Asemantic curriculum

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

The end of the era of schooling

Myths and cognitive biases result in choosing wrong strategies in education. Wrong strategies lead to a breaking point, which will spell the end to compulsory schooling. This short text presents the mechanisms of the evolution of the curriculum that made it increasingly asemantic.

The historic perspective on the development of the curriculum seems to follow the same pathways as the evolutionary process in which badly supervised learning process circumvents knowledge darwinism and leads to toxic memory.

Cognitive biases and bad design make school curriculum evolve towards increasing school hate

From Plato to YouTube

At the times of Platonic Academy (founded around 380 BC), we had no schools in the modern meaning of the term. Academy itself would rather be similar to a democratic school with no curriculum and no teachers. Perhaps it was more of a discussion forum with occasional lectures. Philosophy, political polemic, and problem solving might have been the subjects of interest.

At the times of Martin Luther (1483-1546), education was a type of unschooling combined with impoverished learning environments. This type of unschooling was highly ineffective in delivering enlightened citizenry. The only efficient pathway to wisdom was an interaction with wise learned men. Those were few and far between, and most of their wisdom came from religious texts.

However, a new route started opening up: the availability of print. Schooling became an attractive proposition for shaping the collective minds of societies. This process would usually serve the monarch, or the clergy. It was only natural to conclude that learning to read was becoming an increasingly efficient pathway to wisdom. This thinking was justified until the twentieth century. With the advent of the radio, then TV, and now the web, the role of reading in early development was gradually diminishing, however, to this day, a run-of-the-mill education lives with a myth that pushing a 3-4 year old to reading is conferring an early educational benefit. This claim has been disproved decisively. Even worse, videogames or YouTube are considered an anathema that suppresses reading (see: Gaming disorder). The opposite is true: the new media and the new learning tools are a learning treasure.

While the battle around the curriculum continues, while kids spend more and more time drilled in asemantic learning, vast learning opportunities of the new global electronic interconnected world are missed. Instead of exploring science, natural world, engineering, or philosophy, kids cram items from asemantic curriculum. Instead of naturally absorbing languages in videogames, kids are forced to cram vocabulary and grammar. As a consequence, they learn to hate language learning.

Paradoxically, teachers and authoritarian parents may be the last in the queue to notice the problem. They seem to be preoccupied with a "wrong developmental pathway" for their children, and take drastic steps such as coercion, penalties, bribes, and ban on access to electronic media (see: Homo tabletis). A tug of war ensues and blinds all parties: the adults who want to push kids on the right track, and the children who see the adult world as a source of oppression. Hence the drive towards addiction, videogames or drugs, along a similar mechanism induced by the loss of freedom. This worsen the generational rift and perpetuates myths such as teenegers are lazy, etc. This is less of a problem in parenting based on open behavioral spaces. This type of open parenting provides a better feedback as to the child's needs. This in turn helps optimize the development trajectories.

The right strategy would be to let kids follow their healthy learn drive and choose learning sources that maximize learntropy. These day, when we look at unschooling, the old way of thinking leads to a horrifying conclusion: kids prefer to learn from YouTube which delays their reading progress. Even worse, they use speech synthesis and speech recognition to circumvent the need for reading. That contrast between high learntropy sources and asemantic schooling is spiraling towards a rapid increase in school hate. This will inevitably lead to the end of compulsory schooling (see: Compulsory schooling must end). The lid on the pot is kept in place by threats and indoctrination ("without school you will end up homeless").

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
As a child I recall the love for the smell and the look of books. I loved the communist celebrations of May 1. It was the day when my mom would take me to a book fair with a wide selection of books and a promise I can pick a few. Colored photographs of plants and animals were the best attraction. I also loved illustrated atlas books that would introduce me to different taxonomic groups of animals, esp. those inhabiting Poland. I do not see that attraction in kids today, and I am not worried. They found their better equivalent. Why look at still costly photos of animals in a book if they can have the same animal in its habitat in motion in HD on YouTube for free. Kids are no longer conditioned to love the toxic glue sniff of books. I say good riddance

Asemantic evolution

While observing the evolution of knowledge in spaced repetition, we can illustrate the destination of memories by observing the quadrants based on importance of knowledge, and the difficulty of knowledge:

unimportant easy to remember trivia (e.g. Who is Donald Trump?) school trash that is quickly forgotten (e.g. Who was the 15th president?)
important semantic knowledge (e.g. how animals breathe)
abstract knowledge (e.g. manipulating quantities)
intelligence (e.g. trajectory prediction)
asemantic knowledge (e.g. sequence of months)
toxic memory (e.g. times tables)

Education should aim at semantic knowledge that is important due to its high applicability. We should avoid asemantic knowledge that is hard, and seemingly too important to ignore. Hard and asemantic knowledge results in leeches in SuperMemo, toxic memories in real life, and in the asemantic curriculum at school.

It is that hard asemantic quadrant that seems to dominate education, leads to the universal hate of school, and the mythical belief that learning is painfully hard. This also leads to the worship of grit and self-discipline. Instead of the natural pleasure of learning, asemantic curriculum drives schooling towards producing mindless robotization with an associated risk of learned helplessness and depression. Due to the poor semantic framework, all abstract knowledge becomes underutilized. Graduates remain poor problem solvers.

