Shortlog - a log of everyday things



I read this essay and was so taken by it that I felt the need to reshare it. The line that really spoke to me was in the title:

There's no speed limit.

It's how I've felt my whole life about everything. As a child, I could not understand why other people did not learn things at the same pace as I did. It's why I read about as many things as I can, to this day.

The problem is, it asks what becomes an uncomfortable question - namely, are people actually all created equal? If we accept that they are, then I am still convinced that anyone can set an inordinate pace for themselves, and be able to keep up with it, should they so choose. Really, there's no clear upper bound to how fast you can learn something, if you don't worry yourself with matching speeds with everyone around you. But that's not quite what we see happening in the real world. And besides, it doesn't take the other half of the equation into account - the intrinsic motivation of the learner. I've seen people who didn't care about anything excel, and people who struggle with all their might and fail.

There are two possible explanations that I can come up with, and perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between. The first is that some people are simply smarter than others, have more potential than others, are imbued with more drive than others, and deserve more investment than others. But that's not politically correct. No one wants to hear that their child is ugly, or lazy, or a bully, even if it's the truth. To me, it seems as though people do not value the truth as much as they value feeling good about themselves.

The other explanation I can offer is that our society is structured in a way that discourages our young people from taking their education into their own hands.

We learn from an early age that we should stay in line with our peers. If one student pushes herself to finish an assignment early, she is told to sit and be quiet until the other students are done. She implicitly learns that there's no point in trying to learn as quickly as possible; she should simply stick with the rest of her class. If she doesn't, it makes it hard on the teacher, who unfortunately has to serve as both tutor and authority figure. And that doesn't even touch on the social issues that arise when she's demonstrably more productive than her peers. She's made into the common enemy of the other students. What a terrible reward for being smart and proactive about her education!

The problem with education with no speed limits is that such a system doesn't scale the way we need it to to work with the society we've built. You can't put 30 kids the same age in a classroom together to be supervised by a single teacher if they aren't going to learn things together at the same pace. You'd have utter chaos. No speed limits worked for Derek Sivers (from the link above) because he had private lessons, where his teacher could adapt things to his pace and set what others would call incredibly high expectations.

Education scales when you can have a few adults keep kids in a school all day to keep them out of the way of other adults trying to get work done with the hope of imparting some knowledge upon them. Don't get me wrong; I think that education is important to having a developed and educated society like our own. We'd pay a different productivity cost if we took the master-apprentice route - we'd have a lot more people spending time teaching their trade to the apprentices rather than putting it into practice.

The question is: is this worth it? Are there ways we can improve our options? The most obvious way to improve the efficiency here is to push more responsibility onto the excess resource in the reaction - the children. If the learning is student-led, then the teachers don't have to be as numerous. The kids will teach each other, too. Sugata Mitra's TED talk shows how it works.

I find it interesting that so many people that I know say that they didn't learn how to learn until they reached college. Even given the limited sample, that's a sobering thought - we're failing to teach the most important foundations until we've passed through the vast majority of our formal schooling.

Don't teach kids things. Teach them how to learn, and set the expectation that they do so in abundance.


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Jono | 2011-07-17T16:25:47.083872

How best to teach people is a very interesting and complex problem (and one that I often think gets too little attention).

One experience I had was a teacher for year 7 maths who said "you can never be done at maths". If you ever finished the work that was set he would have something related, but not essential, for you to go on with. There were a few of us who would race to get through as much as possible. In some cases if a few of us were far ahead and the rest of the class didn't need assistance he would take us aside and teach extra material (I distinctly remember learning pythagoras's theorem that way).

Contrast that with a geography teacher in the same year, who threatened to give me and a friend detention for working ahead and then asking questions about the bits we didn't understand (that teacher actually left that year, and I had a great teacher for geography later in high school, and perhaps it was just an off day...).

Getting back to the focus of your post, I think a lot of this actually rests with parents, rather than teachers. Establishing curiosity about the world at a very young age is crucial. Also, I have no stats to back this up, but parents showing that they value education probably makes a big difference. I'd be interested to see what patterns there are in the development of children of academics.

And then there is the question of 'fun'. I've seen a bunch of things in the news over the last few years about using games in the classroom. I kind of feel like this is doing things backwards. How does a child know what should and should not be fun? I really enjoyed school and got great satisfaction from finding stuff out, for me it was a very fun game already!

Yes, how we teach is certainly a fascinating and important question :-)

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Danny Hua | 2011-07-18T16:35:43.963193

Give a man a fish...etc

I agree with what you say about how we seem to sugarcoat with regards to children. Certainly no one is good at everything; it's a matter of capitalizing on your strengths. Success is a combination of hard work (drive), luck, and talent. You can only control so many of those factors. Some people just don't have the same raw ability as others. Ideally, we can help those people identify what they are good at (Surely they're good at _something_ they enjoy?) Rather than take a one-size-fits-all approach to education.