Why I give a shit about learning

Why I give a shit about learning

For the past few weeks, I’ve been deeply immersed in various subject matters that I consider to be extremely important, and the need to express those thoughts has become greater and greater until this morning I found myself sitting down to begin this paragraph. Instead of one huge rambling post (although I can’t promise it will be entirely ramble-free…), I’m going to attempt to tackle different topics in different posts for the sake of brevity.


The educational system – functional or flawed?


Today, I felt the need to discuss the education system and how it’s already evolved exponentially even within my own lifetime. I would even venture to say that in the approximately seven to eight years since I personally left secondary school, the landscape of education has already changed dramatically.


The strange thing about the traditional learning system is how much it seems to foster a dislike of actual learning within a not-insignificant portion of the students. This is something which, left unchecked, is obviously highly problematic in terms of student attitude and how much this could potentially have a devastating snowball effect on millions of still-unfolding lives.


Yesterday, I found myself watching snippets of the classic 1996 film “Matilda” (based on the excellent book by Roald Dahl, which I also re-read yesterday evening in a fit of nostalgia) and being particularly moved by the scene where Matilda, growing frustrated at the blasé attitude of her lazy and dislikeable parents, takes herself off to the library. (She’s four and a half at the time. Give her kudos for that.)


It’s a beautiful scene – Matilda enters the library with an expression of awe on her face, and upon selecting a book, sits down and single-mindedly devours it until she has finished, whereupon she gets up and selects another to repeat the process over and over again.


I can identify with this. As a child, I was a voracious reader and read essentially anything I could get my hands on. When I was small, I was told that I once asked my parents the now-immortal question (at least within my family):


“Why is it raining so hard?”


Of course, they thought that was a hilarious question from a dumb kid, and no doubt I got fobbed off with an unsatisfactory answer just to shut me up before I asked more asinine questions and ruined their Sunday morning. (Fair enough, really.)


Now, I don’t remember asking this particular question, but I imagine I wasn’t best pleased with the answer. What I do, however, remember – very clearly in my mind’s eye – is reading about it, and specifically, reading a diagram within a children’s encyclopaedia of the precipitation cycle and how it functioned. I don’t remember which book it was, but I still remember with reasonable clarity exactly what the diagram looked like, which of course was the perfect explanation that I needed. It wasn’t even that difficult. Why is it raining so hard, indeed!


No denying it – I was a nerdy kid.


(Perhaps not much has changed.)

The DIY approach to education

The important lesson from that, reflecting upon it now, is not to leave your own education in the hands of others. You have to grasp it with both hands and really investigate yourself the things that fascinate you. The knowledge, most of the time, is already there and has been discovered by somebody else. It’s simply a matter of sitting down, processing the relevant information and then realising that your knowledge has expanded. It’s like (an admittedly slower) version of the scene from the Matrix where Neo is plugged into the mainframe and four seconds later, opens his eyes to declare “I know kung fu.” That, to me, is what learning is, and it’s why I find it so exciting.


Even now, at the age of 26, I still get excited at the mere physical presence of books. I like to be surrounded by them. I have four piles of books next to my bed and I just counted the number (42, which as a Douglas Adams fan is greatly pleasing to me). They range from fiction to biographies, foreign languages, music, cooking, accountancy, finance, logic puzzles, graphic novels, meta-learning, travel, web design and philosophy. I have 450-500 physical books and plenty more on my Kindle and iPad (and also a fair few on my phone for those moments where you’re stuck in an intolerably slow-moving queue). To me, books represent knowledge, and knowledge represents progress. As much as the facts themselves excite me, the thing that truly fascinates me is the way that the progress comes to stand for the concept of possibility itself.


This, to me, is the crux of what makes learning exciting – it’s the worlds of possibility that self-education begins to open up. It’s learning two separate facts and realising that there’s a connection between both of them. It’s learning fifty words of new vocabulary in a foreign language which opens up fields of understanding in an article which was previously incomprehensible. It’s the way that physics can give you the “oh!” moment where you begin to piece together wonder after wonder about our universe and realise that it’s even more vast, spectacular and strange than we can even begin to suppose – stranger, in fact, than the vast bulk of even most science fiction.


