The way we learn is all wrong

Humans have been known to do things wrong: The way they collaborate as a species, how they create an egalitarian society, choose wisely their models of success, occupy their minds in constructive ways, respect the giving planet we live on…just a few off the top of my head.

I say this not to paint an unfair picture of our accomplishments, but to remind ourselves that our Modern Age is not the final stage of an evolution. Come to think of it, there isn’t that much to boast about once we put it up against the potential of what we could have accomplished.

“Seriously? Two thousand years for there to be no slavery? And not even everywhere? And we’re proud of that?” You get my point.

The errors we make are not so much to be blamed on an evil nature of sorts, but rather on the fact that humans have an incredible ability to create their own illusions and false truths. We are remarkably brilliant and recognizing common sense when we see it but just as happily walk the other way and go down the path of counter-productivity.

“Yes, I know dieting is important. But I’ll try eating badly all the same. Just to see where it gets me. Oops! Now I’m 50 and type 2 diabetic”.

In terms of common sense, I believe we could make the case that all the wisdom we would ever need has been said in one way or another by the Ancient Greeks. When in doubt, look up a philosopher and there is probably a quote that will tell us how to behave.

When Plato said “The worst of all deceptions is self-deception.” some 2400 years ago, he made a common sense statement that still stands today. One possible application for this is a self-analysis to figure out what exactly we are made for as a person. What am I about? How can I best serve society by being “me”?

If this had been the principle of our economic system, more workers would be happy doing what they want and less big Amazons would grow to ridiculous sizes employing miserable people in miserable warehouses. Why, because it wouldn’t have ever made sense in our History to work in such conditions. Not in Plato’s’ time, not in the Industrial Revolution and not now.

We would be able to pull the handbrake on society’s expectations and practices, and think about what makes sense through the scope of self-judgement. As a second application, the self-deception that Plato refers to might also mean following false truths and faulty logic such as saying “I need money therefore I work for XYZ because that’s the way it’s done.”

Wrong. If money is truly the purpose you would set up streams of income and try to dig into yourself to find out you can truly best serve society.

And if happiness was truly the purpose you wouldn’t find it in comfort foods and instead try to reflect on happiness and how it is attained. By reading books, and listening to others.

We all know inside that it all makes perfect sense but we are remarkably proficient at following a flawed logic and repeating this for decades. It’s just one of those human features.

In teaching and in learning, I find we have adopted some very imperfect models also due to a societal tradition, but also because of the “illusion of logic” that we follow.

In short, the principle of our learning goes as follows: “You have the knowledge. Therefore I have to stick to you so that I can receive this knowledge also.”

We make a 1:1 equation in the manner of: The sun is hot, therefore I must stand in the shade if I want to be less hot.

In our minds, we have figured that if we close the distance enough by getting very close to the “haver of knowledge” we will learn all the better. Since I have not the knowledge I must therefore go to the haver of knowledge so that it can be transferred to me like an electric current.

This, in short, is how we picture education.

But what did the Ancient Greeks say about this?

Well, it just so happens that Socrates said: “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” And he also said “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

In other words, we already knew 2400 years ago how learning worked. As a professional teacher myself, I can vouch for Socrates’ words and make his meaning more plain:

A teacher can only ignite an interest, guide a student in the right direction. Learning is never about about filling up a receptacle. (Socrates uses the image of a vessel, I like to use the cup of water myself)

When I was at university for 5 years I was struck with stupefaction as I discovered that the whole college practice was based on attending lectures. “What are we DOING here?” I cried out inside. What is the point in sitting in front of a lecturer and writing down every word they say, or even nodding in agreement? Do we believe that knowledge is like electricity that will somehow go from transmitter to receiver?

Teaching in this way may work for manual tasks such as observing a master wood carver or a tanner to see how the art is done, but never for mental abilities.

Doing so for abstract abilities is the same as saying “I’ve written a book, would it make it easier for you if I read it to you?” Of course not ! I’ll read the book myself thank you very much, and get back to you if I have any questions. (Which I initially thought college was all about)

Granted, a teacher can (and should) provide shortcuts and find a way of presenting the knowledge in a condensed manner but they are only the book holder. They never actually make the book enter your mind.

