Myth: Students are naturally lazy and do not like to learn

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

Adults claims students are lazy

Parents and teachers agree: Children are lazy! They explain that it is all rooted in evolution: Look at the lazy pride of lions. They can sleep all day! The laziness seems to reach its apogee at teen years. Adults confirm in unison: Teens are stinky lazybones!

This is a stinky myth! All healthy people behave lazy only when they are supposed to do the jobs they don't like. Homework is almost universally despised. No wonder then that kids will procrastinate if given a chance. However, a healthy brain cannot stand the vacuum of boredom. The same kid might be ready for voracious reading in his favorite subject. If he is not, it is often associated with sleep deprivation, and the fact that after years of schooling, kids begin to hate all things related to learning (see: Schools suppress the learn drive).

The label of laziness is a very convenient tool for proponents of schooling. If kids are lazy, they should be coerced into learning. Without that coercion, allegedly, societies would collapse. If kids are lazy, given freedom, they would just socialize, play games, or dream of becoming a pop star.

Schools use laziness as an excuse

Jack Schneider is a professor in education leadership and education historian. He knows a lot about schools. He worked hard on a new system for better assessment of school quality. When he hears of the "broken system", or a "factory model of schooling", his hackles rise. His reasoning is that the school system keeps improving, and for that it cannot be branded broken. He says that schools are "better today than at any point in the past". However, progress does not need to express optimality. We can incrementally improve a bicycle and still never set off to fly.

Schneider is not an expert in neuroscience or even psychology. Like Dr Phil, he may be blind to some inherent flaws in the system. So it might be easy for him to fail to notice that improvements may lead to a local maximum. Schools keep improving, but kids are less and less happy for they see their alternatives better. Parents are also more knowledgeable these days. Incremental improvements of the present model won't help. The system will collapse, and various mutations of free learning will take over.

While combating the notion of the factory model of education, Schneider claims that if we overturned the factory model, the problem of bad learning would still be there:

The root causes of disengagement and shallow learning, as it turns out, aren’t design problems at all. They’re problems inherent to the concept of schooling. Young people would rather be socializing than learning, and though some learning can happen through play, much of it can’t. Young people, like adults, would also like to avoid exhausting and effortful work; but thinking is hard, and much of learning involves thinking. Finally, young people aren’t naturally interested in many of the things we want them to learn in school; yet as long as school is designed to serve the needs of society and not just the desires of the individual, much of education will involve steering students away from what they are naturally interested in and towards something else

Pernicious myth of student laziness

The quote above shows how pervasive the self-perpetuating mythology of schooling is. First we destroy the learn drive in kids, and then we brand them lazy to justify the continuation of the Prussian system. Instead of making the youth thrive on their own steam and foster creative independence, we justify school by alleged inherent weaknesses in human character. The damage to the learning capacity and to mental health results in an unhappy society that is a great breeding ground for the culture that adds to the positive feedback whereby kids hate school even more.

The number of issues and myths in Schneider's short paragraph would suffice for an entire book on its own:

  • "Socializing" is part of the socialization process, which provides a vital component of free learning. The difference between "play" and "learning" is blurry. If play is defined as a multithreaded fun interaction with a rich environment, incremental reading is a form of play. If so, I do all my learning while playing
  • To avoid "thinking hard" is human. Everyone balks at thinking hard, and this phenomenon has a basis in evolution and neuroscience. The brain has an inbuilt mechanism for "thinking smart", and to think smart we need to learn smart. The smart learning relies on the learn drive and the detection of learntropy. Factory model of schooling is based on coercion and immitation. This is why even an easy math problem may require "thinking hard". It often is as if a snake tried to swallow a beach ball
  • We are not "naturally interested" in anything that does not provide a good signal in the knowledge valuation network. Beyond the confines of the reptilian brain, there is nothing "natural" about specific interests. They are all a function of prior knowledge! To fall in love with astrophysics, we need to build a groundwork of prior knowledge that might start with ET (see: Mountain climb metaphor of schooling)
  • Schneider provides a link to texts by James S. Coleman (here is the link again if you missed it) and conveniently overlooks the mechanism of damage via schooling based on a flawed reward system: "schools, jails, the military, and factories in which “an administrative corps” makes demands and a larger group (students, prisoners, soldiers, workers) responds". The response affects the culture, which affects the attitude towards school and learning, and produces "lazy teens". This is how the paradox loop gets closed! This is backward optimization at its "best"
  • as for the "needs of society", the communist thinking has backfired too many times to deserve an explanation (see: Education in North Korea, Modern schooling is like Soviet economy, etc.). However, even Karl Marx could see how animal spirits get depressed at an assembly line. Societies can work marvelously without suppressing the "desires of the individual". Most of all, we should never suppress the desire to learn. Coercive learning is notorious for its negative impact on the learn drive

Human brain is a fantastic design

Laziness of teens and adults is comparable. The only disadvantage of the teen years is lesser knowledge and lesser maturity. Those factors affects teen valuations of knowledge, and options in life. Those valuations will evolve slowly, and adult impatience usually backfires. Free learning maximizes the speed of maturation

Common ground: the garden of knowledge

Schneider's efforts are well-intended and noble. Our goals are the same. We want to help grow wiser societies. It would then be a pity to leave this text on a sour note. Schneider concludes:

Schools are much more like gardens than they are like factories. And great gardens aren’t the result of modernist design or entrepreneurial innovation. They are products of attention, devotion, and love. They are complex systems that demand our time and respond to our care. And in a thousand different blooms, they reward us with their beauty

Even though I have more affinity to a wild jungle than to a well manicured vegetable patch, I like the garden metaphor. I agree with the comparison as long as the gardener does not tell each plant how to grow. If we all prefer gardens over factories, we cannot forget that plants need no reminder to flourish. They have a growth plan preassigned in their genes. So do humans, their brains, and their emerging knowledge.

For more about spontaneous growth of the garden see: Learn drive and Pleasure of learning

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