Optimization trap of coercive schooling

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

Prussian model

Ever since its inception, intellectuals could not stand the coercive Prussian system of education. Philosophers and scientists, over the centuries, kept extolling the virtues of free will and creativity.

Despite all the absurdity of coercion, it is employed around the world, it is rampant, and it keeps producing its own worshippers.

The only hope rests in simple models of mind and learning that an average man can understand. In my involvement in students strike (Wiosna Uczniow 2022), I spoke to countless teachers and parents, and the mythology of coercion stands still like a fortress. It is a fortress of ignorance. The inveterate nature of school mythology made me conclude that the evolution goes in the wrong direction, and we need a revolution. We need a rebellion of students, with the support of all smart people on this planet, esp. concerned parents and enlightened teachers.

See: School Reform: Evolution or Revolution?

Submission vs. rebellion

Below I present the simplest illustration of the optimization trap that ensnared humanity. In May 2022, this is the simplest visualization I know. Instead of optimizing for best learning (orange optimum), we optimize for school performance (blue reality). Instead of getting an enlightened society, we inflict psychological damage with its extremes in the form of violence and suicide:

Figure: Wrong reasoning about schooling generates an unhappy society: At the bottom of the picture, we can see how the coercive pressure of schooling converts a happy, carefree child into a well-performing student. Educational systems around the world aim at maximizing testing performance, e.g. as in the PISA benchmark. In the middle, we can see that coercive pressure has a bad impact on overall learning, primarily due to the fact that it undermines the learn drive, and only passionate learning brings optimum outcomes. At the top, we can see how the battles with school coercion can either break a student or make a rebel. Instead of actual learning, a student can learn helplessness, or learn to hate the coercive system. That hate can spill to many areas of life and culminate, in extreme cases, in terrorism, murder, or other forms of violence. In the end, by employing coercion, instead of living in a happy world of free learning, we live in the world characterized by apathy, helplessness, psychiatric disorders, addictions, hate, and violence. The remedy is trivial: respect for human needs!

Coercive school system exerts pressure on students. This pressure will be counteracted with natural reactance, which will result in an inner war between control systems in the brain. On one end, there will be (1) the external plan for education (extrinsic motivation), on the other end, there will be (2) a person's own drive to learn, own interest, and the quest for creativity, and autonomy (intrinsic motivation). Those battles are inevitable:

Figure: This is how school destroys the love of learning. Learn drive is the set of passions and interests that a child would like to pursue. School drive is the set of rewards and penalties set up by the school system. Learn drive leads to simple, mnemonic, coherent, stable and applicable memories due to the fact that the quality of knowledge determines the degree of reward in the learn drive system. School drive leads to complex, short-term memories vulnerable to interference due to the fact that schools serialize knowledge by curriculum (not by the neural mechanism of the learn drive). Competitive inhibition between the Learn drive and the School drive circuits will lead to the weakening of neural connections. Strong School drive will weaken the learn drive, destroy the passion for learning, and lead to learned helplessness. Powerful Learn drive will lead to rebellion that will protect intrinsic passions, but possibly will also lead to problems at school. Storing new knowledge under the influence of Learn drive is highly rewarding and carries no penalty (by definition of the learn drive). This will make the learn drive thrive leading to success in learning (and at school). In contrast, poor quality of knowledge induced by the pressures of the School drive will produce a weaker reward signal, and possibly a strong incoherence penalty. The penalty will feed back to produce reactance against the school drive, which will in turn require further coercive correction from the school system, which will in turn reduce the quality of knowledge further. Those feedback loops may lead to the dominance of one of the forces: the learn drive or the school drive. Thriving learn drive increases rebellion that increases defenses against the school drive. Similarly, increased penalization at school increases learned helplessness that weakens the learn drive and results in submission to the system. Sadly, in most cases, the control system settles in the middle of those two extremes (see: the old soup problem). Most children hate school, lose their love of learning, and still submit to the enslavement. Their best chance for recovery is the freedom of college, or better yet, the freedom of adulthood. See: Competitive feedback loops in binary decision making at neuronal level
Copyright note: you can republish this picture under a Creative Commons license with attribution to SuperMemo World, and a link to the updated version here

We all know those inner battles when we are confronted with doing things we do not like. However, school pressure is relentless and causes permanent changes in the brain and in personality. As there are two aspects of reactance: rebellion vs. submission, the goal of the school system is to navigate the responses so that to maximize submission and avoid rebellion. The main factor in that navigation is the student's sense of being able to control the outcomes. As long as the student is incrementally made to believe the resistance is pointless, she will sink deeper and deeper into learned helplessness. Errors in that developmental navigation trajectory may result in active resistance or learned aggression. Metaphorically speaking, the student must be unaware of the conditioning towards helplessness. The awakening may result in rebellion, and the swing in the trajectory to the other unstable state (aggression).

