In Three Things to Unlearn from School, Ben Casnocha cites Bill Bullard's list of three bad habits of thought: Attaching importance to personal opinions, solving given problems, and earning the approval of others. Bullard's proposed alternatives don't look very good to me, but Bullard has surely identified some important problems.
I can think of other school-inculcated bad habits of thought, too many to list, but I'll name two of my least favorite.
I suspect the most dangerous habit of thought taught in schools is that even if you don't really understand something, you should parrot it back anyway. One of the most fundamental life skills is realizing when you are confused, and school actively destroys this ability - teaches students that they "understand" when they can successfully answer questions on an exam, which is very very very far from absorbing the knowledge and making it a part of you. Students learn the habit that eating consists of putting food into mouth; the exams can't test for chewing or swallowing, and so they starve.
Much of this problem may come from needing to take three 4-credit courses per quarter, with a textbook chapter plus homework to be done every week - the courses are timed for frantic memorization, it's not possible to deeply chew over and leisurely digest knowledge in the same period. College students aren't allowed to be confused; if they started saying, "Wait, do I really understand this? Maybe I'd better spend a few days looking up related papers, or consult another textbook," they'd fail all the courses they took that quarter. A month later they would understand the material far better and remember it much longer - but one month after finals is too late; it counts for nothing in the lunatic university utility function.
Many students who have gone through this process no longer even realize when something confuses them, or notice gaps in their understanding. They have been trained out of pausing to think.
I recall reading, though I can't remember where, that physicists in some country were more likely to become extreme religious fanatics. This confused me, until the author suggested that physics students are presented with a received truth that is actually correct, from which they learn the habit of trusting authority.
It may be dangerous to present people with a giant mass of authoritative knowledge, especially if it is actually true. It may damage their skepticism.
So what could you do? Teach students the history of physics, how each idea was replaced in turn by a new correct one? "Here's the old idea, here's the new idea, here's the experiment - the new idea wins!" Repeat this lesson ten times and what is the habit of thought learned? "New ideas always win; every new idea in physics turns out to be correct." You still haven't taught any critical thinking, because you only showed them history as seen with perfect hindsight. You've taught them the habit that distinguishing true ideas from false ones is perfectly clear-cut and straightforward, so if a shiny new idea has anything to recommend it, it's probably true.
Maybe it would be possible to teach the history of physics from a historically realistic point of view, without benefit of hindsight: show students the different alternatives that were considered historically plausible, re-enact the historical disagreements and debates.
Maybe you could avoid handing students knowledge on a silver platter: show students different versions of physics equations that looked plausible, and ask them to figure out which was the correct one, or invent experiments that would distinguish between alternatives. This wouldn't be as challenging as needing to notice anomalies without hints and invent alternatives from scratch, but it would be a vast improvement over memorizing a received authority.
Then, perhaps, you could teach the habit of thought: "The ideas of received authority are often imperfect but it takes a great effort to find a new idea that is better. Most possible changes are for the worse, even though every improvement is necessarily a change."
Great post. Here's another take on the scientists-more-likely-to-become-fanatics phenomenon: people who go into the hard sciences think in ways that predispose them more towards literalism.
So there's an argument for going into the classroom (as a teacher) completely unprepared, stumble through the material, reason things out in fron of the students, go down hopeless calculations for a while, then say "scratch that", "let's see....hmmmmm", etc....Nothing should be clear, the students would have to make huge efforts just to find out what's on the hw. I know some people like this (not by design). I wonder if their students learn some important life-skills though.
In my own experience, this can work well in a small group with engaged students. I had an excellent optics class where we would try to derive a known result as a group: the professor would explain the experiment, draw a picture, and then ask us to help. If we got him going, he would take a few steps, then ask again. Now, I remember next to nothing of equations for optics, but I have a very good idea of how to go about figuring out the outcomes for various experiments theoretically.
On the other hand, I've had professors stop referring to notes partway through a derivation or proof, get dreadfully confused, and simply frustrate themselves and their students. So this may be an all-or-nothing: for a given day or proof or class, either do a group derivation or present the material on a platter.
I will say that I also had a high school English teacher who would use the wrong word or give a ridiculous interpretation in the hopes that a student would correct him and learn to not always trust authority. I liked the theory, but in practice it meant that the attentive students had to do work that was frequently repetitive and irritating, such as correcting word choice or grammar (as these were students who were already thinking) while those who could learn most from such a lesson never noticed it.
