Passion and memory

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

Childhood passions

Parents often dream of choosing a career for a child. They often understand that a vibrant passion is the best formula for a good career. However, seeding passions is not easy. The most productive passions are those that arise naturally. Like in childhood amnesia, passions are subject to similar processes of forgetting, and interference. A new passion can obscure an old passion. All passions should be cherished as they drive development. If the passion does not meet adult criteria of a "worthwhile pursuit", all efforts at redirection must stay within the push zone. In the end, the kid should decide. All passions are of value: videogames, hip hop, or even boxing. They should never be mocked, disrupted, or neglected. Great passions require a great investment of time and energy. In youth, those are primarily stolen by schooling. However, even limited time for passions is of little value if there is a deficit in the learn drive that may be suppressed by schooling (e.g. due to stress, bad sleep, etc.).

One of the greatest sins of schooling is that it destroys passions by undermining the learn drive

School notebooks

I love to review children's notebooks. They give me an insight into kid interests, passions, motivations, and learning. Some notebooks are messy and hard to read, some are spotless, some seem a mindless rendition of teacher's orders, while others seem to tell a better story: kids are passionate students of the natural world. The practice of making notes is in decline. Why bother with notes if all knowledge is available at fingertips on the web? This week I saw 9-year-olds talk about a fantasy movie. Someone confused a minotaur with a centaur. A girl pulled out a phone and issued a Google voice query in Polish "What is a minotaur?". She got an answer from Wikipedia in milliseconds and could boast of her knowledge to others. In seconds, all kids knew that a minotaur was a mythical figure with a body of a man and the head of a bull.

Some teachers specifically instruct kids to keep no notes and focus on the class. This seems to improve attention. The great advantage of the decline in note-taking is that heavy back-breaking school bags are slowly retiring to history. The great disadvantage is the decline in handwriting skills. I use handwriting only when I have no access to a computer. The loss of my own handwriting skills is so bad that if I do not read my notes fast, I cannot decode them. My hand-written notes are generally not readable. These days kids use a pen less and less often. Perhaps electronic pens will remedy that decline in handwriting?

Notes in pictures

Look at the picture! It is a page from a 6 grader's biology notebook. Doesn't it show how beautiful, fun, and inspirational schooling can be? What if I told you that this notebook had 66 similar meticulously handcrafted images? Wouldn't you expect that paintwork to have a significant impact on child's mind and on learning? Even better, what if I told you the kid can still vividly recall those pictures and associated stories 40 years later?

A page from a 6 grader's biology notebook

Figure: A page from a passionate 6-grader's school notebook in biology

The conclusions for this case seem clear:

  • school is fun
  • school is motivational
  • school is effective
  • school makes a big impact

The only problem with these conclusions is that they are false. The picture smuggles a big lie. I know the lie for a fact, because the picture is mine. It tells a story of a passion that was nearly lost. The school is not a hero in this story. It is a villain!

Single event can spark a passion

At the age of 5, Albert Einstein had a chance to play with a compass. This started his lifelong passion for understanding the physical universe. Nearly all great inventors and discoverers can trace their passions to early childhood events. The same is true of hobbyists, collectors, artist, sports fans, and people with all imaginable passions in life. Passions developed later in life rarely have the same power. It is kids with seemingly infinite amounts of time on their hands who can turn passions into thousands of hours of learning.

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
My brother was a forest inspector. When I was still in kindergarten, he showed me the wonders of the natural world. This affected the course of my entire life. In March 1973, my teacher of Polish came to school with a baby turtle. It was a red-eared slider turtle. It was super-cute. She put the turtle on a bench. Surrounded by kids, the cute animal, scared to death, flapped its baby legs and rushed towards the bench edge. This 3 minute demo was one of the most influential moments of schooling I recall. The same day, I visited a pet shop at Rybaki street in the city of Poznan. Baby turtles were priced at less than a dollar. Unfortunately, I lost half of my cash for a tram fare. I was a habitual fare dodger, and never spent precious coins on tram rides, but on this unlucky day I spotted a guard checking tickets. I had to backtrack home and beg my mom for more money. When chatting with the shop owner, he became suspicious: "Do you only plan to set up an aquarium now?". "No. I have it all ready" - I lied. Back at home, we had a major quarrel with my mom. We did not know anything about turtles. She wanted the baby to swim in a jar. I told her it must be placed in a terrarium with sand and only a small pool of water. Looking back, I am amazed this little reptile survived its first days with ignorant human oppressors. Luckily, I quickly learned more about turtles from books, experience, and from talking to a pet shop owner, one Mr Skubel. Baby slider soon developed a good appetite for meat, lettuce and tubifex, and survived for 24 years with my family. It died "peacefully in sleep" on Mar 21, 1997.

