I thought learning done at school was straightforward when I started teaching nine years
ago. I knew I could help students from low socioeconomic backgrounds grasp the joy of learning.
But I didn’t know that I was working with a very narrowly defined sense of learning: the process of gaining linguistic, historical, scientific, and mathematical information. I didn’t really think other types of information belonged inside school, nor could they help disadvantaged students.
I was wrong (obviously). But why was I biased toward this kind of learning? I couldn’t articulate this question even when I researched learning for Sift.
To understand my bias, let’s start by defining “learning.” Roughly, learning is the act of gaining new knowledge. And there are different types of knowledge: motor and autobiographical.
Babies learn both types of knowledge very clearly – they learn how to roll over (motor knowledge) and learn to dislike a shape of food (autobiographical knowledge). Adults learn both types of knowledge as well.
Our extreme autobiographical talent separates us from other animals and artificial intelligence. We’ve evolved to extract certain patterns from complex stimuli in our environment. My claim is that because we are so good at autobiographical learning, we treat it very oddly: We revere and fear it. This claim will take a book worth of argument and evidence to be convincing. However, let’s start with my bias toward a narrow version of autobiographical knowledge.
The explicit curricula now taught in schools service standardized tests – the gates of universities, well-paid careers, etc. Standardized tests are very rough attempts to measure narrowly defined autobiographical knowledge. I say this because they measure your ability to recall a laundry list of facts and standard interpretations that have simply accrued in textbooks over the last century. There are a few grammatical and logical skills thrown in as well without any evidence showing they deserve to be learned. Thus, without realizing it, the message given to teachers and students is that our ideal educational product is someone who can give clear reasons for the Holocaust and recite the steps of DNA transcription and translation. This imposed curriculum is where I got my bias toward a stilted idea of learning.
Standardized learning objectives and tests only ape autobiographical talent. Students don’t extract patterns from complex stimuli to gain new knowledge directly relevant to their life. They develop ways of recalling, constructing a tenuous self-interested motivation based on a future promise of “a good university,” which needs another set of justifications to excel in and “a good job” after. Good teaching is often tricking children into connecting themselves to the content through various activities or even a personal relationship to the teacher. In other words, the “auto” in autobiographical is stripped out of schools.
Who would do better at a given task: a person who is directly motivated by self-directed curiosity or a person who is indirectly motivated by promise of a future reward? I would think the directly motivated person would do better, but indirect motivation is powerful. I don’t know which one is more psychologically healthier. Again, a promised future reward is a very real motivator for many people whether they are aware of it or not. However, there isn’t authentic chance for self-directed autobiographical learning in school curricula.
Our educational system loves to judge a student’s ability and compare her to another student and for good reason: University admissions officers need ways by which they admit students. The true paradigm-shifting educational innovation would be a way of determining a students’ autobiographical learning ability. Standardized tests attempt this, but manage to cultivate a much different skill set of indirect and aped autobiographical learning.
There is still a lot of hope in educational reform. MIT has thrown out lecture-style classes in favor of inquiry-based, peer-guided classes and has improved learning outcomes. They have put the student’s curiosity back into their learning. Pedagogical trends in high school now favor self-directed behavior but are hamstrung by overly stuffed curricula. Perhaps change is coming?