There has been an interesting brief discussion on Twitter recently that has hinged around whether and how people are ‘good’ at learning. As Kelly Matthews observes, though, Twitter is not the right place to go into any depth on this, so here is a (still quite brief) summary of my perspective on it, with a view to continuing the conversation.
Humans are nearly all pretty good at learning because that’s pretty much the defining characteristic of our species. We are driven by an insatiable drive to learn at from the moment of our birth (at least). Also, though I’m keeping an open mind about octopuses and crows, we seem to be better at it than at least most other animals. Our big advantage is that we have technologies, from language to the Internet, to share and extend our learning, so we can learn more, individually and collectively, than any other species. It is difficult or impossible to fully separate individual learning from collective learning because our cognition extends into and is intimately a part of the cognition of others, living and dead.
However, though we learn nearly all that we know, directly or indirectly, from and with other people, what we learn may not be helpful, may not be as effectively learned as it should, and may not much resemble what those whose job is to teach us intend. What we learn in schools and universities might include a dislike of a subject, how to conceal our chat from our teacher, how to meet the teacher’s goals without actually learning anything, how to cheat, and so on. Equally, we may learn falsehoods, half-truths, and unproductive ways of doing stuff from the vast collective teacher that surrounds us as well as from those designated as teachers.
For instance, among the many unintended lessons that schools and colleges too often teach is the worst one of all: that (despite our obvious innate love of it) learning is an unpleasant activity, so extrinsic motivation is needed for it to occur. This results from the inherent problem that, in traditional education, everyone is supposed to learn the same stuff in the same place at the same time. Students must therefore:
- submit to the authority of the teacher and the institutional rules, and
- be made to engage in some activities that are insufficiently challenging, and some that are too challenging.
This undermines two of the three essential requirements for intrinsic motivation, support for autonomy and competence (Ryan & Deci, 2017). Pedagogical methods are solutions to problems, and the amotivation inherently caused by the system of teaching is (arguably) the biggest problem that they must solve. Thus, what passes as good teaching is largely to do with solving the problems caused by the system of teaching itself. Good teachers enthuse, are responsive, and use approaches such as active learning, problem or inquiry-based learning, ungrading, etc, largely to restore agency and flexibility in a dominative and inflexible system. Unfortunately, such methods rely on the technique and passion of talented, motivated teachers with enough time and attention to spend on supporting their students. Less good and/or time-poor teachers may not achieve great results this way. In fact, as we measure such things, on average, such pedagogies are less effective than harder, dominative approaches like direct instruction (Hattie, 2013) because, by definition, most teachers are average or below average. So, instead of helping students to find their own motivation, many teachers and/or their institutions typically apply extrinsic motivation, such as grades, mandatory attendance, classroom rules, etc to do the job of motivating their students for them. These do work, in the sense of achieving compliance and, on the whole, they do lead to students getting a normal bell-curve of grades that is somewhat better than those using more liberative approaches. However, the cost is huge. The biggest cost is that extrinsic motivation reliably undermines intrinsic motivation and, often, kills it for good (Kohn, 1999). Students are thus taught to dislike or, at best, feel indifferent to learning, and so they learn to be satisficing, ineffective learners, doing what they might otherwise do for the love of it for the credentials and, too often, forgetting what they learned the moment that goal is achieved. But that’s not the only problem.
When we learn from others – not just those labelled as teachers but the vast teaching gestalt of all the people around us and before us who create(d) stuff, communicate(d), share(d), and contribute(d) to what and how we learn – we typically learn, as Paul (2020) puts it, not just the grist (the stuff we remember) but the mill (the ways of thinking, being, and learning that underpin them). When the mill is inherently harmful to motivation, it will not serve us well in our future learning.
Furthermore, in good ways and bad, this is a ratchet at every scale. The more we learn, individually and collectively, the more new stuff we are able to learn. New learning creates new adjacent possible empty niches (Kauffman, 2019) for us to learn more, and to apply that learning to learn still more, to connect stuff (including other stuff we have learned) in new and often unique ways. This is, in principle, very good. However, if what and how we learn is unhelpful, incorrect, inefficient, or counter-productive, the ratchet takes us further away from stuff we have bypassed along the way. The adjacent possibles that might have been available with better guidance remain out of our reach and, sometimes, even harder to get to than if the ratchet hadn’t lifted us high enough in the first place. Not knowing enough is a problem but, if there are gaps, then they can be filled. If we have taken a wrong turn, then we often have to unlearn some or all of what we have learned before we can start filling those gaps. It’s difficult to unlearn a way of learning. Indeed, it is difficult to unlearn anything we have learned. Often, it is more difficult than learning it in the first place.
That said, it’s complex, and entangled. For instance, if you are learning the violin then there are essentially two main ways to angle the wrist of the hand that fingers the notes, and the easiest, most natural way (for beginners) is to bend your hand backwards from the wrist, especially if you don’t hold the violin with your chin, because it supports the neck more easily and, in first position, your fingers quickly learn to hit the right bit of the fingerboard, relative to your hand. Unfortunately, this is a very bad idea if you want a good vibrato, precision, delicacy, or the ability to move further up the fingerboard: the easiest way to do that kind of thing is to to keep your wrist straight or slightly angled in from the wrist, and to support the violin with your chin. It’s more difficult at first, but it takes you further. Once the ‘wrong’ way has been learned, it is usually much more difficult to unlearn than if you were starting from scratch the ‘right’ way. Habits harden. Complexity emerges, though, because many folk violin styles make a positive virtue of holding the violin the ‘wrong’ way, and it contributes materially to the rollicking rhythmic styles that tend to characterize folk fiddle playing around the world. In other words, ‘bad’ learning can lead to good – even sublime – results. There is similarly plenty of space for idiosyncratic technique in many of the most significant things we do, from writing to playing hockey to programming a computer and, of course, to learning itself. The differences in how we do such things are where creativity, originality, and personal style emerge, and you don’t necessarily need objectively great technique (hard technique) to do something amazing. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results. To be fair, it might be a different matter if you were a doctor who had learned the wrong names for the bones of the body or an accountant who didn’t know how to add up numbers. Some hard skills have to be done right: they are foundations for softer skills. This is true of just about every skill, to a greater or lesser extent, from writing letters and spelling to building a nuclear reactor and, indeed, to teaching.
There’s much more to be said on this subject and my forthcoming book includes a lot more about it! I hope this is enough to start a conversation or two, though.
Hattie, J. (2013). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Taylor & Francis.
Kauffman, S. A. (2019). A World Beyond Physics: The Emergence and Evolution of Life. Oxford University Press.
Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes (Kindle). Mariner Books.
Paul, A. M. (2021). The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. HarperCollins.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications.