Education lie close to my heart. It may not come as a surprise then that i think about it often. Education is about learning how to act in order to maximize your and others well being. It is about finding habits that improve the experiences of conscious beings. It is in other words about finding out what is and understanding how to reach what ought to be. Education should therefor be about acquiring knowledge about the world and understand what decisions lead to a world who’s conscious beings are happier.
The task is to find an educational system that regardless of available resources and teaching skill will drive pupils towards this goal. This is not to say that if you have the resources, you shouldn’t use it. It justs means that we should standardise the general principles of good education while freeing the means on how to actualize them. The means must be adaptable to environmental changes such as the creation of new technology as well as the individual needs in order for everyone to learn as well as they can.
Let me put forward some principles that might sound obvious when you think about about them but whose absence in the Swedish school system concerns me. These are not truths, just timeless ideas that I would like to see tested in an actual school if current legislations allow for it.
1. Divide and Conquer
I am borrowing the well known term from computer science which refers to the algorithmic approach of splitting a problem in to chunks and solving the problem for each part iteratively. The essence of improvement, both psychologically and in terms of efficiency, is to divide a problems in to manageable parts and learn och do each part without needing to think about the whole. Psychologically because it is easier to motivate one self to do one small task at the time rather then to embark on the whole project at once. It is also more efficient, if each step down in specificity yields insight that can be used for the next level. As an example, to understand what life is we can divide life in to 5 types, animals, plants, fungus, bacteria and other types of life. Knowing that animals have a digestive system as well as complex sensory to motion capabilities will help understand what a horse is as well as a frog. We have to include the possibility for life to be something else to ignite imagination, but also because we might be able to create new lifeforms this century that do not fall into the first four categories.
Imagine also the case of trying to learn a new sport. Having learned gymnastics earlier facilitates your learning of beachvolley because both share the common grounds of motoric control – the ability to move your body to desired configurations at will.
I suggest that we divide learning in to 5 steps:
- Convert to value
The motivation is the ideas that makes students willing to learn. Why is this valuable for me and if I am more altruistic, how can learning this yield value to those around me. Each person have there own idea of what value is, so examples of subjects gaining value by learning what you are about to teach should be many. We want many examples of personalities so that as many students as possible can identify themselves with someone. Students now have a goal in mind: Knowing this will make me be able to do that, or learning that would give me this value.
Then comes observation. Use your senses to perceive how things work by empirical investigations, or by osmosis by following mentors that you look up to. It is important to train your senses to be more aware of what is going on in your surroundings. Learn by osmosis because if it worked for them it can work for you. Failing is an important part of improving but learning from the mistakes of others is event better.
Next comes reason. Your feelings are not a perfect reflection of reality and even if something feels good now it doesn’t mean that it will bring you most value in the long run. Reason about who to follow, why is that person someone to look up to, are my circumstances similar enough in order for me to best learn in the same way as my mentor. Is my interpretation of my observation reasonable? Is this piece of information subjective or objective. If objective, what reasons do you have for believing in the information you obtained. If subjective, imagine your self in that persons position, what would you have thought that same?
Every skill and knowledge requires you to spend many hours practicing before it can generate value. That is, we must be patient – appreciate all steps towards expertise, not just the goal. Eventually anything you learn can be turn in to value either by teaching it to others or in the form of services or products. This is also true for remembering facts that you find important. Memories always fade away if not rehearsed, however for each time you remember something that memory grows stronger in you and will stay reachable longer. One can optimise efficiency by having student repeat knowledge just before they forget it. There are available tools that can help out tremendously in this area. But let us save that for another discussion.
Finally we must pick the fruits of our work. We must se what value learning brought me either through the appreciation from others or from our self when we realise that we are moving forward. This will boost further motivation and inspire others to learn what you learn. At some point you may become a mentor which will yield tremendous value to those who follow you.
So what do we need to learn? How should we divide our work in order to always build upon earlier knowledge. Let me give my view and if you do not agree be free to argue against it.
- Self – Understanding your own body and mind
- Culture – Understanding other minds and societies through out the ages
- Science – Explaining the world around us and finding out what is true
- Language – How to convey and store subjective or objective information
Understanding one self is one of the hardest problems in the world. How does our senses work together with the brain to produces conscious experiences. No one is close to answering this question, but in a world where meaning comes from experiences what can be more important to investigate. We should observe our thinking and feelings more often. Kids should investigate themselves early on. Investigate what it means to be a human, what is it that makes me feel angry. How do I feel at this particular moment. We should have much larger vocabulary on different emotional states. Not only the brain should be investigated, also our bodies. How does my knee work, what are muscles, why do I need them. How can a learn to control my body. Can i lie still for 2 minutes, why not? We should devote much more time on teaching students to observe themselves and by doing this it is much easier for them to move to the emotional state that they want to be in. You will also be able to communicate your feelings better and also understand how others might feel. It leads to a happier and more empathic society, I believe.