This baby turtle started a passion for breeding fish, plants, turtles, hamsters, and more. My home became a menagerie. Instead of shopping, I would go to a nearby lake. I would experiment with various algae, snails, and crustaceans. My aquariums were always full of exuberant life and algal growth.

In parallel, in my biology class, all things related to zoology seemed super-interesting. For each class, I would prepare 2-3 nice pictures of animals, their anatomy, physiology or life cycle. Like in the presented picture, I would add a page or two of nice descriptions. It was not homework. The teacher did not ask for my work. It was all coming from within. Even worse, I recall bending over backwards to impress the teacher. All I could get back was a yawn. That would not matter though. The passion served some inner need. It did not serve anyone in the world. It satisfied my learn drive, which is its own reward.

I saw my baby turtle at school. I could have seen it anywhere. It would not matter. School was not fun. School was not motivational. School did not play a role. It was the beauty of the natural world that had an effect on a young curious mind. If anything, school kept my passions suppressed by stealing a big portion of my day on things I did not care about (e.g. my school fights)

Remembering for half-a-century

How can knowledge be retained for 43 years?

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I had a lot of contact with zoology in youth. I took part in Biology Olympics in high school. I also took a zoology course at the university with a comprehensive exam (9 years after buying the turtle). That would serve as solid review for my zoology knowledge. One might presume that the seeds had been sown in the 6th grade (1973), reinforced in high school (1976-1980), and consolidated at the university (1982). This might then look like a textbook case of lifetime knowledge! However, I severed all my links with zoology by 1984. All my animal collection, incl. my growing turtle, was taken over by younger members of my family. No more animals, no more exams.

How could I have remembered things for 32 more years without review? From 1984 till now (2016)!

One big clue comes from the fact that my 6-grade notes sound to me as if written in a foreign language! Anatomy charts are familiar. Life cycles are familiar. However, words that describe pictures are alien! Long after my last zoology exam, when I decided to keep all my notes in the computer, I also decided to switch to using English (rather than original native Polish). English is global (see: One language for the world). English is the language of science. English is easier to search through on a computer. English knowledge resources are richer and more reliable. etc. The list of advantages of English is endless. I decided to make a switch in 1987. The fact that I hardly recall the terminology used in my own primary school notebook is a clear proof that my knowledge of zoology, seeded early, had to be refreshed outside schooling. I can actually trace each single animal I know, and each single word related to zoology in my own computer. I can tell you when I learned a given fact, or word, or picture, how many times I reviewed those facts, and how my memory gradually got stronger (or weaker). The credit goes to SuperMemo
SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
I keep all my knowledge in SuperMemo. I do not need to remember the name "horse". We all remember horses. We see horses daily on TV, on the net, or even in real life. However, to remember names of horse colors or horse breeds, I need SuperMemo. Those do not show up often enough to stay in memory. After 1990, my knowledge of zoology survived largely due to SuperMemo. If I devoted a fraction of time wasted on commuting to school on SuperMemo, my knowledge would increase by an order of magnitude. Mobile technology would only help fractionally because incremental learning does not fare well on the go. There is an exponential increase in the return on investment with all marginal improvements to the adherence to the natural creativity cycle. Only "mindless" repetitions would work on a bus. If I did not have to go to school, I could use most of my day on passionate learning. My knowledge might still be one-sided and monothematic for a longer while. However, I have proven that I would open that history book sooner or later. The extra time saved by not going to school might accelerate the process of broadening of my horizons. I am sure that instead of being helpful, school slowed my progress.

Schooling can easily kill passions

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
If I saw a kid like myself at 10-12 years old, I might easily think it is a great material for a future scientist. Like little Darwin, I collected all things related to the living world: from a collection of feathers to dried up and smelly dead animals or body parts. Our big old apartment smelled of my extensive menagerie and death. I used to walk slowly through Poznan zoo, cage by cage, observing, making notes, for hours, for months! This documentary obsession followed closely in time the most shameful chapters of my youth. First, I was a hooligan and a harmless criminal. Not much later, I was an observer of the natural world. To this day, I find this transition difficult to comprehend. One might think that such a speedy transformation in a good direction should give birth to a passion that might send me on a healthy trajectory towards some research position at some university. It was not to be.