This, in short, is why I am an unashamed fan of learning and continued self-improvement as a way of life – it fosters a genuine joy of living and instils a sort of mental “operating system” whereby we can both better understand the world in which we live and then begin to contribute to its legacy in some small way.

Schools – buggering it all up?

Now, the hazardous part.


The sad and bewildering thing that I have personally experienced (as have plenty of other people that I know well) is that schools and colleges, whilst not without their good points, occasionally have a problem.


What’s that problem?


It’s actually pretty serious, in my opinion. The worst thing that a school can do is to crush the excitement for learning out of a person. Now, to be fair, this is not always the case. But unfortunately, in plenty of situations (some of which I have personally experienced), this does indeed happen – and worse, it’s not even particularly unusual


Now, why is that?


As a child, I read science book after science book in an attempt to better understand the world and our place within it. I spent hours and hours lost in the worlds of imaginary lands created by hundreds of different authors. I would peer into the night sky in a vain attempt to comprehend the sheer majesty of the billions of stars within billions of galaxies and then try to work my tiny brain around the fact that even something as dense as steel is, in fact, on an atomic level, mostly empty space. I simply could not get enough of learning more and more facts about the universe – I devoured book after book and never felt satiated.


(Note to anyone wanting to be even vaguely popular: sometimes this additional knowledge does not work in your favour. I remember discovering that the surface temperature of Venus (465 °C, a number I still remember without looking it up) is actually hotter than that of Mercury (427 °C, Google tells me 15-20 years on) despite being further away, thanks to the greenhouse effect. I remember correcting somebody in primary school when they told me I was wrong – not out of any desire to be bigheaded or show off, but simply that I wanted the information to be accurate and assumed they would want the same. I quickly discovered, upon being called a big poopy head (or something to that effect), that this was not necessarily the case, and decided to just keep my mouth shut in the future.


(Fuck ’em – I was still in the right.)


The strange thing was this: during school, I grew to hate physics and chemistry despite nursing a passion for both as a child. Even as a passionate reader of almost anything, I remember that I loathed the Lord of the Flies when forced to read it in our English Literature class. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that by Chapter 2, we were already being forced to write essays on its various thematic concepts and pontificate on particular “crucial” sentences before we’d even gotten round to electing a leader with the conch. I was amazed to find out, later in life, that Stephen King adored the book and thought that all children would love it. It was, in fact, the first time that I actually entertained the thought that I might be able to actually read it and enjoy it on its own merits. Why was that?


This is not something I actually have a specific answer for – I would very much like to hear different people’s theories on this. I do, however, have some ideas.


The phase that most kids go through at some point – the “resentment of school” phase – starts to creep into the things that you already enjoy, purely because you’re now doing them at school and you associate school with hell and misery and being at home with being free. By simple association, you start to grow resentful of the things which you previously enjoyed on the sole and rather stupid reason that it’s because you’re now studying it at school and school is dumb. Therefore, your enjoyment turns to disgruntlement and you eventually stop looking at these things in your spare time because you’ve already had more than your fill of it at school.


Alternatively, and more simply, it’s possible that you think your teacher is a bit of a twat. (Unfortunately, some of them are.) This, rather obviously, does not seem to help with encouraging kids to learn.

Additional problems with the schooling system

What else?


Well, there’s another problem, which is this:


People learn at different rates, and the problem with education systems is that up until now, there was simply no way around having a ratio of approximately 20-30 children to one teacher. It just simply wasn’t financially viable to do it any other way. Unfortunately, this means that the smart kids get bored because the progress is only as fast as the slowest child, and the kids who are struggling get frustrated because there’s an immense pressure to perform at the same level as their entire peer group – which is not particularly fair and, some might say, not even practical.


