Learning By Accident

I recently wrote an essay about how our educational system is an artifact of the industrial revolution, designed to produce cogs for a machine that no longer exists.

It received wide circulation and a lot of people weighed in with their own ideas about what’s working in education. My mother started a school when I was young, and I’ve also been in the process in the last year of evaluating school choices for my kids (who are entering middle school) so I’ve had a good deal more recent first-hand exposure to the question. And it’s got me thinking.

Play and Exploration

People learn by interacting with the world around them and by following the ideas they are curious about. Think back on your school career and try to name three teachers or three projects that really inspired you and got you excited. You can probably do that, but if I asked you to name four or more, you’d probably be at a loss.

Real learning doesn’t occur through mindless rote tasks or in any context where one is teaching to a test, and it almost certainly can’t occur in huge classes.

Kids grow when they are inspired to inquire into a subject themselves; sometimes that happens by way of a teacher, parent, or role-model, and sometimes it happens through reading or another kind of exposure to an idea. I won’t claim it’s causal, but there is a correlation between the number of books in a home and later success in life. While it is equally probable that the kinds of families that value books are also the same homes most likely to properly nurture a child, there is something wonderful about being surrounded by books and being able to select just the right book at just the right time.

Learning, at its best, should be a kind of just-in-time delivery system for knowledge and discovery.

There has been some debate as to whether schools should make any pretense of having a curriculum at all, or just focus on a kind of resource-rich play. The New York Times recently wrote a piece about how play is at the center of learning. A friend told me about the Sudbury School which has no curriculum and lets kids make up the rules. And if you read the literature, Sudbury “graduates” are as successful as anyone else.

Learning In Spite of the System

If you study the evidence, it becomes clear that the only real learning that happens in our traditional school environment happens by accident — as a side effect of our system, not as a primary result of our system. If this is true, our system is mostly wasted energy – noise and light – and not actually designed to solve the problem it purports to solve.

What do I mean by “learning by accident?” If you can count on one hand the number of teachers you had that inspired you, then your learning was by accident. If you can remember maybe just two projects from your school years that meant something to you, you were learning by accident.

The tragedy is that in our worst schools, those accidents never occur. Students slog zombie-like day after day through halls that threaten their safety, misdirect their higher calling into self-defense and trivial pursuits of one-upmanship, and generally burn them out on life and its possibilities. It’s no wonder that the survivors of this system (it’s hard to use the word “graduates” when many do not, and the process is more a trial than a system) tend towards cynicism and a zero-sum view of the world. There is no time or place for higher thinking when safety is in question.

Our very best schools – the schools in higher income areas, or our private schools – simply are rigged to increase the odds of “good accidents” occurring at a higher rate. These schools typically do not fundamentally alter the design, though, they just increase the odds that something good might happen inside their walls — through parent involvement, better teachers, and a community that is generally more able to support a learning environment.

So even our best schools are only, perhaps, 30% as efficient as they could be. The rest is all noise and heat and light. How can we unleash that untapped 70% of energy that we lose to the inefficient design we currently call school?

Homeschooling or the Sudbury method offer potential answers. However many alternative approaches carry baggage from the culture wars that make them unpalatable to the population at large, or include biases that make them less than effective.

Ideology and Indoctrination

Thanks to Hitler, it is still today illegal to home-school children in Germany. Indoctrination was such an important part of his new totalitarian state that he dared not leave it to chance. We have something similar going on in our country today. Our school system is a kind of indoctrination. We need to ask serious questions about whether we believe in the values it imparts, or whether it is something more sinister.

The extreme left and right get it wrong. This is not about warmed over hippie ideology, and it’s not about right-wing religious nuts opting out to preserve a cult-like bubble around their children. It’s also not about non-religious right-wing people rebelling against the abuses of teacher unions or big government. Education is too often co-opted by these sects and it’s counterproductive.

The real challenge is how to design an approach — which may not look at all like public education as we know it now, so stop reflexively bashing it — that scales up and works for moderates. And by “works” I mean delivers an level of efficiency closer to 90% rather than 30%, and is divorced from ideology.

Design is an opportunity to incorporate, or not to incorporate, ideology. Would you design a right-wing fork? Or a liberal toaster? Is it possible for us to design an educational approach that is simply functional, and light on ideology? We owe it to our kids to do so.


#1 D. S. Clark on 03.05.10 at 5:23 pm

I agree. I think inspiration and motivation are the keys myself. Some teachers in the current system are just dead fish that mull along, themselves burned out and uninspired. Each and every class (even if the method doesn't change) should be taught with passion. If someone isn't inspired to see how what they are learning is useful or fun, they simply won't retain what they are tested on.

#2 abachman on 03.05.10 at 5:34 pm

I've always been interested in our country's approach to religion and how it conflicts with our approach to education. I think it's possible that 50 years from now, we'll see massive, state-run education in the same light that we see massive, state-run religion today.

The right to education is recognized as a human right (by the UN), but in the same breath they state that they mean “entitlement to free, compulsory primary education for all children”, which sounds scary and not free-as-in-speech.

I'm clearly too far into an ideological mindset to completely divorce myself from the “why” of education. The “how” is hard, but will be interesting to ponder.

“If it would be wrong for the government to adopt an official religion, then, for the same reasons, it would be wrong for the government to adopt official education policies. The moral case for freedom of religion stands or falls with that for freedom of education. A society that champions freedom of religion but at the same time countenances state regulation of education has a great deal of explaining to do.”

James R. Otteson – Freedom of Religion and Public Schooling http://www.freedomofeducation.net/

#3 Adam Meister on 03.05.10 at 6:59 pm

“Our school system is a kind of indoctrination” You hit the nail on the head right there. If we can fix this problem (and it is a huge challenge) then we will be on the right track. Down with the machine!

#4 betaphi on 03.05.10 at 8:32 pm

Hi Dave

Have you seen the Frontline video titled How Google Saved a School?
Every child is issued a laptop and given *some* liberties with its use. Every child's test scores begin to rise dramatically. Behavior problems decrease.

This is close to the kind of thing I was referring to in my comment on your last ed post. However, unlimited internet access via laptops is not the answer. Excellent educational software + young technologically savvy teachers + satellite schools equipped with computers is what's urgently needed.

These changes will have to come from the private sector with or without government funding. Groups similar to your Beehive could be the genesis for this sort of change — bring in educational specialists, bring in venture capitalists, use your combined design and programming skills to create the classroom of the future, one that makes money instead of wasting it.

The big publishers have little interest in creating educational software because they make too much money on textbooks. Textbook adoption takes place on an annual basis in nearly every school district, with billions being wasted nationwide to purchase the latest products. I know this because I've had to sit on adoption committees and listen to the sales pitches of these big publishing companies who stand to lose billions if their textbook isn't adopted.

It's all so wasteful and inefficient. I'm so glad to see you focusing on education. Somebody has got to get the ball rolling in a new direction, and soon.

#5 JST Books on 04.15.11 at 6:26 am