Quantify this Learning

When I was a kid, I used to feel chained down. I begged for the day in which finally grown-ups would “stop telling me what to do”. But I was eventually worn down, and I understood that if I was to succeed in school, I’d have to play the game.

The game I refer to works as follows. There are four ways in which you can affect your score: Homework, testing, attendence, and participation. Based on how you do in each area, you are given points, and your points ultimately add up to a grade. The grade you need because without it you won’t get into a good school, you’ll disappoint your parents, look dumb to your friends, basically fail in life.

You might think it’s a game of intelligence, but in fact it’s primarily a game of discipline and self-control. All the attention you need to succeed in school is in high demand, being pulled at various other parties, but two stand out in particular. On one hand the multi-trillion dollar media industry, whose explicit goal is to hold you attention, and on the other hand, your family and friends, the very people you want to impress with accomplishments, they too want your attention. 

TV, movies, video games, sports, parties, music, conversation (in person or online); limited involvement in these things is the recipe to win the game. That is, unless you find another way to beat the game, which most students do. Many progressive schools see this and urge parents to keep their kids away from media and gratuitous socializing. It’s not surprising, under these conditions, as media only develops more sophisticated methods for captivating our minds, that we continue to watch the proliferance of attention deficit disorders and the subsequent prescription of focus drugs, at an unprecedented scale.

If it’s worked, if we’ve succeeded at convincing the kid that the game matters, that grades are worth working for, then they will hopefully be a disciplined student with great control over his/her own attention. But he/she will also have learned something else: how to obtain the right answer.

We, adults, love rules that work, because things are big and confusing. We appreciate methods and frameworks that succeed more than they fail because we often feel lost. In other words we love our deductive reasoning. So we think we can save kids a whole lot of time and trouble but skipping over the whole “figuring it out part” and just giving them the conclusions, the frameworks, the formula. We teach 2+2 without necessarily saying what there are 2 of. And there is always a right answer. Teacher knows everything, kid knows nothing. Shut up and just follow the instructions in the textbook. If we’ve succeeded, we’ve trained a workforce of drones dependent on definite goals and specific instruction.

No wonder when we graduate we feel lost.

The answer is not to shield ourselves from the movies and games that we enjoy so much, but rather, to demand our educators rise to the challenge, and make learning as engaging, if not more so, than popular media. But how is this possible, especially when they have such exhorbidant budgets, and nearly unlimited resources?

Like a sports franchise looking to rebuild, all it takes is a few hot noteworthy pieces and intrigue will follow. The tools to create engaging activities and lessons exist, but they are used primarily by other disciplines. The salesman’s enthusiasm, the real estate agent’s cookies, the designer’s renderings, the architect’s models, the producer’s trailer. We are past the era in which we can look down upon the things that are felt viscerally. 

Emotion is how we sell, but it is not how we teach. Why?
In the decision tree involved with any skill, we must not highlight only the best path, but the entire tree, including the common missteps. We should present landscapes ripe with learning opportunities from various media. In these spaces discovery of oneself and the external world can take place through curious exploration. As I see it, this is the way education must continue to shift if we are to leave behind the ideal of the factory-pressed student, responsive only to external quantification and the tried, tested, and true.