There’s also the way that education has classically been presented to students, and it’s not always the most effective way. Rote learning, for instance, is still reinforced as a supposedly-useful method in a lot of places, and is very possibly the sole reason why many people have been extremely frustrated and unable to learn effectively, and they therefore throw the baby out with the bathwater because they (through no fault of their own) can’t get on well with it.


To address the second point first, I really believe that the answer to the problem of effective learning lies within the subject of meta-learning – that is, learning about learning itself. I think that a certain level of understanding about how we actually comprehend things can lead to an exponential boost in efficacy and cognitive performance, and the little bit of time invested upfront is absolutely worth it, as it means that the learning process after that is far quicker than it would otherwise have been.


To illustrate an example – something that we’ve long been taught is something that “you have it or you don’t” is memory. How often do you hear “I just don’t have a good memory” ? How are we usually taught to learn things in school?


Rote repetition.


“Here’s a list of 20 things, now just remember them. Can’t remember them? You probably don’t have a good memory. See you tomorrow. Also, you have detention.”


Except, of course, that that approach is utter bullshit and incredibly toxic. There are far, far better ways to go about teaching things to people, and I’m going to prove it to you now.

Transforming your memory with almost zero effort


A few years ago, I asked two of my cousins to write down a list of twenty random objects. Within five minutes, I had taught both of them how to memorise the list so effectively that they could recite it backwards just as easily as forwards. With no effort on their behalf, they were able to recall the list two months later with no attempt to force themselves into “remembering” it. They just knew it.


Were either of my cousins genius super-savants? No, not at all. I don’t think they have a better or worse memory than anyone else of their age. So how did they do it, and how did I teach them to do it?


Technique, pure and simple. In Derren Brown’s excellent book “Tricks of the Mind”, he gives several clear examples of simple techniques that people can use to easily remember long lists of abstract things, including numbers. This particular method (for learning lists of things) was a visualisation technique, whereupon you take a few seconds to imagine a ridiculous image for each item, and then link it to the next one. This helps the memory stick very clearly in your mind.


It took me perhaps 30 seconds to demonstrate this technique, and then my cousins were able to effortlessly memorise this list and recite it with no mental exertion at all on their part within 5-10 minutes. Job done. Two months later, it was still there, with a total of perhaps five minutes of effort.


In fact, I’m going to attempt to recount the original list of 20 items given by Derren Brown in his book, to see if I still remember it:


Telephone, sausage, monkey, button, book, cabbage, glass, mouse, stomach, cardboard, ferry, Christmas, athlete, key, wigwam, baby, kiwi, bed, paintbrush, walnut.


(For reference, here is a more thorough explanation of the technique, using that specific list, which you can use yourself. )


For a 5-minute read, you can literally transform your ability to memorise things, and I’m not exaggerating. The only thing that you have to do is really see the connection in your mind’s eye and make it as vivid and real as possible. For instance, let’s take the kiwi-baby link, and let’s try to make the connection between the baby and the kiwi and see it as clearly and almost absurdly as possible.


Be as visceral as you can. Really picture the green slop of the kiwi dribbling down the baby’s mouth and all over the front of its clothes. Try to practically hear the stupid infact slobbering all over the kiwi fruit in an attempt to stuff it down in one go. What would that horrible green slimy mess feel like? What does the over-ripe kiwi smell like? How did the baby even manage to get kiwi on the top of its head? Look, it’s got a load of green goo mixed right into its hair. Stupid baby.


If you take even five seconds to try to picture this clearly, it’s far more likely to stick than if you just see the words “baby” and “kiwi” and try to memorise by rote repetition. Create that link and then you can recite them all, one after the other, without really needing to push yourself in any meaningful way. The information will simply be there.


My question is: why is this stuff not more thoroughly explored in schools? For anybody needing to memorise a list of rote facts (as plenty of biologists, lawyers or businesspeople might realistically need to do), this is a simple way to retain vast amounts of information with relatively little effort. If you’re taking an exam, this practically guarantees that you can have all the information on tap – and you won’t even be cheating.


