DRMacIver's Notebook

You don't learn in a straight line

You don't learn in a straight line

Here's another abandoned draft from the newsletter archive.

I'd like to talk about learning things, and how the way we learned as children

Learning things in order

Have you ever thought about what determines the order you learn things in? Some things you learn at the same time of course, but you're learning throughout your life and so inevitably you learn some things before others.

Sometimes there's no particular rhyme or reason to the ordering. I learned to play the bassoon before I learned to program, but likely plenty of people do it the other way around, and that's not not particularly surprising, and many people learn only one or neither of them. There's no dependency between the two, the only thing determining the order is the particular details of my life story. Call that a coincidental ordering.

But other things the order feels more intrinsic. You have to learn to walk before you have to learn to run. You have to learn to read before you learn to write.

This is an order where there is some sort of dependency ordering between the two. It might in theory be logically possible to learn to write before you learn to read, or to learn to run before you learn to walk, but it's pretty hard to imagine there being common circumstances under which that makes sense (Not completely impossible, mind. I learned to swim before I learned to walk, and I can imagine that there might be effective ways of teaching that teach reading and writing simultaneously).

But do you have to learn to run before you learn to read? It's clearly not logically necessary, and it's also not universally the case. Some people will never run at all, due to physical disabilities. Presumably some people will have developmental delays in their gross motor skills but not fine motor skills, delaying when they learn to run, so it's fairly likely that there are people out there who learned to write before they learned to run, and maybe even before they learned to walk.

You can think of this particular type of dependency as a typical ordering. It's one that's determined by the normal developmental development of children: Most people are ready to learn one thing before they're ready to learn the other, and it's good (or we think it's good) for them to learn it as soon as they're ready.

Teaching things in order

There's a little bit of a sleight of hand up there, did you notice? What does it mean to learn to write?

Well, let me give you a clue: I was in my mid teens before I learned to write to the standard that we expect most kids to write before they're 10, and arguably I'm still not there. Also, before I was 10, I was writing very well (by the standards we'd judge someone of that age).

How does this work? Well, "writing" means two different things here. When we talk about teaching kids to write, we primarily talk about teaching them to handwrite. This is bottlenecked on the development of their fine motor coordination, not on their verbal ability, and my fine motor coordination lagged considerably behind my verbal development (this is part of something called dyspraxia). As a result, my "writing" in the sense of "handwriting" was terrible, but if you put me in front of a keyboard I could write pretty competently.

I honestly don't remember the details of how much trouble this caused me in school. After a while of struggling I just refused to write in anything other than block capitals (I eventually learned to fix this, no thanks to the schooling), and this "solved" the problem by aging out of the period where any teacher thought it was their job to comment on my handwriting, but the period up to that point was I think pretty stressful.

More importantly, it was a stress that permeated everything, because every class I was in expected me to be able to handwrite my answers (I could at least type homework in some cases).

You can think of this perhaps as a normative ordering in how we learn things. It's not that there's actually any logical necessity to learn to handwrite to any reasonable standard before you learn, say, history or physics, but the entire system is set up to give you a pretty bad time if you don't.

I don't really consider this a great injustice perpetrated against me - at the time computers were more expensive and generally less widespread than they are now. It would have been genuinely hard to computerise everything, and there are still major challenges to that today. But it was still a problem I experienced that I wouldn't have with another way of teaching (There's a whole complicated story with me getting special permission to use a laptop at school that I won't get into here because it's besides the point, and I compensated OK by being otherwise good at the subjects I cared about, so I don't know that I suffered much in the way of lasting consequences from this, but it was at best unpleasant at the time.)

This problem gets worse with people who have reading difficulties (e.g. because dyslexia). A lot of subjects could in theory be taught purely orally - you don't actually need to be able to read to do philosophy for example, and many classic philosophers were actively against reading and writing - but the way we teach them is intimately tied up with reading and writing.

To be clear, I'm not saying this is bad. I'm saying this is a trade off, where we have adopted a particular style of teaching that works for most people, and some people get a worse deal under this trade off than others because of their specific difficulties.

Typical orderings become normative

I apparently never wrote this section, but the basic idea feels fairly obvious to me: If it's super convenient to teach in one set order, then that order becomes widely adopted, and it's not long before failing to learn in that order is treated as a problem with the student instead of the system.


No idea why I abandoned this one. It feels like it's only a short section away from being complete. I may just have got distracted.