Oct 2, 2017

Pro Bono Statistics: Learning as the replication of knowledge

Yoram Gat writes in his second column:

I remember a few scattered comments by professors, which I heard or overheard as a graduate student and which gave a glimpse into the professors’ insights about learning. Maybe those comments stuck because they addressed a topic which I have so rarely heard discussed.

A major declared goal of the educational system, and a non-negligible part of its function in practice, is to have people learn. It is therefore quite surprising that consideration of the process of learning itself is largely absent from the curriculum. Throughout the years I spent at school and in higher education institutions I cannot remember a single lesson devoted to how learning occurs and what determines its success, let alone a deeper, more systematic treatment. It may very well be that analysis of learning is part of the higher education curriculum in certain departments, but with learning being a central occupation of schools in general, its consideration would be expected not be limited to specialized fields but rather given a prominent place at school, from a very young age.

It seems to me that the strange silence about learning is a reflection of, as well as a reason for, the perpetuation of a certain model of learning that is implicitly conventionally assumed. According to this model, learning is a process of reproducing and assembling standard units of knowledge. Working from an existing blueprint and using a standardized process, the units of knowledge can be produced and then assembled to create a knowledge structure, much like interlocking machine parts are produced and assembled into a machine. Teachers have some of those knowledge pieces in their minds. A competent teacher can describe those pieces and their proper relative positions to the students. Any competent and attentive student can use the description to create a copy of the pieces in their mind and assemble them together with the pieces of knowledge already present there. Once this has been done the student has learned (although some homework may be useful for oiling the gears of the newly created mental machinery, particularly for less-than-brilliant students). If learning is such a straightforward process of replication, there may be nothing to discuss. Each student is characterized by an individual academic ability which may be conceived of as a one-dimensional parameter. This parameter determines the ease and speed at which the student can replicate and assemble new units of knowledge which are presented to them. This ability—“intelligence”—is essentially innate and opaque, so rather than wondering about how learning works, the model leads towards attempting to operationalize the model’s parameter and to measure its magnitude for each student.

This schematic description of a learning model is necessarily a strawman and any experienced student or teacher would likely have various reservations about accepting it. Yet it seems to me that it is essentially this model that dominates the way learning is perceived and handled in society. If it is hard to find explicit endorsements of the learning-as-replication model, this is not because other models are used or even entertained, but, on the contrary, because it is taken to be too obvious to admit any alternatives. School is obviously about students acquiring the knowledge their teachers have. Could teaching be anything other than a process of piecemeal replication of the knowledge machinery?

In various ways, society embodies the replication model as well as encourages its internalization by both students and teachers. Learning via a standardized process is put center-stage by an emphasis on class attendance and by minimal provision of interactive individual student-teacher sessions. The material taught is presented as objective and authoritative and the teachers are assumed to know all there is to know about it, so scholastic achievement is operationalized as the ability to imitate established patterns (often essentially verbatim), with little expectation for creative, let alone diverging, expression. The future of education is discussed in terms of larger scale, more efficient knowledge replication via mass media channels such as MOOCs (“the democratization of knowledge”). The educational system is busy measuring and classifying students along an axis of scholastic achievement which is taken to be a reflection of an objective ability. The system then reports the achievement measurements and classifications to interested parties. Students are driven to fulfill their inherent potential by a system of punishments and rewards which are meted out to students according to their quantile on the achievement distribution. Works of fiction and nonfiction endlessly celebrate the genius, that legendary outlier who is able to absorb knowledge quickly and effortlessly.

Thus the replication model of learning is so deeply embedded in society it seems inevitable. But the test of a learning model, like that of any model, is in how well it serves its users. Are students, and society in general, well served by the replication model? Does this model capture the important features of learning? If not, what parts of it need to be reconsidered, and what are the practical implications for society—in particular for students, teachers and managers of the educational system—of changing the model?

Yoram would be happy to have a critical and skeptical conversation about the topics he discusses in this column. He invites readers to comment below, or you can email us at bulletin@imstat.org.




  • Thank you Yoram for sharing your thoughts on the topic. Here are a few other thoughts (none mine) that I restate here:
    – while learning is an essential part of human existence, the process you address has been called schooling
    – schooling includes learning (at best) but it always includes evaluation by teachers, and most of the time ranking based on this evaluation
    – this ranking has huge consequences on the individual, and its bias has been underestimated
    – in addition, most people are convinced that learning cannot be done outside of school, so if they fail to learn a topic during their schooling age, that is unfortunately the end for them
    – schooling serves (more than anything else) the preservation of the social class system, and in particular the interest of the people in higher social classes…
    – there is a link to consumerism, by imitating too much a (repetition) machine, one if prone to become one, and any such object(like) individual is an ideal consumer…

    The rest are my own thoughts. If there is ever going to be a change in the paradigm, in needs to happen on the elementary (then high(er)) school level.
    I doubt that a change can be done suddenly, due to the above or other factors. But seeing a glimpse of Finnish educational system (for example in the movie “Demain” that I would highly recommend for other topics as well) I am optimistic to see a shift in a positive direction. By the way, the system that you call learning-as-replication, and some others schooling, was set up in Prussia with all of its evaluation, competition and ranking features
    only a bit more than two centuries ago. The leader(s) thought there that their country needed more army officers and more clerks.

    A question to all: does the world need even more army officers and clerks now? Does it need even more consumers?

  • Hi Vlada,

    Thanks for your comments. You raise quite a few points that require consideration. To pick just a subset:

    Regarding schooling vs. learning: I think that the widespread view that you refer to – that learning occurs primarily at school – is itself part of the learning-as-knowledge-replication model. If knowledge is made of standard parts that can be mass produced, it makes little sense to try to create knowledge independently rather than purchase ready-made parts from the knowledge factory. It would be like making your own shoes.

    Regarding the educational system being designed to create soldiers and clerks: Yes, surely the system is not encouraging independent thought. But this hardly takes careful design. In terms of deliberate design, I think the main objective is reducing cost. Clearly interactive teacher-student sessions are more expensive than broadcast presentations with one teacher and dozens of students, not to mention “democratized” online systems with thousands of students. Now, in terms of the educational message – both content and form – a one-on-one session could easily be more oppressive than a broadcast session.

    I very much agree with the point regarding ranking. While evaluation is a powerful tool for learning, ranking is a completely different activity – quite destructive to students and beyond. Yet it is deeply embedded in the educational system and in conventional ideology. It is so deeply embedded, in fact, that it is quite difficult (for me at least) to imagine how society would be without it.

    Finally, regarding where change can start: I think it can start anywhere. We can each examine our ideas about learning and then try to align them with reality. We can encourage others to do so. If a widespread rejection of some conventions about learning occurs, then redesign of the educational system can follow. Yes, it is a long term project.

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