Culture on the other hand is important in the sense that if we do not know where we have been or where we are, how can we know where to go. To build trust and understanding of each other on such a diverse planet we have to understand each others cultures. What are the conditions from which you come from and how can I understand you if I do not know the history of your country or the customs of your town.
Science, the mother of improvement is a mind set that should be a part of all education. It is the means to an end, it is what works, it is used to differentiate facts from fiction and it is the tool to navigate our moral landscape. We might not think that we can get an ought from an is, but if we just agree upon that moral is about increasing the well being to conscious entities and reducing suffering, there must be scientific facts about morality.
Language is all means to convey information subjective or objective. We should teach kids to express them selves in many different ways, like body language, sign language, natural language, written language, tactile language maybe even smell. Hormons that are sent out from your body contains a large amount of information that we can pick up subconsciously and act upon. We also have many different types of canvases to transfer our thoughts and feeling on to. These are external devices that can convey information to anyone that reads the language you have used, for instance a note sheet, document, instrument, food plate or even your own body. We should learn the common grounds of language and then build upon that before we distinguish math from music or dance from say programming. In this sense nothing seems unfamiliar. Trust me, they share more then you think. Depending on the situation, what is the best means of instructing someone? Should I use music or food, body language or text messages to get my feelings or thoughts across? By getting something across I mean to sync our minds so that our experiences matches.
It is well known that playing is one of the most developing activities for your brain, especially at a young age. Playing deserves to be one of the principles and it should be a part of most of education. Most of us forget about playing when we grow up. We stop imagining and lower our creativity. I do not mean that we should play video games or board games all the time, I am just suggesting that we do stuff for the joy of doing them. For humanity to solve the problems we will face in the next decades we need to boost our creativity and think more and more outside the box. We have to go outside the norms to create novel values and go out of scripture to reach new insights. Let us put more effort into strengthening the skills that computers still lacks. In this way we will complement the technology in the quest to add value in the world and thus feel as a part of the movement.
We have to be able to adapt to the rapidly changing world. Kids are taught things that were important skills 100 years ago. The school is changing, but not as fast as the society changes. To solve this problem we should teach first and for most how to learn, learning is universal and what ever the world is like, learning will always be useful. Learning how to drive however will probably be unnecessary with in 20 years, due to the rise of autonomously driving cars.
4. Share and cooperate
Both schools among other schools and students among their peers have to cooperate. Ideas that show fruitful in one school should be shared and tested by others. If something worked for you, maybe it will work for your friends. Teach students to be susceptible to help. They do not need to do everything themselves, it is okay to seek help. Cooperation is what makes us human, it distinguishes us from our non-human ancestors. Cooperation can be trained through theater, games, sports, role play and other kind of team work. It is good to take on different roles in this plays so that one gain perspective. In my view, gaining perspective equates with gaining understanding.
5. Width first
Finally I would like to borrow another term from computer science. It reflects the way one can search through a tree node structure – before going too deep into one branch we should explore the other branches, that is, searching the width first. In other words to learn as efficiently as possible we should not just plow through the data like you probably read a book. An example on how NOT to learn is to be super good at multiplying numbers but not being able to divide or not being able to play fore hand in table tennis but being an expert in back hand. A better way is first get an overview of what you want to learn and then go in to ever greater detail. This yields perspective and motivation. Eventually we want to learn the details and having a broader understanding of the concept will help us to put these details in to the right slots. We can hang these facts on our earlier understanding of more general ideas or if it is about a certain technique we might see how to use this technique in other areas.
Let us apply this to principle on reading a non-fiction book. Frist of all, why do I want to read this book? Do I want to learn something or do I want to be entertained? Maybe both? Do I need to know all of it contents or do I want to get its core ideas and move on. In the analogy – is this a date, business meeting or a philosophical discussion. Always start with why as Simon Sinek argues. Once the why is established, you can work on the how. In our case our how is to look at the cover, glance through it content and see if it looks interesting. If it does you can get back to it later and read about the author and read the first and last paragraph in all the chapters. Dig in to the most interesting one and if it relates to any other chapters you might continue reading that chapter next. Don’t be afraid to read stuff more then one time. A book, like a friend needs to be entertained. Come back to it every now and then and read what you like and find out something new. It is better to have 150 books that you get back to in your life than having red 1000 books that you don’t remember much from. I pick 150 because it is the Dunbar’s number. If you are interested in reading more about that number check Wikipedia, but in short it is approximately the maximum number of friend you you gain something from having. After that your social brain wont cope they say.
As a final remark I would like to add that these ideas are what came to my mind when writing this and is not written in stone. So if you have other principles that you would like to add or some ideas that you must argue against, please do so. Next time I might put in som absurd idea just to provoke someone reading this, so be sceptic.
Until next post!