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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Monkey see, monkey do

Two More Things to Unlearn from School de Eliezer Yudkowsky, no Overcoming Bias:

I suspect the most dangerous habit of thought taught in schools is that even if you don't really understand something, you should parrot it back anyway. One of the most fundamental life skills is realizing when you are confused, and school actively destroys this ability - teaches students that they "understand" when they can successfully answer questions on an exam, which is very very very far from absorbing the knowledge and making it a part of you. Students learn the habit that eating consists of putting food into mouth; the exams can't test for chewing or swallowing, and so they starve.

Much of this problem may come from needing to take three 4-credit courses per quarter, with a textbook chapter plus homework to be done every week - the courses are timed for frantic memorization, it's not possible to deeply chew over and leisurely digest knowledge in the same period. College students aren't allowed to be confused; if they started saying, "Wait, do I really understand this? Maybe I'd better spend a few days looking up related papers, or consult another textbook," they'd fail all the courses they took that quarter. A month later they would understand the material far better and remember it much longer - but one month after finals is too late; it counts for nothing in the lunatic university utility function.

Many students who have gone through this process no longer even realize when something confuses them, or notice gaps in their understanding. They have been trained out of pausing to think. (...)

It may be dangerous to present people with a giant mass of authoritative knowledge, especially if it is actually true. It may damage their skepticism. (...) [P]erhaps, you could teach the habit of thought: "The ideas of received authority are often imperfect but it takes a great effort to find a new idea that is better. Most possible changes are for the worse, even though every improvement is necessarily a change."
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