# DRMacIver's Notebook

Unlearning

Unlearning

I got distracted, and it got late, so here’s a short piece on how schools are terrible, as this seems to be the thing I’m talking about today.

From “How Children Fail”, page 259:

The confused and hopeless children that I have worked with naturally never test as well as their abler classmates; but they are never much more than a year or two behind. This year, according to the tests, my worst pupils had the mathematical knowledge and skill of an average child entering the fourth grade. In short, they presumably knew addition, subtraction, place value, multiplication, and easy division. But this is utter nonsense. These children know nothing about arithmetic; in any real sense they don’t know what first-graders are suppsoed to know. An accurate test, if there could be such a thing, a measuring instrument that really measured something, would give them a score of one point something [compared to a peer average of 5.5].

No. Much closer to the truth to say that an accurate test, if there had been such a thing, would have given them a minus score. After five years of school - in one of the “best” schools - they were worse off, in terms of arithmetic (and not just arithmetic), than if they had never been in school at all.

How are these high scores achieved? A week or two before the tests, their teachers begin an intensive drilling on all the kinds of problems they will have to do on the test. By the time the test comes along the children are conditioned, like Pavlov’s dog; when they see a certain arrangement of numerals and symbols before them, lights begin to flash, wheels begin to turn, and like robots they go through the answer-getting process, or enough of them to get a halfway decent score. Teachers are not supposed to do this; but they all do.

One of the things that I often end up arguing about with regards to schools is whether it’s good that they teach the things they do. Surely it’s better for people to learn a bit of writing, mathematics, etc. that they can build on later, even if they’re taught less well than they could be?

Honestly, I think it’s not, because this assumes that “taught less well than they could be” is like “taught as well as they could be” but less so, but that’s mostly not the case. Instead people are taught things that they shouldn’t be, in the sense that the things they are taught are wrong and/or useless, and stand in the way of them later learning things properly.

Some of this is the sort of “emotional lesson” I talked about in The trauma model of talent blocks. Maria has a good thread of such lessons.

This also extends to more practical things.

The above anecdote about mathematics education is I think a good example of this: Even if you could help those kids unlearn all of their traumatic associations with mathematics, they’ve had their head filled with nonsensical rules and rituals they’ve memorised that are going to actively get in the way.

This also happens when people are “good” at the subject, because people can learn to pass tests to a really very high grade on this kind of rote memorisation. I once had to explain to someone doing university physics that the expression $f(x)$ didn’t mean $f$ multiplied by $x$, but instead evaluating the function $f$ at the value $x$. It’s literally impossible that she had gotten to that point without having to apply functions, but she’d just learned the rules to follow and had no working model of mathematics on which to base those rules. She probably got this untangled OK without having to unlearn everything (I wasn’t much help, and honestly probably wasn’t very nice about it, but in my defence I was 18 at the time).

Mathematics has the advantage that at least if you’re able to figure the subject out you can pass it well by actually being good at mathematics. Some skills, this is harder. Being actually good at writing doesn’t help unless you’re also school good at writing, and school good at writing produces really boring writing. See Larry McEnerney’s critiques for details. Most people have writing habits they need to unlearn from school, and they’d probably have been better off spending their English classes writing fanfic and arguing on tumblr.

(This isn’t a dig exactly, those are both very good ways to learn to write)

I also notice that people very much need to unlearn reading habits. Most people I know who were book worms as kids struggle to read as adults, and my advice for this is basically read badly. I don’t know that this one is a school leftover, but it sure feels like it to me.

I don’t set educational policy, so I don’t know what the solution to this is. My personal bias is that when we simultaneously have a problem where we don’t have enough school resources, and also most of what we teach is actively harmful, we could solve the former by just teaching way fewer subjects to a higher standard, but there’s probably some bad consequence downstream of not ruining most subjects for most people that I’m not currently seeing.

In the meantime, I guess my main advice is to notice that this is a thing. When you’re trying to learn something you’ve previously struggled with, you don’t just need to overcome hurdles in learning where you previously got stuck, you probably need to back up from the wrong turn you took when trying to work around those.