In this modern world, young minds are bombarded from all directions with new ideas, and temptations. It is hard to be well-focused on a single problem or passion. The days of 17-19 century science are gone. For comfort, at least we die a bit later and have more time to crystallize and explore.

Events that changed me from a bad student to a good student also dealt a big blow to my zoological passions. I was thrown away from my old school for bad behavior. This coincided with my mom's moving to a small apartment in a nicer district closer to a better school (Winogrady in Poznan, primary school 30). I had to cut down on the size of my animal collection and give away most of my 30+ strong hamster family. There was not enough room in the new apartment. My mom also disposed of a great deal of my "Darwinian specimen collection". It was too big and it smelled too bad. We would choke! At the same time, new school rewarded me with good grades. Instead of following passions, I got involved in a "grade race". Luckily, meeting the chemistry teacher Mrs Kaczmarek helped me continue my interest in science and also gain a great deal of confidence in my own abilities.

When I entered high school, the passion for zoology was still surviving. It was now enhanced by my new strength in chemistry. Our home library had a nice book: Peter Karlson's Biochemistry. This was a savior of my interests, esp. in the light of ever growing dislike of school, early waking, tests, homework, and pressure. During summer vacations, I studied biochemistry. This learning time helped me later get to the university despite having few other strengths or qualifications.

In 1977, aged 15, I almost killed my passion for science. I joined a boxing club, but that "career" was cut short by 1980 due to shortsightedness. At the same time, my sister gave me a tape recorder. I recorded a few songs from the radio, and discovered that I love music. When I saw Stevie Wonder perform funky Superstition, I dreamt of being equally proficient with the piano keyboard. For eight long years, music became my biggest obsession. Partly, I blame school. After school, sleep deprived, I did not have any power or interest in learning. I did not know it at the time, but I was probably showing early signs of DSPS. This made waking early a torture. Even classes at 10 am seemed too early. In the evening, all I could do was to listen to music. During summer vacations, as if by magic, I would get good sleep and get back to learning. During school year, it was mostly music. Additionally, I devoted 2-3 afternoons per week to boxing. The magic of music seemed irresistible. However, I was somehow able to find harmony in summer: learning, exercise, and much less music. If I did not have summer vacations, my interest in biochemistry would have died. If I did not have school, I would probably find time for all passions. My life would be harmonious and productive.

If I am to verdict on how my early science passions survived the high school, I would definitely credit my character. My natural rebelliousness made me refuse early waking, refuse homework, and refuse compulsory reading: the most significant thief of time at high school. This in turn minimized the damage to my learn drive, which powered my summer learning. In addition, with each passing year, my maturity kept increasing. Slowly, I gave higher priority to rational pursuits (science) over pleasurable pursuits (music). By 1984, when I finally had some success in the field of music, one by one, I quit all three bands I was involved in. Each separation was excruciatingly painful, and accompanied by a lengthy rationale letter to my fellow musician friends. Those steps were necessary for me to continue with science and research. Youthful passions survived despite schooling, immaturity, and multiple temptations of the modern world. It was a touch and go. On a sad note, I totally lost my painting skills through neglect.

I see lots of 8-10 year olds with fantastic passions. It does not really matter if these are planets, dolphins, painting, or football cards. Those passions should be cherished. My own story makes me fear that a vast majority of that potential will go to waste. I have lots of sad observational and anecdotal evidence. Lots of my young friends with humongous potential get sucked into the ruthless machinery of modern nine-to-five living. They are not happy. Each young man's potential wasted is a loss for mankind.

From decade to decade we crank up the pressure of schooling. We push kids harder and harder to achieve more and more. In the process, schools are highly efficient killers of childhood passions and the learn drive. This is highly detrimental to further progress of mankind

Summary: Childhood passions

  • minor events in childhood can turn into lifelong passions
  • child passions have a dramatic positive impact on the power of the learn drive
  • child passions should be cherished and protected
  • true passions do not need to be stoked up; they serve an inner need
  • childhood passions can easily get lost due to preoccupation with schooling
  • schools can easily produce an illusion of learning and an illusion of long-term memory
  • schools take away time from passions that shape the mind and direct lives
  • schools suppress the learn drive