Organic Learning

Written on December 25, 2008. Written by .

Reflections
The beauty of motivated learning.
Photo courtesy of atomicjeep

Education is becoming an increasingly large burden in the life of modern men. Many of us now toil away the prime years of our lives in response to the pressures created by the combination of the exponential expansion of human knowledge and a “red queen” arms race for the highest credentials. [Link] A couple hundred years ago, you could have a PhD if you went through as much schooling as a modern day high school graduate. And the percentage of people with Bachelors degrees has quintupled in the past two generations. [Wikipedia] Now, more and more people are looking toward graduate degrees to keep up with the inexorable march of progress.

Some would argue that the proliferation of higher education is a great boon to civilization. But one would be remiss to confuse education with the virtue of knowledge and idealized learning. Education brings with it the complications of inadequate pedagogical techniques, unnecessary stress and sacrifice, and large opportunity costs. While learning itself is indeed a valuable endeavor, the arms race for credentials encourages over-learning.

Most college students of today think of learning as a necessary evil. It is not fun to learn when you feel required to rapidly cram huge amounts of information into your brain. It is unnatural. Graduate school takes it to the next level, making the work even harder and faster paced. I have found that the primary consequence of graduate school is to subtly and subconsciously destroy a student’s innate interest in their subject of study so as to make them into more effective “operators” in the academic community. The term “operator” comes from a professor of mine who self-disparagingly used the term in reference to his everyday activities of lobbying for research funding and administrating research projects. Perhaps this operator transformation is a necessary component of the academic life cycle, but it is not a necessary component of education.

Learning does not have to be so painful. A more organic form of learning can actually be extremely pleasurable and fulfilling. Organic learning occurs when you “learn by doing” and pick up information as you need it. I originally tried to learn how to program by reading a book cover to cover, which was a bit boring. After I finished the book I realized I still couldn’t do very much and I also forgot most of what I read. So I didn’t do any programming for several years. Then I tried the same approach again reading another huge book, and I learned a bit more, but I still didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing. Eventually I got interested in the internet and I really wanted to make my very own web server program. I was missing so much information, but I knew it was possible, so every time I got stuck I did some quick research to find a solution. This goal-oriented approach keeps you very focused and prevents the boredom that comes with lengthy reading. Usually I would quickly skim many sources for the desired information and when I found it I would also read the surrounding sections because they were likely to provide further relevant (and hence interesting) information. By the time I finished the program, I had learned more than I had from the books, and I never had to push through any boredom. That’s because everything I learned had a strong motivation behind it. This is a key aspect of organic learning – motivation makes learning more fun and more memorable. With proper motivation, learning something feels like a real achievement, like finding a new item in Zelda, unlocking a new ability that is going to make your mission more exciting.

One role of educators should be to help students find the right projects that will motivate them and maximize the amount that they can learn from them. Some projects are better than others and it is not always easy to tell which ones will be beneficial before you learn the material in question. It is possible to fall into the trap of working on projects that just reinforce ideas that you have already learned without providing new challenges.

Organic learning has another fundamental advantage over conventional education, which is that it causes less wasted effort. Knowledge is made useful when it is applied, and knowledge that is never applied is most likely forgotten. Ideally one’s mission would be valuable enough to justify calling it an application of the knowledge learned therein. Carrying out your missions in the “real world” ensures that this is the case.

I don’t claim to have a plan for an alternative educational system, but I think we should all consider how we can make our learning more organic so as to relieve the strains from the current system.

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