non-existent in my neighborhood! If I had stayed in school my values would have been much closer to those of my peers, and therefore vastly different from current ones

I am pretty experienced in embarrassing my friends or family. I have no doubt it is just an expression of a healthy self-esteem and a resistance to social pressure. We would all feel a bit more free and happy if we did not learn unnecessary social inhibitions at school.

Mental health

Pressure of schooling may instill bad habits that may lead to bad mental health. Most of all, the loss of autonomy leads to learned helplessness. This in turn may develop into depression. The dip in mood is most noticeable in early September when kids are confronted with the transition from a happy free life to the rigors of schooling. Mental health consultations in teens skyrocket at that time. My own involvement in the criticism of schooling also begun at the time kids went to school. They depressed faces told me something was really going wrong out there. Since then, I have received a ton of mail about school and depression. A quick google search will make one realize this is a problem of biblical proportions. The number of blogs and complaints is out of this world.

Here is just one mail excerpt:

School scared me, I experienced low mood on Sundays due to Monday school. In high school, I experienced high depression. I wanted to drop school. I remember the idea of homeschooling then. Sadly, it was too eccentric for people around me. I dropped this idea, I felt that I need to survive a few years and travel to a bigger city

Stunted conceptualization

There is one side effect of schooling that is entirely hypothetical, and the hypothesis is mine. I believe that optimum environment for the conceptualization process is a rich exposure to all forms of knowledge and skill training under a strictly pure and undisturbed guidance of the learn drive. In free learning, the ideal mode is to consume only small packets of knowledge and expose the concept network to all derivable consequences of that packet of knowledge. For example, in a conversation, it would be an exchange of a few sentences, and a great deal of creative processing. This extra processing would serve optimum layering of new knowledge with all its ramifications and generalizations. Further optimization of that process should occur in free running sleep. This extensive parallel effort in early development may have a vital impact on white matter routing and the architecture of the brain. The creative process could employ parallel processing that would greatly increase the deposition of coherent knowledge. Such knowledge would be highly applicable and easily stabilized. This process would prolong the early conceptualization, which might explain the precocity paradox.

In contrast schooling pushes for an early development of meta-cognitive skills which may serialize processing in the brain. As a result, focused work combined with tolerance for asemantic learning would dramatically narrow the flow of knowledge, undermine its abstractness, applicability, coherence and stability. This would have a direct impact on intelligence despite misleadingly good IQ scores (see: Taleb on IQ), and even more misleading test scores.

In addition, an early emphasis on textual information and the 3Rs may fail to capitalize on rich conceptualization in underemployed areas of the brain with a negative impact on 3D imagination, navigation, visual processing, perception of music, abstract reasoning, social intelligence, procedural skills, reaction time, and many more.

Savants may use the cortex as an extensive working memory, while their metacognitive skills may be lacking. In contrast, we push children towards early focused asemantic learning, and we invariably lose some of that early parallel capacity. In natural development, we might combine both worlds, and let metacognitive skills develop naturally by virtue of optimum conceptualization.

Metaphorically speaking, with early instruction, we push to get a serial computer before the brain can even build all necessary subservient parallel circuits.

Early academic instruction is a trade of genius for the fruits of letteracy

Mythology of learning

Bad school habits are often born from the mythology that surrounds schooling (see: Mythology that keeps the archaic school system alive). Bad habits and school mythology exist in mutual feedback. Those myths and habits spill over beyond the school walls. They permeate society, incl. those who never attended school or left it decades before. If the virus of bad learning is born in conducive conditions of a swamp, we should still blame the swamp. Even a school critic may be lenient in that respect:

I frequented a lot of forums during self studying, and may have taken advice about how to learn from there. A connection with school may still be there: the people giving the advice are influenced negatively by school, and then go on to give bad advice, which I take. But this time school does not directly influence me. Still, if the advice was bad, and I took it despite the brain's pain feedback, this tolerance must have originated elsewhere

Habits unrelated to school

At school, I see the roots of all bad habits in learning. I see free learning as a perfect vaccine that will quickly invalidate all bad ideas. The origins of the trouble can be traced to coercion or irrational ambition (self-coercion). Those are scarce and naturally extinguished in free learning. Self-coercion might make someone go too fast or too hard in incremental reading, but side effects are pretty plain to see. Bad learning dies fast in free learning because the student is free to observe his outcomes, and self-correct.