No – instead of this, we’re given an overabundance of information and then given basically no methods or advice to retain said information. No wonder people are finding it harder and harder to learn.


To address my first point, about the ratio of teachers to pupils – up until this point, there has simply been no meaningful way to reduce the ratio in the students’ favour (i.e. having less pupils to one teacher) without paying through the nose for it. It has simply not been financially feasible.


Up until now.

Transforming education with the internet

The internet is revolutionising plenty of things, and I happen to think that one of the most important areas in which the internet is playing a huge role is education. I’m going to quote a specific example here: Khan Academy. (www.khanacademy.org)


Khan Academy, an online (and totally free) educational site created by former hedge fund analyst Salman Khan, is creating huge shockwaves in the educational community. Essentially, the format is Khan himself writing on a digital blackboard and explaining concepts himself in video format.


Khan started this off by posting basic maths videos for his cousins so that he could help them with their schoolwork without having to be there in person. However, he soon had the shocking realisation that his cousins actually preferred their digital cousin to their in-person cousin. Now, why was that?


There were several reasons. If they missed something, they could rewind portions of the videos without having to worry about getting him to re-explain it. They could watch the videos at their leisure without needing him to be physically present. They could watch the entire thing as often as they needed to fully understand the concepts – and as the video was short and extremely clearly explained (Khan is a gifted teacher and puts his ideas across clearly and lucidly), the risk of boredom by repetition was minimal.


As the videos kept coming, a curious thing happened. The YouTube community (where the videos were posted) began to discover these videos for themselves, and it was a breakthrough for people who had long since suffered difficulties in understanding these concepts. Khan’s clear, concise manner was a godsend to increasing amounts of frustrated students who found that his videos were helping them to understand many different concepts properly for the first time.


Realising the momentum he was gaining and the impact he was beginning to have, Khan eventually quit his job as a hedge fund analyst and began to focus full-time on Khan Academy. Now, several years down the line, their mission is clear: a comprehensive, free education to anybody with an internet connection.


Nowadays, it’s possible not only to reduce the class size to the optimum ratio (one student per one teacher, who in this case is Salman Khan) but the benefits are far more than we could ever have realised. Khan Academy tracks huge amounts of data for each student, so it is now possible to see – down to the second – how long a student has spent on watching a video within each category. With the additional of interactive exercises, a student can now apply their minds to specific exercises as they learn each new concept, and you can sit and look back at the data and actually see – on a graph – the specific inflection point where it’s clear that the student is beginning to understand what they have learned.


Using this data, we can not only give the students personalised curricula but we can also use the data to track, very clearly, the areas where they are strong and where they are weak. We can see exactly where they’re having difficulties and we can see precisely what subjects they have covered. In this way, we could even begin to phase out exams as instead of a specific screenshot of their abilities to pass a test at a specific time – where they may do better or worse depending on the day and a whole host of factors – we can instead see exactly how deep their knowledge is because the data is already there. In a sense, it’s like a real-time, constantly-updated set of exam results in everything that they are learning.


Am I suggesting that all schools should be outlawed in favour of putting children in front of tablets with Khan Academy pre-loaded? Well, not really – schools do have their advantages, not least of which is social interaction and developing relationships with their peers. However, I do think that this could drastically impact the route that education takes in the near future, in a meaningfully positive way.


There is also another salient point to be made here: this has the ability to massively revolutionise education for the people for whom it never previously would have been possible.


Take, for instance, a hypothetical village school in a remote part of Africa. With charity efforts and the ever-decreasing cost of technology, it’s becoming more and more possible to get a basic laptop or tablet (or several) out to this school. With rapidly-developing evolution in global internet access (Google, for instance, is developing a global satellite network whereupon free WiFi can be beamed into places that otherwise wouldn’t stand a hope in hell of being connected), the children in these places have a new and technologically-enabled opportunity: a comprehensive education, for free.


Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?