The will to learn

Jun 28, 2020

My path in life has always kept me close to education. The systems involved, the teachers and the students all taking part in sharing knowledge. I am always surrounded by acts of learning and I've come to appreciate the process as a way of life. I'm one of those peculiar people who actually liked school. Moreover, the fact that both my parents are full time teachers helped with getting me here.

I've even held lectures, speeches and classes several times in life. When push came to shove, I've also taken active roles within the leadership of two small educational organizations, setting up workshops, events and environments where learning can take place. I do not plan on switching careers and becoming a full time coach or teacher any time soon. I'm also certain that and none of the above makes me an expert, nor a proficient teacher or manager by any standard, but my experiences with education, from all viewpoints both physical and virtual, warrant an informed opinion.

The world is full of arguments about what matters for education to be efficient. Teacher training, better curriculum, equipment, funding, competition... but the way I see it, there is one element above all that contributes higher quality learning: the inquisitive ability of the learner. Her drive to not be satisfied with simple answers and to ask questions.

I know this, because I was lucky. Because early in life I was stimulated to want to absorb as much knowledge as I could. I've always been highly motivated to learn. I've gone above and beyond my studies for the majority of my life. In school I'd participate in multiple contests, some of which I could actually win and some of which were there just for fun and without any stakes if victory was distant. In Uni I'd try to squeeze every bit of knowledge I could from my professors, and at conferences I'd be the annoying guy in the front row with at least one question for every presentation.

I know few people who do this, constantly ask questions about everything they engage with. Yet all those I've met who do have taught me extensively, in both direct and indirect ways. If you get a pupil to that stage, learning solves itself.

Thus, I think the will to learn is the most important trait a teacher or organization should bestow upon its students. And if I take a look at the systems I've encountered, I can see the way they approach this differs greatly.

I won't cover preschool here, as I don't remember it, nor have I discussed it with my peers thus far. I actually don't expect most people to remember preschool, and even fewer to form opinions about how it should be ran. Doubtless, that is a shame, for a child's attitude can easily be influenced early in life.

Romanian school

By the time a person reaches adulthood, it is likely they will have the misfortune of only experiencing one education system: public schools. For at least 12 years of life, students in Romania enter these scary institutions, where a god transfers knowledge to their growing brains via speech and homework. This god ultimately decides how well students remember what was said, and how well they can apply the bestowed knowledge. 12 years is a long time, and it is long enough to think that it is the only way teaching can happen.

We're familiar with this way of catering to a student, but let's look at how it impacts morale. The top few students are often praised in front of others, for each subject, the bottom students are sometimes ridiculed and most middling students are ignored. True encouragement is reserved to the top 5-10% of students, and thus they are often the only ones who successfully train their grit to learn, who build the morale to endure when facing the unknown. I don't think any of this is a surprise to most Romanian readers as we see top students being successful in international competitions, and being hunted and hired by large companies.

The fact that morale is low for the rest is not the entire problem. What is not obvious, is that this method of teaching does not handle building an inquisitive attitude. I don't mean that it stifles it, but rather that the system of teaching itself doesn't even know that "becoming inquisitive" is an ability worth cultivating. It is up to each individual teacher to realize that.

Picture your favorite teacher. White hair, thick glasses, walking carefully as if wisdom was a burden she could barely carry. That teacher who would inspire you with weird stories, crazy experiments, maybe even philosophical discussions at an age you can barely follow along (yet somehow find them completely obvious and easily understandable). That person is doing her job as a human being showing you what it is to be curious, but she's also working overtime.

The system of teaching itself doesn't describe her work. The system only describes the knowledge which has to be delivered, and how it should be graded. Remember instead all the other teachers, the bulk of your experience with school. Most classes don't have room for you to ask questions about wacky phenomenon, rather they reserve that space for the teacher to ask questions about your comprehension and grade it. Thus, the reward or punishment is given simply on the state of information present in your mind, with no grading on how that information got that. After all, it is the teacher's job to teach, not yours to learn.

Problem Based Learning

The system doesn't change for university in Romania, we're still only catering to the top few students who become motivated to learn (I hope). Fortunately, as I've studied abroad, I ran into something called Problem Based Learning (PBL, sometimes also referred to as Project Based Learning).

Out of all the systems I'm going to talk about, this one's the most mature at producing learning behavior. It does so by acknowledging that knowing how to learn is a byproduct of education. As far as I'm aware, it is designed explicitly to solve this issue, and we'll see that soon in it's reward structure.

Two major changes take place as opposed to traditional teaching:

  1. The object to be learned is open ended and chosen by the student, even within a certain curriculum. This object is presented as a challenge before any teaching takes place.
  2. Teachers are no longer authorities of knowledge, they are no longer presented as wise all-knowing oracles. Instead, they act as guides and mentors, offering feedback.

The first bit is critical, the teacher doesn't decide what should be taught, at least not entirely. Rather the teacher facilitates in choosing an appropriate problem for the student to solve. Most often that problem will be very open ended (design a water filtration system, design a piece of clothing, make a game, determine how people react when there's a fire) and it will always require research. It will always require the student starts asking questions (both directly to the teacher, and towards the published body of knowledge humanity has built up so far).

Because the problems are open ended, and complex, teachers generally do not know the precise answers. In this scenario, grading happens based on the student's ability to learn and argue about the quality of their approach to solving their assignments. To showcase this ability, most hand-ins take the form of scientific papers. Regardless of the complexity of the problem, students are asked to justify decisions and show how they reached their conclusions in order to reap their rewards.

Giving people problems before handing them information forces them to become curious first, it forces them to ask questions and iterate over what they have learned. Unlike in the traditional system, the will to learn is part of the grade, and it is being rewarded.

Within the first year of uni undergoing this teaching strategy I have learned more about how I learn than in my the whole life before that.

Survival depends on it

School and university are mandates enforced upon you, or at least strongly recommended by society. You have to go there based on promises of success in life, not because of an intrinsic need that must be resolved. However, my journey showed me corners of this universe where that is not true. A vast array of islands where learning is a necessity, where the most literal forms of death and loss occur in the absence of grit and the will to learn.

Enter games. These magical lands are powerful educational structures by themselves. Given a set of rules, games restrict the number of options available and immediately reward successful patterns players undertake. Games usually offer low risk environments where trying things has few negative repercussions and where right answers, which can be stumbled upon, are rewarded. Think of games like Kerbal Space Program, games where curiosity moves you forward and eventually and where after several dozen failed attempts to launch a rocket into space the first time you reach orbit is a true accomplishment.

Being inquisitive is the only way to move within a game, otherwise nothing usually happens. Taking action is so integral that almost all games require an exploratory attitude even to just get started. Although this is usually a prerequisite to reaching some correct answer, or learning and mastering a gameplay related skill, some games reward exploration itself with Easter eggs or surprising results. Think of games like The Stanley Parable which only do that and have little to no other mechanics.

There is however one special example I'd like to go over: EVE Online. It is easily comparable to the school because it actually has formal education structures built by players. Places like EVE University offer classes, reading material, mentorship, practice sessions, even player gathering and networking events.

Their method of learning is close to the traditional one, catering to experienced players teaching newer ones. Whenever I'd see a class on our calendar, I'd know what to expect... a player with little pedagogical training and a series of slides with some valuable content following some curriculum. That player could get up to speed to the act of teaching easily, and that can only happen if the system is of teaching was simple, and familiar.  To simplify his job further, the young lecturer doesn't need to grade students, instead he can let the game punish or reward players with glorious explosions.

The major difference is that these in-game schools are emergent, not mandated. Corporations like EVE University exists because the cost of living within the game in the absence of learning is extremely high. Ships lost take a toll on your precious in-game finances which took hours to acquire. Couple that with ruthless competition, the possibility of being attacked anywhere and the fact that aspects of society like scamming are allowed, and soon people without a will to learn leave the game. Here, being inquisitive is a byproduct of harsh environment, not of the education system. It is fascinating to realize that the traits which make one a good learner are a gene required to survive in this multiplayer sandbox.

Will to learn is a survival strategy here in space, but the Uni is challenged with maintaining that throughout a students life cycle. It is part of incentive structure of the organization, not of the student. Morale is of concern to places like EVE University because participation is voluntary, and if people lose morale and the will to learn, they will leave. Even though players are not explicitly rewarded by the Uni for their learning behavior, the organization is and has some insight into the phenomenon.

A strong will to learn, however, is a double edged sword when voluntary participation is involved. An ever present idea circulated around while I was there, a complaint that the best players would leave the uni. I would see this with my own eyes how great players would eventually move on, not being satisfied with the opportunities available within our little campuses. All this shows that although insight into learning exists through membership, the correlation is not the strongest.

Voluntary organizations

Learning never stops, and being in a game is not a prerequisite to growing as an adult. As it happens, for a year I was in charge of education at a place which facilitates such learning. A voluntary educational organization known as a Toastmasters club, a playground for public speaking.

While within the harsh solar systems of EVE Online the will to learn was a prerequisite for survival, that is not the case in the real world. It is much more likely that a wish to change or explore something new is the driving force behind accepting membership. In our case, it is most commonly the wish to become a more confident person, or to practice public speaking for a few hours a week. This definitely doesn't carry the same weight as being unable to progress in life.

Teaching in Toastmasters is a bit closer to PBL and is self paced. There are course materials, but they all begin with a practical challenge, usually to hold a speech based on some topic or to practice a certain skill. Unlike in an academic setting, what gets formally evaluated in the form of feedback is usually the performance of the student. The final result, not the learning process. What gets rewarded is even less interesting, as badges and titles are given for the completion of projects, not for the quality of the result or the inquiry.

There are many good reasons why you can't fail a project in Toastmasters, the most obvious being that confidence is a skill we practice. It manifests itself in both the delivery of a projects, and of evaluations. Our environment is supportive by design and seeks to encourage more than to punish. Mix that in with the fact that communication is fuzzy and it is often hard to decide what constitutes failure. All this is nice, but it makes the strategy of analyzing reward structures for members not particularly insightful.

Because it is still a voluntary organization, membership and the will to learn continue to be somewhat correlated. Just as I've experienced within an online game, I still see the same phenomena: strong membership when morale and the will to learn is high, people leaving because they eventually lose that will, or in rare cases outgrow the skill level of the organization. The club does get some insight and is rewarded on the performance of its members.

Various solutions are in place within Toastmasters to cater to the issue of the will to learn. There are mentorship programs, and networking events focused on training, as well as many many other tools. The only "but" is that the club gets rewarded directly for the use of these tools, and not the members themselves. If the will somehow was already there, members will no doubt benefit from this environment, but if it is absent, it is up to her peers to find a way to inspire learning. It is not directly a part of the structure of the organization.

For the past year here, in Toastmasters, I did not notice this distinction, just as I hadn't noticed it in EVE. As a highly motivated learner, I found it hard to inspire my peers to join on this path. I only now realize there's not a lot of direct reward for them to do so, and I now acknowledge this will continue to be a challenge moving forward.

Epilogue

I don't think that rewards for learning are a is at all straight forward. We would normally talk about intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, but I don't think that discussion translates well to what we should do to encouraging strong learning behaviors. Any reward can work as long as it is given for the right thing, and as long as the structure behind a learning environment acknowledges what it's trying to teach.

Be it in the transfer of knowledge offered by traditional systems, or in the ability to research provided by academic PBL, be it predicated by necessity like in a harsh game, or the intent of becoming a better person, the will to learn is the only driver of change.