I had a teacher somewhat similar to that my freshman year in high school, except she was a last-minute replacement and was not really an English teacher. Her grammar was atrocious, and I ended up getting detention for correcting her too often (interrupting class or lack of respect or some such was the reason given on the detention). It was probably my first real experience with an authority figure being so utterly and obviously wrong, and I wasn't sorry at all for the detention. It was well worth it.
Here's my bad teacher story:
When I was 13 or 14, my physical science teacher was talking to the class about space probes with trajectories that take them outside the solar system. He said that such probes get faster and faster as they go. Thinking he either had misspoken or was intentionally being wrong to see who would catch his error, I corrected him. To my surprise, he said he had not misspoken and that he was correct. We argued about it a bit then he told me to write down a defense of my position.
Later that day, kids came up to me and said, "Why are you arguing with Mr. S? You know he's right!".
I wrote a weak attempt at a defense of the law of inertia (using a reductio ad absurdum argument if I remember correctly). When I gave it to him the next day, he praised it and conceded the argument -- but only privately. He never admitted he was wrong in front of my classmates.
Yeesh, that's terrible. It kind of figures that he'd rather mislead a class full of students about the way physics works than own up to his mistake.
It reminds me of an error I had been taught about the way airfoils work that wasn't corrected until I read a flippin comic strip on the subject almost a decade after I graduated high school.
I was stunned, and spent the rest of the afternoon learning how airfoils really work. What makes this particular example so tragic is it leverages another principle of physics that you won't realize doesn't fit if you are taught to accept everything the teacher says as gospel. What's worse is I'm pretty sure the mistake is still there in the vast majority of textbooks.
I argued publicly with my German teacher about the derivation of 'case' in class. At the beginning of the next lesson, she started with an admission that she'd been wrong and I'd been right. In conceding to a twelve year old on her home ground in front of a class of other children that her job was to control, she taught me an awesome lesson about honesty and humility. I held her in huge respect after that and was her ally ever after. Thank you Ms Eyre.
Great post, Eliezer (you've earned my approval). I think tied for worst school-nutured habit, along with parroting things back, is emphasis on what we think we know, as opposed to what we don't know. I think school science and history subjects would be a lot more interesting, and accurately presented, if at least equal time was given to all the problems and areas where we don't know what's going on, and for which there are various competing theories. Unfortunately one doesn't usually get this presentation of the state of things until one is working as a research assistant in college or grad school.
My father is a college professor and he's going to be teaching an introduction to engineering course to future electrical engineering students. He's planning on making the students learn basic electromagnetic theory by forcing them to try to perform their own experiments with a pile of stuff that would have existed around 1900 or so.
"Today's assignment: In 1820, Hans Christian Ørsted discovered a relationship between electricity and magnetism. Replicate his experiment and demonstrate that a relationship exists."
Hopefully, some student will eventu... (read more)
Another option is to enforce co-op programs as part of school. Give people some life experience to go with their college bubble experience...
"..show students different versions of physics equations that looked plausible, and ask them to figure out which was the correct one": I used to do this. Professor Rosencrantz favours this, I wrote, and Dr Guildernstern that. I stopped when we started getting students who didn't know who R and G were.
Re: "Wait, do I really understand this? Maybe I'd better spend a few days looking up related papers, or consult another textbook," they'd fail all the courses they took that quarter. A month later they would understand the material far better and remember it much longer - but one month after finals is too late; it counts for nothing in the lunatic university utility function.
This line of thought reminded me of Robert Frank's The Economic Naturalist: "When students are given tests designed to probe their knowledge of basic economics six months after taking the course, they do not perform significantly better than others who never took an introductory course. This is scandalous."
I gather the goal of Frank's student assignments is to have them think, even if imperfectly, rather than to parrot well.
It is obvious to most teachers, and to many students, that school tests and rewards are often quite at odds the usual stated purposes of school. It often seems like there are other ways we could teach and test that would be more in line with those stated purposes. You seem to be suggesting such alternatives.
But I think we have to take very seriously the fact that schools have long had the option to switch, and have chosen not to. I conclude that the real purpose of school is somewhat different from the stated purpose, and that the things taught are in fact more useful for the real purpose.
Wait, don't leave us hanging! What's the real purpose?
A good post, Eliezer, but it brings to mind that quote about the horse, and the water -- you know the one I mean. In my college years (as a philosophy major) it because clear that there were students who actually went through the process of digesting, seeking broader context, checking out other sources, and so on. And there were students who were there to get a BA. I don't recall either group doing much better or worse on exams, papers, etc. But perhaps this is more common in the humanities, where reading is the main activity, than in the sciences...
