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Education and Learning: Still in the Middle Ages

Marcelo Rinesi
By Marcelo Rinesi
Frontier Economy

Posted: Jul 27, 2009

We invest money, time, and effort in procuring the best possible hardware and software for our projects. In the same manner, we want the people in our teams to have the necessary knowledge and skills. We can be quite vocal in our beliefs that people are the most important asset, and ongoing education a necessity of the modern economy. Except that when it comes to learning, we are really, really bad.

To be fair, we aren’t worse at it than previous generations. Our lecture halls are better than those of the Middle Ages, our textbooks friendlier than those of early 20th century, and the Internet often a good replacement for an afternoon in a library. We even use, if we are good or lucky in our choice of educational system, exercises, simulations, and concrete projects. It could even be said that, with all these resources and technology at our disposal, we are somewhat better learners, in average, than we used to be. Quite a bit better, probably, than when the Middle Ages finished and Western civilization rediscovered the scientific method.

Therein lies the problem. Because in almost every other economically important activity, our performance isn’t somewhat better or quite a bit better, but much better, if not astoundingly so. Except, arguably, for art — which is something of a subjective matter — we could easily astonish anyone from a few centuries ago. They waged war, but nothing at all like we do. They built (and beautifully, it must be said), but their engineering was nowhere close to ours. They would consider our doctors wizards, and would shake their heads when we told them about our telescopes orbiting Earth, peering into the residual radiation from literally the first microsecond of time.

But they would understand our schools and universities. They would be surprised at their size and the abundance of books, but they would nod at the teacher lecturing, the students at the library, the concept, if not the precise form, of the exam. It would be to them an inspiring sight, perhaps, but not an astounding one.

This suggests that science has yet to be applied, or at least successfully applied, to learning. Everywhere we have applied the scientific method, the last few centuries have brought radical changes… And learning stays comparatively still. There have been changes, that’s for sure, and even in the contemporary world there are schools that are much better than others, learners that have been taught or have figured out how to learn better. Yet how good are our best schools, compared with the average, compared with history? Twice as good? Three times? Five? We have gone from Leonardo’s drawings of leather wings to routine flights between Rome and Tokyo, and from the faithful students with their books, their teachers, and their notes… to the same place. Quite a bit better, perhaps. But ‘quite a bit’ is not enough.

We live, to repeat a cliche, in a Knowledge Economy. A practical implication of this is that one of the bottlenecks, perhaps the biggest one, to our productivity and the productivity of our teams, is how fast and how well we are able to learn, something that we are still mostly doing exactly as it was done centuries ago.

Whatever form research in learning has taken so far, it hasn’t worked. It is clearly not a simple problem, and centuries, if not millennia, of traditions, guesses, and anecdotal observations don’t make a particularly fruitful corpus of knowledge. But whoever figures out a way to apply science to learning will have an almost boundless impact on the world.

Marcelo Rinesi is the IEET's Chief Technology Officer, and former Assistant Director. He is also a freelance Data Intelligence Analyst.
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I think the answer lies more in desire than in science. Unless you can figure out a way for science to increase one’s desire…

Scientists in the 20th Century certainly thought about this problem. Psychologist B.F. Skinner tried to apply principles from his research into operant conditioning towards making education more efficient, even inventing a “teaching machine.”

I also have to wonder what the Soviet Union did along these lines, considering that it tried to seek out and cultivate its most gifted children regardless of social class, and it lacked Western inhibitions about conducting envelope-pushing experiments.

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