Today's post, Two More Things to Unlearn from School, was originally published on 12 July 2007. A summary (taken from the LW wiki):

School encourages two bad habits of thought: (1) equating "knowledge" with the ability to parrot back answers that the teacher expects; and (2) assuming that authorities are perfectly reliable. The first happens because students don't have enough time to digest what they learn. The second happens especially in fields like physics because students are so often just handed the right answer.

Discuss the post here (rather than in the comments to the original post).

This post is part of the Rerunning the Sequences series, in which we're going through Eliezer Yudkowsky's old posts in order, so that people who are interested can (re-)read and discuss them. The previous post was Are Your Enemies Innately Evil?, and you can use the sequence_reruns tag or rss feed to follow the rest of the series.

Sequence reruns are a community-driven effort. You can participate by re-reading the sequence post, discussing it here, posting the next day's sequence reruns post, or summarizing forthcoming articles on the wiki. Go here for more details, or to have meta discussions about the Rerunning the Sequences series.

New Comment
12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:10 PM

I dislike this post for exhibiting really subpar skepticism of some claims that make school look bad. Examples:

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.

_

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."

Yes. And ignoring the limited time the universities usually have to teach physics. Physics students can't fully go through 400 years of thinking in 5 years course.

Yes. And ignoring the limited time the universities usually have to teach physics. Physics students can't fully go through 400 years of thinking in 5 years course.

The article acknowledges the lack of adequate time to learn things properly. However, it only mentions this explicitly when explaining the first "bad habit".

I think that schools should teach people how to think. But I also think schools should teach students useful skills in an efficient manner. I think an entire school system designed to force students to figure out the entirety of physics by themselves would result in a very very long physics program that isn't necessarily for the best.

There's another unfortunate truth that Less Wronger's may have a hard time with: most people, even smart people, just don't like to think. They find it annoying. At best, they enjoy thinking about specific types of things. I don't know how much of this has to do with the way schools work and how much has to do with sheer brain chemistry. But I think enforcing a "everyone must figure things out on their own" system would disproportionately reward Less Wrong-ish people in the same way that the current system rewards obedient people. It still doesn't necessarily give everyone what they need.

I think an ideal system would spend elementary and middle school teaching students the basics of critical thinking and exposing them to a lot of different ideas so they can figure out what their interests are. By high school, kids should be doing work studies that teach them the skills that are actually going to help them get a career (with a few elective courses that let them continue to experiment if necessary). Some of those careers will require thinking. Others won't.

Critical Thinking: Why is it so hard to teach (pdf)

People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skills. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they probably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize.

I think it's probably a good idea to remember that 'teaching material efficiently' and 'teaching people how to think and discover' are different things and potentially separable. Is there a way we could teach skills in an efficient manner and then separately teach the process of discovering and thinking? Perhaps. In fact schools already attempt this sometimes; just not very effectively. Certain kinds of labs are designed to try to do something like this. Perhaps there are better methods for teaching discovery and uncertainty skills. One obvious improvement would be to emphasize that most of reality looks much more like the discovery process than the efficient learning process.

But I think enforcing a "everyone must figure things out on their own" system would disproportionately reward Less Wrong-ish people in the same way that the current system rewards obedient people. It still doesn't necessarily give everyone what they need.

Indeed.

I'm reminded of what Yvain wrote in Generalizing From One Example:

I only really discovered this in my last job as a school teacher. There's a lot of data on teaching methods that students enjoy and learn from. I had some of these methods...inflicted...on me during my school days, and I had no intention of abusing my own students in the same way. And when I tried the sorts of really creative stuff I would have loved as a student...it fell completely flat. What ended up working? Something pretty close to the teaching methods I'd hated as a kid. Oh. Well. Now I know why people use them so much. And here I'd gone through life thinking my teachers were just inexplicably bad at what they did, never figuring out that I was just the odd outlier who couldn't be reached by this sort of stuff.

And when I asked for details on what exactly worked and didn't work, he elaborated:

Keeping in mind that I taught English as a second language to older elementary school children:

Ordinary teaching methods: constant repetition of unconnected topics followed by endless vapid games. For example, a game of bingo with vocabulary words in each square. Attempts to trick children into thinking something was interesting; for example, calling vocabulary "word baseball" or something like that and dressing up in a baseball cap while teaching it.

Things I predicted would work better: attempts to make material genuinely interesting, have each lesson build on the previous, and create links between different concepts. For example, a lesson on the days of the week including a mini-presentation on the Norse gods after whom they were named, references to previous lessons when we had learned "sun" and "moon" for Sunday and Monday. Attempt to teach how to apply general principles instead of doing everything ad hoc.

You can claw out some space in Middle School. I think elementary school years are pretty booked with teaching them to read, write, and manage small everyday arithmetic and geometry.

Fair enough.

[-][anonymous]12y 0

Unfortunate

I like this post for introducing the notion of training scientists to deal with the process of making scientific discoveries and really not knowing what the answer even looks like.

New to LessWrong?