“Self-taught, are you?” Julian Castle asked Newt.
“Isn’t everybody?” Newt inquired.
“Very good answer.” Castle was respectful.
— Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, 1963
No matter the outcome of current struggles over control of our educational system, it is critical to recall a fundamental objective. The current educational system focuses on teaching facts and skills that are quickly forgotten. It fails to teach a crucial lifetime skill, how to learn, how to teach yourself. You are your most important teacher.
A predominant view of learning — referred to as “empiricist” — holds that learning is essentially the gathering and compilation of information. Harvard psychologist, Susan Carey, describes this view as a “common sense epistemology,” in which knowledge arises “unproblematically from sensory experience” and is simply “the collection of many true beliefs.”
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This view ignores the complex, active role that the learner plays in figuring out what to do with incoming information — is it comprehensible or not, correct, new, valuable, useful, and so on. The learner has an ongoing internal dialog and is teaching himself. His mind frames his learning process both because his knowledge is the foundation onto which new knowledge may be added and because it is the source of reasoning and judgment — the set of tools — by which incoming information is assessed and a decision made to revise existing knowledge or not. It is this set of tools and principles that should be the focus of our educational system. This perspective is described as “constructionist,” conveying the notion of the learner’s active building and refining of knowledge with “tools” of knowledge. The skills of self-teaching are critical today to separate true news, fake news, and true news that is labeled fake.
Excellent instruction by teachers is necessary, but it can go too far. Professor Elizabeth Bonawitz at Rutgers University conducted an enlightening experiment. She invited 5 year-old children (or their parents on their behalf) to participate in her study — exploring a new toy which did a few things, like turning its parts in different directions and making different sounds. Bonawitz randomly assigned participating children to four alternative procedures. In the “pedagogical” procedure, the experimenter invited the child to look at the toy and explained things that the toy did. In the “naive” procedure, the experimenter brought out the toy and said, “Look at this toy, let’s see what it does” and she played with one of the toy’s functions. In the “interrupted pedagogical” procedure, she invited the child to look at the toy, began to explain what the toy did, but then left the child alone with the toy. In the “baseline” procedure, she brought out the toy, looked at it, said, “Wow, see this toy. Look at this!” and placed it on the table in front of the child, but gave no instruction. In all the procedures, she concluded her introduction by saying, “I’m going to let you play with it. Let me know when you are done.”
Bonawitz compared the children in the four groups on two characteristics — the amount of time spent playing with the toy and the number of features of the toy they discovered. In the pedagogical procedure, children spent approximately 2 minutes; in the naive procedure, children spent a little more than 2 minutes; in the interrupted procedure, children spent 3 minutes; and in the baseline procedure, children spent an average of almost 3 1/2 minutes — the longest time of the four groups. (For all children, attention is surprisingly brief.) In the pedagogical procedure, children discovered an average of 4 things the toy did, and, at the other extreme, in the baseline procedure, children discovered an average of 6 functions of the toy. Essentially, the more the experimenter told and showed the child about the toy, the less time the child spent examining it and the less the child discovered about it. Explicit instruction can limit curiosity and discovery.
Underlying ideas about one’s ability to learn can also profoundly shape how one does in fact learn. Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University has distinguished two views held by individuals regarding their capacities to learn. People with the “fixed mindset” do not believe they can improve their ability to learn; for example, they “cannot do math or science.” Others with a “growth mindset” consider their intelligence as subject to development and growth. Praising a student for his intelligence reinforces the fixed mindset (because it suggests that success is an inherent, set capacity), while praising a student for his effort in learning reinforces the growth mindset (because it suggests that success depends on internal mental work).
Not only does one’s conception about one’s capacity to learn affect how well one learns, but that conception can be taught to strengthen learning capacity. Dweck has conducted experiments in which one group of students is taught about mind development and mutability, along with learning skills, while a control group is taught only the learning skills. Those taught about mind development and mutability become more active learners and achieve greater learning than the control subjects, as well as greater satisfaction in learning.
Central to the learning process is “executive function,” the ability to direct attention, avoid distractions, and participate with others in productive collaborative solution. Several programs have been shown effective in developing executive and self-teaching skills. A tradition of self-teaching in Montessori and similar schools has, for over a century, demonstrated improved performance. Programs involving martial arts, yoga, and mindfulness have also been shown to strengthen executive function. Children as young as kindergarten exposed to programs of Tae-Kwon-Do (which include not only physical conditioning, but attention to respect, humility, responsibility, perseverance, and honor) show substantially improved executive function.
Our educational system should focus as much if not more on the skills of self-teaching as on the material to be learned. Self-teaching skills open endless avenues. There is an old and true saying: “If you give a man a fish, you may satisfy his hunger for the day. If you teach him how to fish, you may satisfy his hunger for a lifetime.” I recommend adding to this proposition: If you teach him how to learn, he can then satisfy many hungers.
Carey, S., et al., ‘An experiment is when you try it and see if it works’: a study of grade 7 students’ understanding of the construction of scientific knowledge. International Journal of Science Education, 1989. 11(5): p. 514–529.
Bonawitz E, Shafto P, Gweon H, Goodman ND, Spelke E, Schulz L. The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Cognition. 2011 Sep 1;120(3):322–30.
Dweck, C.S., Mindsets and math/science achievement. 2014.
Diamond, A. and K. Lee, Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science, 2011. 333(6045): p. 959–964.
Hahn, Robert A., Your Most Important Teacher, International Journal of Humanities, Arts, Medicine and Sciences, Vol. 7, Issue 8, SAug 2019, 19–30.