As much as it is the case in poorly handled spaced repetition, in schooling, the classic asemantic components that lead to toxic memory are given increasingly high value, and get shifted to earlier and earlier stages of development. This is why the first grader's exam will often be composed of "essential" elements such as days of the week, the sequence of months, patriotic poems, counting, reading, etc. We force kids to cram things they will learn anyway. They can learn it effortlessly for free in their own time, or learn it in pain for taxpayers money along the asemantic curriculum. At the same time "non-essential" subjects such as the need for sleep, or the value of washing hands are not included in the curriculum. They are not there because kids naturally absorb them in a semantic manner. Retention of semantic content is easy and taken for granted.

The early years at school are pestered with toxic memory problems that can last for life: "I am bad at memorizing", "I am bad at math", "I am dyslexic", "I never had a talent for languages", "I am lazy", "I am a procrastinator", etc. Instead of a massive army of enlightened and autonomous individuals, the factory system of education is churning out graduates that lack in self-esteem. That diffidence is entirely induced and unjustified. It slowly assumed the dimensions of a large-scale social tragedy.

SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
SuperMemo is a good metaphor for the pathologies of asemantic curriculum evolution. An inexperienced user will often formulate items that are not palatable for memory. In the spaced repetition process, those memories are quickly identified and tagged as leeches. In the same way, the evolution of the curriculum leads to memory stumbling blocks that assume the aura of essential rudimentary primitiveness: the immortal 19th century three Rs. The difference between SuperMemo and schooling is that in SuperMemo, toxic memories are identified, tagged and systematically eliminated (by re-formulation, deleting, or ideally by knowledge darwinism)

Adult-centric forces

Asemantic curriculum is the result of the forces governed by cognitive biases that affect our valuation of knowledge. However, as we all go through the torment of cramming at school, one may wonder why adults don't fix the problem in hindsight. Here, another cognitive bias takes over, distorted memories of childhood filtered by the adult-centric point of view. We keep hearing that literacy and numeracy begin with "essential" knowledge that needs to be memorized. This includes the queen of toxic memories: the multiplication table. Once we are lucky to pass this stage and complete education, we usually forget the torment or consider it absolutely necessary. Hence the adult glorification of schooling experience.

The second problem in curriculum design is the backward mapping of standards from adult levels. For example, preschool curriculum is tainted by backward design set to achieve high school standards. What makes matters worse is that the mapping is often made by "experts" that have no understanding of early education. The sloppy process of curriculum design was one of the inspirations for the Sudbury Valley School as explained by Dr Danny Greenberg himself.

The power of the adult-centric approach and backward mapping is explained with a Mountain climb metaphor of schooling.

Harms of early instruction

Early academic instruction is harmful. It is driven by parental greed for high achievement as much as it is based on a harmful myth that early instruction is beneficial for brain development. The opposite is true. All forms of stress in early instructions stunt the development by premature maturation and specialization of the brain architecture (see: Precocity paradox).

Even though many experts advocate against early academic instruction, e.g. as pushed with common core standards, the problem is never fully measurable due to the old soup problem. When schools mix the bad with the good, the bad can lurk in hiding. Tools like SuperMemo provide a ruthless and stark selection in which all weaknesses in formulation will call for a remedy. If the user cannot cope, he will just drop out as much as a student who drops out from school (see: School dropouts, and Hating SuperMemo).

This blind alley of curriculum evolution does not proceed to the point of destroying brains and societies. There is always the light in the tunnel. It begins with the resistance of children, followed up by resistance of open-minded parents, and ends with a change to strategies. When kids start hiding under the bed to avoid reading in the kindergarten, parents and educators realize that things have been pushed too far.

Unfortunately, those trajectory corrections tend to fall into long-term oscillations. We tighten the standards until kids break, so we loosen the requirements, only to return to the same optimization error in a decade or two. The only solution towards breaking that cycle is the end of the compulsory schooling. Instead, free learning and free education should rule.

Cognitive biases and ancient mythology make schools evolve towards their own demise

The noose of asemantic curriculum is tightening. Compulsory schooling must end.

Forgotten wise men

I am not very original with my claims in this text. Similar ideas have been reiterated by Alexander Sutherland Neill, Danny Greenberg, Ivan Illich, John Holt, John Taylor Gatto or Peter Gray.

Strikingly, the father of the concept of Knowledge Machine, the late genius of Seymour Papert wrote a paper for Wired Magazine in 1993, in which he expressed a nearly identical vison of how education needs to change. He even coined a portmanteau word letteracy that is supposed to replace literacy with letters and numeracy. The term may be used to describe the emphasis on letters and numbers instead of a drive towards semantic learning, comprehension, and true literacy.

It is pretty painful to realize that someone could have seen a quarter-century ahead, and hope to initiate a discussion. Papert's effort was one of those pushes that produce minor oscillations in the system. Papert always found it easy to explain things to children. The tragedy of genius is that it may struggle to bridge the knowledge gap with the more conservative adult world:

There are very few school environments in which the idea of the illetterate but literate child is plausible. The pundits of the Education Establishment have failed to provide leadership in this area. Perhaps the readers of Wired, who can see farther into the future, have a profoundly important social role in stirring up such debate

For details see: Papert's visionary call to ditch obsolete letteracy (1993)

The vision of great education stays the same, its proponents keep dying, and the rat race for certificates continues

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