As far... (read more)
and what are the stated purposes you're specifically thinking of?
Possible purposes of school include: 1) babysitting, 2) social mixing, 3) sorting by intelligence and/or consciensciousness, 3) imprinting work habits, 4) learning specific useful skills or knowledge, etc. If you know what general skills tend to be useful in typical office jobs in our economy, you will see relevance of typical work habits imprinted and characteristics sorted in school.
Considering the number of complaints I hear about recent graduates not being good at work, it's possible that schools aren't doing a good job of preparing people for typical office jobs--- after all there isn't reliable feedback from graduates or employers to the schools.
I suspect the short-run goals (baby-sitting, status enforcement vs. children and teenagers, acquisition of easily checked credentials) are the ones mostly being served.
And sometimes it's semi-explicit. For example, there's a lot of evidence that many teenagers have sleep schedules that run late. They may not be able to get to sleep before midnight or 1 AM, but it's very difficult to get schools to give them later schedules.
Waking up early is thought of as virtuous, and letting teenagers get enough sleep is thought of as coddling them.
If you haven't met any adults who think precisely that way, you've led a very lucky life. ;-)
In my experience, schools aren't doing a good job of preparing them for software engineering jobs, either. Most of the candidates I've seen (and I've seen quite a few) run the gamut:
Robin, good point. At the same time, there might be a large functional vs. optimal gap in the degree to which school is fulfilling its real purposes. Although the best way to optimize it might not be to brainstorm about how to get it closer to its stated purposes -so point well-taken on that end.
This is a good post.
I don't take nearly as cynical (or is it bitter & angry for seemingly no reason?) a view as Mencius Moldbug does, but you might be interested in his post on grad school.
I'm very sympathetic to the idea contained in the post. In fact, I used to say something similar in my graduate student gig as a freshman orientation guy. But teaching and learning real thought are hard. Can everybody teach it and learn it? Is there any sense in which what goes on now is not optimal, but is (or at least is not too far from) constrained optimal?
All textbooks should contain a few deliberately placed errors that students should be capable of detecting. This way if a student is confused he might suspect it is because his textbook is wrong.
One problem with a professor telling students "I may be wrong." is that many of the students will hear that as "You must be right."
I see the purpose of BSc or MSc is to learn to be able to make an analysis of a given subject (related to your particular field) and write a structured and coherent report of it. To do this you need to learn how to use the tools of analysis particular to your field (e.g. calculus, physics equations, balance sheet, schools of thought in philosophy etc.). So when you are done with the school and have BSc or MSc if somebody gives you data and a research question you can apply the tools and write a report/essay.
To be a researcher you need to learn how to make/... (read more)
Can you imagine the reductions in the number of students able to handle coursework if professors actually made their students think rather than memorize.
Unfortunately, it seems that most universities are obsessed with making money and thus need to address the abilities and intellect of a wider audience... not everyone is capable of the upper level critical thinking suggested here.
University English Lit departments should be closed down for teaching appalling habits of thought to impressionable young people.
You read the books, and then you pick up elements from them and turn them around a bit until they line up nicely to form a pleasing argument. The more tenuous (sorry, 'sensitive') your reading, the more marks you get. The more 'powerful' the story you weave, the more marks you get. Especially if it chimes with the prevailing intellectual fashions. Extra points also for being subversive or challenging the (straw man) orthodoxy. Looking behind the superficial to decode the deeper truth is, of course, compulsory. Marks deducted for anything as neolithic as thinking literature might teach us anything about the human condition.
Never do you weigh the merits of your chosen interpretation against other available interpretations - in fact the question is nonsensical, because there are no criteria for comparison. There is no analog of testing whether your hypothesis is consistent with facts. Never do you consider how the elements of your 'reading' hold together or relate to the real world - that is to say you can employ any half comprehended 'philosophy' without b... (read more)
All textbooks should contain a few deliberately placed errors that students should be capable of detecting. This way if a student is confused he might suspect it is because his textbook is wrong.
Starting that in the current culture would be...interesting, to say the least.
I still recall vividly a day that I found an error in my sixth grade math textbook and pointed it out in class. The teacher, who clearly understood that day's lesson less well than I did, concocted some kind of just so story to explain the issue which had clear logical inconsistencies, which I also pointed out, along with a plausible just so story of my own of how the error could have happened innocently.
