The Ultimate Myth of Education
How “outsourced thinking” is changing the way we learn
Back in the office. The open-plan office.
I had forgotten how being nudged together creates opportunities for unexpected interaction (good, as well as bad).
“What do you do if you want to learn something new?”
My colleague’s question surprised me. She wasn’t the sort of person to ordinarily ask advice from anyone else. At least, from me. And she wasn’t keen to say what she wanted to learn. “Just something new,” she mumbled vaguely. “Something that I never studied before. Something I need for work.”
She was thinking of signing up for a course at a business school. “Jill from accounting took a course on entrepreneurship essentials, and that seemed to work well.”
Under normal circumstances, I might have simply brushed her off. But I decided to be honest.
“I wouldn’t do that,” I replied. “It won’t work. Not if you really want to learn something new. It’s a waste of money and time.
I explained to her that I prefer to rely on online resources. “First up, I use Google. That works best. If I am not satisfied with the search results, I mix up my query until I get something useful. Typically, blogs and video content. Stuff on YouTube works best for me to get started, then I look for more advanced content.”
She wasn’t convinced. “But can I trust online content? Is it reliable? I am not sure I want to outsource my learning to Big Tech and an algorithm.”
“Don’t think of it like that,” I responded. “Think of it as an exercise in self-empowerment. If you can teach yourself how to self-learn, you will never need another course. You will have seized the means of education for yourself. Set yourself free and embrace self-learning.”
“I see,” she said. “But how can I do that?”
The Science of Learning
Learning is thinking. It takes effort. When you learn, you develop the way you think. I remember when I became a teacher myself, I was intrigued by the science of thinking. Psychologists distinguish between two modes of thinking, System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is the automatic and more effortless mode of thinking. It quickly processes and filters information, makes assumptions, and responds. It deals with repetitive tasks and initiates actions based on knowledge and experience. It is fast and instinctive.
In contrast, System 2 is a slow and more careful mode of thinking. It’s said that System 2 is lazy and has limited capacity. It only comes into action when System 1 cannot quickly deal with the issue at hand. The more complex or confusing the task, the harder System 2 must work.
And this is what education is about. Education must activate System 2 (without overloading it). This means that the learning process must encourage System 2 to concentrate, engage with information actively, build capacity, and practice deliberately. Education (and learning in general) is successful when students shift tasks from System 2 to System 1. The students have become experts in a particular area/field.
Fantastic, you think. Our educators have spent their work-life developing classes and materials that take the thinking modes into account. Education works.
Wrong! Education is failing.
Learning in a Digital Age
It is true that formal education has become more interactive and case study-oriented. Students are forced to do more than just listening and taking notes. It seems that everyone agrees new teaching methods have made learning so much more effective and fun.
But most of these so-called interactive lectures and case studies are not challenging enough to activate the students’ Systems 2. The answers are usually already available online (which makes it easy to find the answer and tune out). Or, what’s worse, the cases are already out of date.
Education — the learning process — then becomes nothing more than applying out-of-date knowledge to out-of-date cases.
Students who use online resources will quickly solve many of the problems that are discussed in class. The problem then is that the students will have the sensation of understanding without learning anything.
Whenever they receive a new or “difficult” question or task, System 1 doesn’t ask for help from System 2 that will then start working through the problem. No, it immediately outsources thinking to the Internet and other online resources.
This approach works perfectly fine for the “lazy” System 2. In the digital age of smartphones and Internet access, outsourcing thinking has become very convenient. Artificially intelligent systems can provide the answers before you even have finished typing your question.
And whether we like it or not, it will only become easier to outsource thinking in the future. We don’t have to consciously activate an online system (by typing or talking). The virtual world of information will be readily available and connected to our brains.
I understand that this prospect sounds dystopian for many of us. But it also offers tremendous opportunities. The trick is to let students search for available information and apply it to the unsolved and unexplored problems of the real world. Learning in the digital age is the capacity to do two things: knowledge acquisition from the “best of the best” online and application of that knowledge to real-world issues. The first step involves System 1 and outsourced thinking. System 2 will be used to come up with creative and innovative solutions. There is something profoundly satisfying about doing something that nobody knows the answer to yet.
So, if you want to learn something new — like my colleague — you must develop your self-learning skills and learn how to “outsource” your thinking. Real learning starts when you use the available information to think about the problems that keep us awake at night in the world today.
This approach entices your System 2 to work for you in your journey of self-improvement in the uniquely challenging circumstances of a digital age. The ultimate myth of education is that we need education. At least, formal education as it is traditionally organized in lectures and homework and exams.
Video Gaming Professor — Middle-Aged Ultra Runner — Virtual Restaurant Owner
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