I hope you have all been doing as well as the laws of nature allow. I certainly have been. I have been helping test a user interface called Material Shell, very slowly trying to teach myself Japanese and reading through the short stories of Ted Chiang.
It is Sunday morning, and I am now writing a letter to all of you. My process when writing is to ask myself simple questions: What do I wish more people knew? What can I write that will benefit the reader?
At the forefront of my mind right now is; how we as a society have decided to treat children.
There is a problem I would like to bring to your attention. There is a mismatch between what we know about learning and how we raise and educate our children.
It bothers me that no one seems to connect with how serious an issue is.
We force our children to spend most of their time trapped in a room doing things they hate because we believe it will be better for them in the long run.
The brilliant David Deutsch has put it much better:
"Does anyone really find it satisfactory to espouse lofty principles such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from involuntary servitude, the right to due process and so forth, while simultaneously justifying locking children up in a classroom all day doing things they hate and then giving them ‘detentions’ for speaking disrespectfully to a teacher when he forcibly prevents them from leaving the room?"
David Deutsch, TCS and Fallibilism
Whenever talking about this as a problem, I often get frustrated — why does no one seem even to recognise that something is wrong here?
We are forcing millions of people throughout the world to spend their lives doing what we believe is best for them, rather than what they want to do.
We are wasting away all of their time, believing we are doing what is best for them.
We are just so used to this. We are so convinced that this is the way, when it obviously isn't. We just made it up.
Is it so dangerous simply to allow children to do as they please? Why are we so confident that what we tell them they should do is a better use of their time than simply what they would like to do?
An aside: Critical Rationalism 101
"All knowledge is gained through conjecture and criticism."
Critical rationalism is a philosophy that states that we come to knowledge through the process of conjecture and criticism.
- We conjecture theories explaining why things are the way they are
- We criticise them using reason and evidence
There are two significant implications here.
One is that we do not try to justify our beliefs, that is; we do not try to prove them right. As such, the way we employ evidence and reason is to criticise them, that is; prove them wrong.
The other is that we never reach a final or absolute truth.
The best we arrive at is a sound explanation that we have yet to find a criticism for.
We take it as fact, but that status is tentative as we will never know when it will be contradicted, and when a better theory will emerge.
In other words, no one has a monopoly on truth and all of our ideas are fallible.
Science in Miniature
All knowledge is gained through conjecture and criticism.
Not only does this refer to the growth of the sum of human knowledge, but also the growth of an individual's personal knowledge — also known as learning.
Consider how a young child learns their mother tongue.
- They will hear a word used by adults in a sentence.
- They will develop an idea of what they think that word means (conjecture), and try to put it into practice (criticism).
- If others understand them and communication works, it lends credence to their use of the word. If others are confused, or they are corrected, then they learn otherwise.
I remember when I was in first grade, the teacher asked me for a favour.
"Sashin, please tell the teacher next door that I owe her two whiteboard markers."
It seemed like a reasonable request, not having heard the word "owe", young Sashin did what any kid would have and took a guess. Intuitively to me, given the context, it seemed like my teacher wanted those two markers. I was completely expecting to bring them back for her. It was a total surprise when the other teacher told me to tell mine not to worry about it.
- I didn't know something
- I made a guess
- I put it into practice and was proven wrong
- Therefore I learned something (at the very least that my guess was wrong)
This is the process by which we acquire all of our knowledge.
This is how learning happens.
It is a fundamentally creative, engaged, active process whereby we continually form ideas of how things are and test them against reality.
The very same process that we use in science to expand our understanding of the world is happening in miniature in the mind of everyone that is learning.
The Bucket Theory of Education
Critical Rationalists refer to our current model of teaching children as the bucket theory of education. The idea is that children are more-or-less a bucket, an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. This is false.
Real knowledge is an understanding of how the world works; it isn't merely memorising words.
I want you to think back to high school. How much of it do you still remember?
Knowledge is gained through conjecture and criticism. We come up with theories as to why things are a certain way, and we test them against experience. We must be engaged with the content we are learning about; knowledge cannot be poured into us like water into a bucket.
Learning that the world is a certain way, is different than learning to answer a question a certain way.
Curiosity is the seed of knowledge. If learning requires active engagement, the way we view education should be turned entirely on its head — educating is not something we can do to children. It cannot be forced upon them, even in principle. We should be framing the entire enterprise as how can we help children by their own light, rather than ensure they possess the skills and information we believe they should have.
This completely rules out the validity for compulsory schooling.
Could it be that forcing every child into the education system against their will isn't even doing them right?
A First-Person Perspective
Rafe Hawkins — a friend of mine — grew up being home-schooled, and out of curiosity decided to try public schooling. In a recent paper he has published, he has expressed the difference between his time at home and his time at school.