I ended up being mocked by both teacher and students as someone who "thinks he knows everything". Because of course, we all know that the textbook author not only does know everything, but is incapable of making typographical errors.
Oddly, at the time I was remarking on the error to stand up for a classmate who was expressing confusion. She couldn't understand why her (correct) answer to a question was wrong.
Eliezer promised us two school-inculcated bad habits of thought, and I count only one.
Though I certainly take your point, I think giving tests to students is actually meant to combat the problem of parroting rather than understanding information. In high school I often complained that we wasted time taking tests when we could be learning new information, but if teachers determined when to move on to new material just by asking students whether we understood, I'm sure we would have always just nodded and parroted back the teacher's sentences. Knowing that you'll have to take a test on material (that you'll be asked to answer different prob... (read more)
Is the second thing to unlearn how to count? My traditional, school learned way of counting only finds one thing you want to unlearn, not two.
Teach a class about Thomas Kuhn. Problem solved.
Bad Habit #1) Don't notice when you're confused.
Bad Habit #2) All authoritative ideas / all new ideas / all ideas that have a few plausible reasons to support them, are true.
Teach a class about Michael Polanyi. Problem solved better. ;-)
I quote from one of my favorite authors, Jamie Whyte:
Perhaps I'm naive, but I think the problem can b... (read more)
Ambitious or not isn't a concern of mine. Instead I'm worrying about the students who will be filled with invaluable pieces of information--about formal logic, inductive reasoning, the practise of the scientific method, perhaps biases in cognition and then some statistics. While they're useful things to know, so is the nitrogen cycle, the causes of WW2, the iambic pentameter and trigonometry. None of these things are the void that we wish to emphasise in teaching.
Not long ago Doug S pointed us to this article suggesting a general failure of courses that attempt to teach "critical thinking." It's just a lot harder than it might seem.
It may be a fair question of whether better outcomes result when a substantial portion of the population is taught followign directions rather than to think critically. Sort of like how the Straussians approach religion and how the armed forces approach chain of command.
Willingham alluded to the fact that critical thinking courses depend largely on the skill of teachers. From my personal experience, some teachers are excellent critical thinkers, but a majority of them are very bad...which is why I disagree with him when he states that critical thinking should not be taught on its own. Willingham proposes that critical thinking should be taught in the context of subject matter but I just don't think we have enough qualified teachers to do this.
I never went to school. Bill Bullard seems to assume that without the indoctrinating influence of school, we'd be prissy self-effacing socialists. He's wrong, because I'm an individualist and I think his first two points are garbage.
On the propositon that 'knowing that you are confused is essential for learning' there is a structural equation model, tested empirically on 200+ subjects, that concludes that the ability of knowing-that-you-don't-understand is an essential prerequisite for learning, in the sense that people who have that ability learn much better than those who do not. Three other individual difference variables are also involved, but only come into play after the person realizes that they don't understand something. Its called 'Learning from instructional text: Test of ... (read more)
The best thing about grad school is when you finish taking courses. To make it through the math courses you have to play the game, writing down proofs you know aren't right but that will get you some credit. Once you're done with that, then you can actually step back and learn something. Study only one or two things at a time, set a reasonable pace that will allow you time to think (and will be paced relative to your own speed of thought), and actually gain some understanding. Of course, some students use this as an excuse to be lazy, but a good advisor will know the difference.
I agree with the English lit comment. I know someone who went through that and she was able to pass classes without reading the books. In fact, the less she read, the better she did!
Is there any profit to opening up a discussion on enlarging the time it takes to get a degree so that the students and the teachers can take the time to explore and learn in depth.
Bruce, thank you for the study reference!
Not all schools/universities are as grim as all that. I went to a small liberal arts university where research professors taught small classes, and although it wasn't perfect, the students who wanted to learn critical thought were encouraged by many professors to do so.
I did that occasionally, and ... (read more)
As you say Joshua, ad hominem. Since you ask, it's from providing therapy to friends who were damaged by the school system. But nobody here has alleged that I'm off-base in my description (as opposed to suggestions and conclusions), and therefore it doesn't matter how I got an accurate description, only that I did. As I recently told a schooled friend who was taught silly rules, "The first rule of math is that it doesn't matter how you get the correct answer, so long as it is correct."
(I also explained that "Math is what you do when you don't know what to do next. If you already know exactly how to solve a problem, it's not math, it's computation.")
This is related to one of my personal pet peeves. That is that schools are more about testing/grading people than about teaching. Parroting back is much more easily testable.