Depending on the level of pressure, the negative outcomes will be increasingly extreme. Due to its clever incremental nature, school pressure will primarily generate learned helplessness, which will drive towards depression or suicide in proportion to the increase in the pressure and the increase in the length of the period of relentless coercion.

For lower levels of pressure, at the very least, we trade coherent learning for fragile unwanted knowledge that is sensitive to interference:

Figure: The figure presents the mechanism by which coercion affects mental health and well-being:

Any error in the "educational" process aimed at incrementally inducing learned helplessness may swing back the balance towards rebellion. The "error" may be as simple as taking a step too far (the optimum step length is always hard to measure). If forces of active reactance win, we will generate increasingly rebellious characters with the extreme outcome of violence and terrorism.

Optimization trap

The school optimization trap results from measuring progress with testing. As we nearly always test for knowledge that is not wanted (by the individual), i.e. not built with one's own learn drive, a degree of pressure will always provide a degree of "improvement" in testing. Free learning is hard to measure. This is why it eludes optimization. Reliance on natural qualities of the brain are the best option in learning:

Figure: Unschoolers justifiably resist scrutiny. It is inherently hard to answer questions such as "What did you learn?". If learning is passionately blind, it is hard to verbalize goals and effects. The unschooler instinctively knows she is on the right path. However, the rest of the world may remain unconvinced. The benchmarks do not exists, and well-schooled populations fail to appreciate the power of free learning. The picture helps to illustrate the problem. In an illustrative two dimensional knowledge space, a schooled pupil pushed by the pressures of the school drive is dragged along a linear pathway from its present status of knowledge A to a predetermined goal at B (blue pathway). The process is slow and ineffective. The student gradually develops a dislike of school and a dislike of learning. In contrast, a passionate unschooler follows unpredictable pathways in red (see: Mountain climb metaphor of schooling). The learning is highly effective and pleasurable (see: Pleasure of learning). The total mass of knowledge illustrated by the length of the entangled red pathway is huge (in comparison to schooling). The love of learning keeps growing in proportion to the size of the knowledge tree. A pupil will pass the school benchmark test adjusted to the goal B. An unschooler may fail. He would destroy all competition if someone cared to design an "interest benchmark" (in green). While most of the world worships achieving predefined goals (B) for a predefined society, we keep failing to explore the natural learning instinct (the learn drive). In the process, we build unhappy societies

With improvements in test results, we tend to praise testing, praise pressure and praise the school system as "delivering good outcomes". At the same time, we have an increase in school violence, which is blamed on parents or genes. We also have increase in depression or suicide, which is blamed on parents, individual weaknesses, or genes.

As the optimization backfires beyond a certain degree of pressure, all school reforms and all thinking about school tends to oscillate around the "fake optimum" set by testing. We see violence, we see suicide, but we do not want to admit they are all caused by the pressure of schooling. That educational pressure sends ripples through the entire society, affects families. Among Asian tigers we have fantastic PISA results, but we also have hikikomori.

We do not see the loss in learning, because we push all people through the system and have no good examples of truly free learners to compare. Those who are free and great are often seen through the lens of "testing". Einsteinian brain counts for little because few can assess it. It can easily be deflated by poor performance in literature, or even not so stellar performance in physical education. The whole society is blind to genius. Genius that is identified (e.g. as seen in school olympics, tests, and competitions) is attributed to individual qualities, individual teachers, or the coercive school system itself. See: Schooled people do not understand free learning

With the coercive school system we trade learning for suicides and terrorism

To disrupt this vicious circle of ignorance, we need to unite forces around the world. With the help of social media, we will soon attempt to organize a worldwide rebellion of students using the experience of student strike in Poland.

Further reading

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