The Only Kind of Learning Is Autodidacticism

It may take years or a lifetime to become aware of our own biases, and how these biases are informed by our position within our society with regards to material production– sometimes referred to as one’s “socio-economic class.”

One of the most persistent biases among my own “class” is toward formal education. Formal education is derived from early industrial era schooling which can be concisely explained by the sender-reciever model:

  • Person A has knowledge k.
  • Person B is without knowledge k.
  • Person A sends k in small chunks ki to person B, who receives it and stores it in their brain-meats. This is referred to as “teaching.”

This is the standard rote memorization education method favored by public education and the majority of schools. Others, such as Montesori, coexist alongside the formal rote-memorization model but require substantially higher resource investment per student. It is telling that our public system selects for the least expensive option.

Note that the sender-receiver model definition omits an important and understated aspect of its program: homework.

Homework has always seemed to me like a tacit admission by the formal education system that the send-receiver model doesn’t really work. It admits that class attendance isn’t enough to put all that knowledge into their brain-meats. They also need to spend a good deal of time on their own reading the material, completing problems to test their knowledge, and re-phrasing the lessons given by the teacher into terms that make more sense for the individual student.

In my own experience, all of my real learning takes place during these homework sessions. When I’m trying to learn a subject, I have to “play around” with problems relating to that subject. The analogy of play is not inappropriate because I think this process is analogous to a child taking wooden blocks and stacking them and knocking them over again in order to learn motor coordination. Learning comes from failure — we have to try and fail to solve problems in order to learn the underlying concepts, since we do not at outset know where the holes in our understanding lie.

It used to be that people were educated in little school houses where one teacher would be hired for the entire area. Gradually these rural environments were replaced with more dense urban environments, but the model was retained. Scarcity of instruction was inherent in the send-receiver model — only so many teachers were available per pupil, and we could compute a metric of educational quality based on this ratio, assuming that fewer students per teacher would yield better results. Again note that this ignores the homework aspect of the model — a lot of learning is going to actually take place outside of the school, in the student’s home.

Given that homework accounts for a great deal of our actual learning, it is interesting to look at the sender-receiver model of formal education and ask: why do we do it this way? The goal seems to be getting students to a base level of self-teaching after which we presume that their homework sessions will provide the majority of their learning.

The question of 2020-21 that I think many are processing is: why do we need all these teachers?

Everyone is “remote learning” anyway, right? If remote learning works, then shouldn’t it be possible to replace an entire school worth of paid full-time staff with a set of video lectures, purchased in bulk by the school district from a third-party? This is a radical heresy, not because it doesn’t make sense — I contend that it is, in fact, perfectly consistent with the sender-receiver model — but because it contradicts our feelings about the formal education system.

Remote learning represents an existential threat to the teaching occupation itself. Teachers are often portrayed as underpaid, overworked martyrs, but in fact they have quite a bit of power in many places, and are sometimes quite well paid. The Chicago Teachers Union, for example, regularly shuts down schools to lobby for pay increases, essentially holding the children ransom in a hostage negotiation. It takes to the streets then, resorting to aggressive, hostile protests in order to force the city into capitulation to its demands. The CTU is viewed almost universally with derision by Chicagoans. This sort of “negotiation” might be seen more favorably if Chicago public schools were not routinely failing to produce graduates that can read and write at an adult level — according to an adult literacy non-profit, some “30% of adults in Chicago have low basic literacy skills.”Now the CTU, like many other teachers’ unions across the country, is a proponent of keeping schools shut down in favor of remote learning. The teacher-supported remote learning systems, however, don’t make use of economies of scale — instead it is a simple replacement if in person interaction with Zoom calls. It is claimed that teachers are interacting with students over Zoom, but the reality looks a lot more like a very small freshman lecture hall.

Today teachers favor these remote learning software solutions, but I predict that at some point in the near future, unions will realize that the remote learning “solution” represents a threat to the very existence of their profession. Then there will be a sudden heel-turn toward getting students back in schools. This will be pitched based on child welfare, but will really be done to protect the sender-receiver model which justifies the current class sizes in the public education system.

I’m certainly not opposed to teaching as a profession, but we have to examine our biases. Is learning happening in schools, or do schools amount to a series of overly small lecture halls? We already expect most learning to happen at home anyway, which is why we place such emphasis on homework. Completion of homework requires some base level autodidacticism. If students can reach a base level of self-teaching, enough to learn with homework, and if we are relying on homework anyway, does it not follow that we can do without so many teachers?

As an educated adult, I no longer require face-to-face instruction at all. I’ve completed fairly rigorous courses through Coursera in the last few years that required a significant amount of work on my own to understand the material. The instruction materials were produced by world-class instructors, the best in the world. Should not the goal of education be to get every person to this base level of self-education, as quickly as possible?