Oh to add to my above post, it seems to me that the teachers are too loyal to the over all society and less loyal to the student. They feel that they must grade students fairly and teach them in a manner that keeps that grading fair. If you hire a tutor he will teach you as best he can without much testing and will use whatever method he has at his disposal. A teacher may in a subtle way not want to teach a poor student using any method he has at his disposal. After all if I hire a tutor I would stop paying him if he gave me a poor grade and blabbed it... (read more)
floccina, perhaps the real purpose of schools is sorting. Perhaps the idea that children must be formed into educated people by schools is just part of Pinker's "nurture assumption". Schools have an incentive to promote that assumption, as it gives them more reason to exist. However, if they don't actually know how to educate children (and as you note, it is hard to test whether they actually teach), why would we expect them to?
St. John's College, in Santa Fe NM and Annapolis MD teaches in a way similar to what is suggested in th is post.
Excellent post! For those looking for an alternative to school for their children, I highly recommend The Unschooling Unmanual.
You're probably thinking of the engineering (and hard sciences in general) correlation; see http://www.eetimes.com/news/latest/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=205920319 or http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/01/primary-sources/6559/2/ and the original paper, http://www.nuff.ox.ac.uk/users/gambetta/Engineers%20of%20Jihad.pdf
How reasonable can we be about school?
I share your feelings of dissatisfaction (and disgust?) with education as it stands. What would a rational school be like?
There isn't a consensus on its purpose (what utility it was optimising) but at least it could be predictable. Perhaps if we assume that some external group (parents? pupils?) identified a set of desirable properties to be optimised for, such as income, happiness etc. Then the role of educators would be to create automated classifiers to predict the distribution of these outcomes for each individual.... (read more)
As a student, I can definitely see the benefit of not having knowledge just, as you said, handed to me on a silver platter. I'd actually much rather be challenged to attempt to figure out something for myself instead of simply being told about it. It honestly makes science rather dull, simply because I have a horrid teacher who doesn't even understand the material she teaches. Hopefully next year I'll have a competant teacher for physics.
In school, There are right answers. Copying from a reference work with known solutions is forbidden. Copying from someone else is forbidden. Asking someone who knows is forbidden. Working with others is often forbidden. Testing out the answer against reality is forbidden or impractical. You are expected to find the right answer by rooting around in your own head.
It would be difficult to find more crippling and maladaptive habits to instill in a mind that wanted to deal with reality.
Maybe I was lucky to have "better than average" teachers, or maybe the french school system is a quite different from the US one, but I remember several counter-example to those problems from my high school and university time, in maths, physics, chemistry and biology, I'll tell one example from each.
In maths, we were often asked to figure by ourselves (intuitively at least) if a "theorem" would be true or not, before being a proof of it being true to false.
In physics, we were given experimental results and asked to draft what law could the results follow. It lacked the "devise new experiments to test your law" part, but it's still better than nothing.
In chemistry, we were once given a substance (potassium permanganate, but we weren't told what it was) and a set of solutions, and we were told the substance was used to test solutions, but not how, and we had to figure out what it could test (acidity).
And in biology, in genetics, it wasn't uncommon to give us some experimental results over generations, and ask us to devise the way a given characteristic was reflected in gene (using one or two gene, on sexual chromosome or not, dominant or not, ...). I re... (read more)
This reminds me of one class I had where the answers tended to be vastly easier to work out than to guess. I eventually realized that I was proving the answers rather than just giving them in order to keep from guessing the correct answer (and thus losing the chance of figuring it out) by accident.
I think you have to present people with authoritative knowledge though... without that, you are forced to re-develop the entire history of science in one lifetime, which humans just aren't smart enough to do. Maybe an ideal AI could do it, but we aren't so we can't.
I think a better plan is this: Give authoritative knowledge that tells you to distrust authoritative knowledge. This forces the mind into cognitive dissonance which then gets resolved by saying "Authoritative knowledge is useful---but not absolutely certain."
I think the worst thing I learned in school was how to kill time.
My education was not like this. My teachers and lecturers delighted in asking tricky questions to people who thought they understood because they had memorised gibberish.
School systems may be mainly rubbish, and school is slavery for children, but just routinely bashing it ignores the fact that we're the most knowledgeable generation there has ever been, and no-one knows how to do it better.
Could it be that physicists are in the habit of taking their ideas seriously, and seeing where they lead? And possibly also a little socially incompetent and alienated?
That's one thing to unlearn from school. What's the second one?