I mentioned that humans have the ability to walk away from common sense and follow the wrong path. They also have the ability to comfort their minds with words that do not meet a true definition. Let us explain:

Some people hire personal trainers in a bid to get fitter. We will skip over the part where everyone has common sense enough to know how to get fit and just focus on the practice of attending the fitness class. The definition that the student gives to the class will gradually shift with time as they fall into the habit of attending the word “class” instead of the practice “class”.

I say this to illustrate that the shortcut we believe exists (getting close to the teacher) is in fact at higher risk of being throw off-course by “human behaviour” than if the learner had looked up how to get fit on their own.

With time, attending the fitness class will become a word equal to “appointment”. On Thursday I have my fitness class, which becomes a habit that I follow. I show up, go through the motions and do something else afterwards. But habits and routines always kill the substance.

In language learning, the bi-weekly appointment with the teacher also shifts definition and no longer comes to mean “the place where I will become better than last time” and becomes “the place I have to show up at twice a week.”

I wish to reassure the reader that I am not sour or disgruntled, I am merely pointing out an unspoken Law of Life. That by which human beings shift the meaning of a word without noticing it. Since life is perpetual motion, it would make sense that any practice follow the same rule. Just look around yourselves to see that the definition of “marriage” in the first week is not the same as 10 years later.

Hence, “going to school” or “going to work” comes to mean something else. It often comes to mean “showing up” which in turn produces diminishing returns. Not always, but to a varying proportion at least.

Learners all around the world do themselves the biggest of disfavours by failing to understand the core principle of learning. The belief in their roles as “knowledge receptacles” coupled with the shifting definition of the class accelerate the non-learning at a truly frightful speed.

Some 3 years ago, I taught English through a French language school. These adult students booked regular classes to which they showed up equipped with their own definition of the English class. (which was the first problem) Upon saying goodbye to me, some would typically say:

“OK, Chris. Thank you for the lesson. I should to go now. See you next time?”

“OK”, I would answer. “But watch out: it’s the verb MUST – this is the one that means OBLIGATION. I must go now.”

“Yes Chris, I understand. I MEUSTE to go.”

“Wait, remember what we said? The sound of MUST is the one with the symbol of the little triangle /ʌ/. It’s like the word bus of luck.”

“OK Chris, I remember. I MEUSTE. Ok I see you next time? I should to go…”

To my dismay, the French students to which I was hoping to teach the linguistic sound of the triangle /ʌ/ would never properly learn. Nor would they learn that the Modal Verbs MUST OR SHOULD are never followed by “to”. And they would not remember that MUST does not mean the same as SHOULD.

As Socrates said, I could only ignite their flame. Not pour the knowledge in their head.

The reason for this is lack of success was due the absence of a definition of what the language class truly meant. We also failed to take a moment to examine my role VS their role, and how the process of learning worked. Lastly, they proved that their shifting definition of a language class made it become a place they would “show up” between two other important meetings.

The failure of our class is made even more alarming and validates my point all the more by the fact that I am myself a native speaker of French who knows exactly how a French speaker will approach English. I know how French functions in the slightest detail, how a French speaking person approaches English and which mistakes they will make even before they make them.

Despite this, we failed.

The way forward would have been to take a moment to explain that attending a class does not equal learning, and to be mindful of falling into the habit of simply showing up. The teacher will only point out what you need to learn and can even create little exercises or give out simplified explanations. But without an active involvement of the student’s part, no learning would ever happen.

To recap the ideas in this article, the way we learn is all wrong because we have followed a principle that gives the illusion of making perfect sense. A “giver of knowledge” and a “receiver of knowledge” have to come together like a bridge for the knowledge to pass through. In our mind’s eye, it seems like the most straightforward way of doing things.

To put the sharpness of our minds into perspective, let us not forget that not so long ago, we believed that the best way for the world to function was to have men lead the household, “civilization” to impose itself onto other countries and eat fried bacon and maple syrup for breakfast.

So perhaps – just perhaps – there is a chance that the act of learning isn’t, as Socrates mentioned, the filling of a vessel but rather the kindling of a flame?

And perhaps too, the act of teaching cannot actually be done? At least not in the way we think it to be.

Just as Socrates said also.

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