I need to add that not everyone agrees, incl. my friends who provided source material for this text. Some postulates sound credible. For example:

At one point in the past [in free learning], I refused to look at concrete examples when studying a math concept, because I wanted to be like Alexander Grothendieck, who supposedly thought only in terms of highly abstract structures. The impact of schooling in this case seems to be conditioning me to ignore the displeasure produced while trying to think in this way

In this case, the free student self-correct overtime (as expected), and abandoned the pursuit. At the same time, free mathematician (Grothendieck) might have adopted the approach at a better time in his life when problem solving consumed most of his day (I presume). The trick to do it right is to probe one's capacity and the outcomes and correct the trajectory. This the value of freedom in learning and this is what schools destroy.

The universal harm of schooling is that it takes away the freedom needed to correct the exploration trajectory on the basis of feedback

Teacher's habits

Teachers are also a subject of conditioning in the school system. The artificial environment leads to unusual behaviors. Those behaviors are in part a response to a wrong model of a child's brain based on the fish tank perspective. Almost all teachers I spoke to are lovely people. If they show bad habits or bad behaviors, we should always blame the system, not the human. All brains respond to conditioning. This is the adaptation to the closed system schooling.

A few years ago, during my discussions about the problem of schooling, I spoke to a retired high-school teacher of Polish. I noticed something rather unusual in her behavior during our exchanges. While the lady tried to argue that "Poles are the most intelligent people in the world", I politely questioned her statement with a mild "I am not sure". This hesitant opposition is quite typical of my ways of sounding out people's opinions. As Larry King used to say: "I always learn more when I listen than when I speak". This favors a self-effacing and self-deprecating approach to carrying out discussions, esp. in the quest to collect information. In the end, I care more about what the teacher is to tell me than to hope I would change a few decades of habits, or convictions. When I politely questioned the validity of the teacher's claims, she grabbed my arm, and shook it up in an effort to interrupt my words. I had not doubt that this unusual action came from years of her habits of asserting her authority over the class. I saw a similar teacher's behavior in other contexts too. This would be pretty understandable. When combating 20-25 independent voices, and trying to channel them all into a single behavioral format, all workable means of authority would subconsciously put a stamp on her day-to-day habits.

I always try to talk to any teacher I can find. At each meeting or chance encounter, I introduce myself and the outline of my ideas and then raise minimal opposition in defending my criticism of schooling. I am always interested in "teacher's modus operandi". The reactions are often pretty strong or even violent. They all seem to be largely authoritarian. In many cases, I was blasted like a bad student who failed to do his homework. I love heated discussions, however, in those cases, I tried to be submissive. Perhaps this is what a teacher instinctively picks up as "weakness"? Talk to a teacher about the faults of the school system, and it often turns into a lecture and a full blown defense of years spent in the classroom? This is totally understandable.

In a discussion with a typical teacher, I find it truly difficult to win the argument on unschooling, diversity, or English. I am not implying I spoke to people with an inherently lesser degree of open-mindedness or a lesser intellect. Just the opposite. Those were pretty nice and smart people. Instead, I suspect, I was able to see the effects of years of conditioning by classroom environment.

It is obvious to me that, in addition to shaping the young generation, the school system changes the teachers too. Those changes aren't always conducive to fostering open-mindedness and free-flowing open discussions.

Hall of Habit Shame

This is my shortlist of the worst habitual effects of schooling:

Nearly all those bad habits are described in this podcast interview with Axel from Bulgaria. Axel dropped out from high school with a heavy baggage of bad habits. However, he gradually reconditioned his mind to accept the signals from the learn drive. In the end, he aced his math exams for college

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru