To begin, a claim about human nature: “All men by nature desire to know” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1:1).
Aristotle claims that the desire to know is essential to our human nature. Setting aside recent political examples of willful ignorance and the widespread distribution and acceptance of fake news, I agree with this conclusion. In fact, I can’t think of a single person I’ve ever met who wasn’t possessed by a desire to know something.
Education, then, must be the largest systematized method for delivering knowledge to people—right? There are other systems for delivering knowledge, but the educational system, in general, is surely the largest.
Let’s add in Socrates, first—specifically the Socratic method, whose core principle is argumentation—not bitter yelling, but refutation, testing, and scrutiny of beliefs: reasoned debate, in which students challenge opinions by investigating the premises supporting them. The fancy word for this process is “elenchus.” The teacher presents an idea that is ripe for debate: something difficult, contradictory, perplexing, vexing, or just plain wrong. The presentation of this idea provokes students to confront their own ignorance regarding the idea and the context surrounding it. Once these students realize that they don’t know something (because the first step to knowledge is recognition of one’s ignorance), motivation then exists to pursue answers—in theory and (I can attest) in practice. Educators have employed this Socratic strategy for hundreds of years because it works to stimulate curiosity, to stoke our shared human fire: the desire to know.
Now, enter Sugata Mitra. If you have seen the film Slumdog Millionaire or read the novel it is based on, Q&A, you already kind of know who he is by way of the fiction he has inspired. For years now, Sugata Mitra has been researching the efficacy of self-organized learning environments (SOLEs). His early research includes The Hole in the Wall—a project in India that demonstrates children can teach themselves and others, given a suitably provocative question and no interference. What Mitra’s work proves is that children are driven by curiosity and a desire to learn—but also that they are mostly capable of doing the learning on their own. They do need a few things, though: they need a big question, they need access to information, they need to know that they don’t know something, and they need the teacher to step back and let them experiment: that’s when the magic of learning happens. Mitra’s most effective teaching technique—by his own admission—is saying, “I haven’t the foggiest idea.” In one example, he recounts presenting Tamil-speaking children in a remote Indian village with data on DNA replication, written in English. When their curiosity led them to ask what it was, he said, “It’s very topical, very important. But it’s all in English.” So they said, “How can we understand such big English words and diagrams and chemistry?” His response: “I haven’t the foggiest idea.” And he left without assisting them, at all. When he returned months later to test their progress, the children were able to explain to him that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes disease. This is just one of many examples. In sum, Mitra’s body of work confirms Aristotle’s claim: all people by nature desire to know. He takes it a step further, though. Confronted with a problem to solve, provided with access to reliable information and no interference regarding the learning process—people are capable of realizing their desire to know without the instruction of a teacher.
Here comes the question I promised, the launching point for our elenchus: In creative writing classes, it’s common to hear that a writer who knows the ending to the story he is telling will write a boring, lifeless tale. Why? Because, for him, the writing process didn’t involve invention, discovery, and learning—and when that is the case, a lack of interest bleeds into the writing. The writing feels rushed, mechanical—it lacks heat and vitality. Thus, a common bit of advice is to write about what you know, yes, but to write about what you don’t know about what you do know. Writing about the unknown is exciting. It’s a journey. And your reader will feel this in your prose and in the story that you tell.
The question I have been leading to is this: given that the world is brimming with information (and a lot of it is verifiably true and accessible), should the process of education remain the same? Do teaching practices need to remain the same? To put a very fine point on it, are teachers—who have been saddled with quantifying learning by imposing grade-based, test-based, standardized learning processes on students—a problem, maybe the problem. I ask this as a teacher, myself, whose aim is not to belittle my own profession. I am eternally indebted to the great teachers who have helped me along my educational journey, and I cherish my own experiences as a teacher; however, I believe re-examining their role in the process of education is worthwhile. My concern is that our educational system is outdated, a relic of a bygone era that no longer stimulates that fundamental human characteristic, the desire to know. The current state of education is not the sole responsibility of teachers; quite often they are forced to teach and to grade in ways that are rigid and uncompromising. Nonetheless, the problem remains: the very outdated-ness of system will ultimately kill its efficacy, for when the tales told in classrooms are stale and lifeless and boring—because the answer is not only already known, but the process of arriving at it is also strictly prescribed, monitored, and graded—the education system has failed to achieve its core mission and has begun to defeat its own purpose.
If this is true—if I am outlining a problem that is real—I submit that solutions are needed because we can’t afford, as a species, to systematically extinguish the human desire to know by making the process of knowing intolerable.
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The blogs that follow will address potential solutions. Please, send me your comments and ideas! I want to know what you think about any of the ideas presented in this blog.