We should view education as an enterprise helping children on their terms rather than enforcing what we believe they need.
Self-directed learning is better
The alternative to following a set curriculum decided and enforced by another is to be free to chase our curiosity, to pursue our interests. We should simply do as we please. When the inevitable roadblocks arise, it is they that will serve as our teachers and overcoming them will be the lesson.
The world offers its own feedback mechanisms, its criticism to how we are progressing.
Let me illustrate this with personal examples.
I studied programming in university, yet I am not sure I owe my skills to them. I consider myself more-or-less a self-taught programmer.
In University, every week, we had lectures on a different aspect of programming, we also had tutorials and exercises to drill them in. The idea is each piece is a building block to coding knowledge; from this point of view, there is a very defined order that we have to learn.
Having to remember everything was tiresome — but I don't feel it was fruitful.
Much better was when I sat down to code. I made mistakes, I ran into roadblocks, and I allowed the process of overcoming these be the path by which I came to knowledge. My guessing why my code did not run as expected, trying out different solutions and testing them by running the code I was able to learn.
When I was a kid I was made to learn the piano, I dreaded that time every Thursday when I was forced to play music I had no interest in. I didn't get very far in music, and there came a time where the teacher no longer was happy to teach me. He asked me why I wanted to learn piano, and I said "I don't" — he quit then and there, and I was relieved.
Here is something interesting though, I struggled to play the generic songs in the level 3 piano book I was obligated to learn. Despite this, I was able to successfully perform the theme song to the Simpsons which I had taught myself in my own time. This was a song with significantly higher technical difficulty than those in the book.
When following a set script for reasons unknown to me, I was neither motivated nor interested. Rather than thinking about the task, I was wondering why I was doing what I was. I believe this is in the nature of compulsory tasks.
When playing the Simpsons theme, I knew precisely what I wanted to achieve and why I wanted to achieve it. Whenever the sound I was producing, did not resonate with the song my memories, I knew there was a problem that I needed to fix. The natural course of the activity was all the feedback I needed. I did not learn everything to the book, in the order recommended, but I achieved what I wanted by the end of it all.
I believe the best way to learn is by doing. Rather than working up to a task, we jump right in and learn from our failures. The natural roadblocks serve as our mentors; we do not need to add an artificial layer of incentives — carrots and sticks — to the equation.
The way we come to knowledge as an individual, is the very same way we produce it as a society.
It is our own curiosity and creativity that leads to learning more about this world, and it is all too often these very traits that are repressed. As Mason has lamented in one of her tweets:
"Soon after came the distressing realization that a lot of people find this functional, discipline defined as an unconditional willingness to do nonsense work."
The willingness to abandon one's interest and simply do as one is told — even when it does not make sense — is not a virtue. We should not cultivate it.
I believe empowering people to solve problems that they find interesting is the real role of education. The trade-off between an enjoyable and fulfilling childhood and becoming an actualised adult is an imaginary one. The view that the best we can do for the next generation is to force them to engage in work they do not care for is not only false, but the pinnacle of arrogance.
Introducing TCS: Taking Children Seriously
The application to Critical Rationalist philosophy to raising children is called Taking Children Seriously.
The premise is simple:
- As humans we are fallible, we are prone to making errors
- As we adults are human, we are also fallible; we can be wrong
- As children are human, they can come to knowledge; they can be right
In science, it is made clear that an appeal to authority is never the basis for truth.
A statement is not true or false by virtue of who made it — no matter what their qualifications or experience.
This is the same with age; a belief is never justified because an adult believes it, nor wrong because a child does.
I wish to write more about TCS theory in the future, for now, let me leave you with this introduction from their website.
I still do not believe I have done this topic justice, and I will be sure to revisit it.
In the meantime, please take the time to delve into these invaluable resources:
Mason Hartman's piece What's gone wrong in schooling
Rafe Hawkin's paper on Homeschooling: Tentative Epiphanies Amid the Alleged "Risks of Homeschooling"
Sir Ken Robinson's excellent TED Talks are relevant
Alison Gopnik's TED talk: What do babies think?
Building a creative society: A Conversation between Mason Hartman and David Perell
Thank you for reaching the end of yet another letter. This one took an unusually long time to write, I have had it on the back burner for some time, and I have spent two days writing it up. If any of you are on the other side reading this, then my efforts have been worth it. I hope you have benefited from it.
I felt uncertain writing this one, and I would love your feedback. Did everything make sense? Was it clear? Was it engaging from start to end?
Conjecture and criticism is how we grow, and I would appreciate your critique. Please help me improve as a writer, reply to this letter and let me know what you think.
I understand this one has been longer than most, but I hope you have enjoyed it. I sincerely hope that these letters have been all worth your while.