education philosopher

Possible Implications of Learning Seen Instrumentally

Posted in Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on August 20, 2009

We learn so that we can do.

Does that sound controversial or iconoclastic – to say that learning derives its value instrumentally, rather than possessing intrinsic value? This has been a controversial point ever since educational “progressives” like John Dewey tried to justify an instrumental view of knowldge against the more “conservative” intrinsicist view of thinkers like Bagley and, later, Mortimer Adler. For the record, I think the progressives won; knowledge – almost all of it, excepting trivia, derives its value from what it can do.

Knowledge is gained so that we can avoid thinking later.

Now, here is a statement that might strike one as iconoclastic and even paradoxical! Learning is done so as to avoid thinking? Well, yes. We learn to drive so that we can drive better by not having to think about driving. We learn basic math techniques and formulae so that we can solve math problems with some level of automaticity. We acquire vocabulary so that we can read more and more advanced stuff without having to think too hard about every work. In other words, we gain knowledge to gain familiarity, and we want familiarity so that we don’t have to think too hard.

I bring these things up for two reasons: first, both statements above are nowhere close to settled in the world of education. We constantly hear that knowledge has intrinsic value (often hearing it the most when subjects are defended whose practical value is unclear, like literature). Subjecting knowledge  to questions like “What can it do for the learner?” is often derided as crass view that focuses more on the “bottom line” than anything.

Likewise, it is commonly assumed that as children are said to be innately curious, that knowledge will tend to lead to more, rather than less, thinking. The problem is that while kids are innately curious, they are generally only curious about certain things. And further, the vast majority of things that children, and adults, have to learn do not fall into the category of things we are passionate about, but things we learn so that we can gain necessary fluency and automaticity in order to avoid having to think about them in the future. And the ability to do without having to think too hard about what is being done is called “mastery.”

So, in short, most of what we learn, we learn to gain mastery over it. And gaining mastery over a thing, almost by definition, means that we no longer have to think so hard while doing the thing. Thus, in a seeming paradox, we learn to avoid having to do much thinking in the future.

And this is not only true of things we are not interested in, but even of things we are passionate about. When I was younger, I was passionate about music. I learned to play the drums, in part, for the joy of learning the instrument. But more importantly, I learned drumming so that I could play what I wanted to play as effortlessly as I could. Another example may be the student who is passionate about food and cooking. While part of them finds some joy solely in learning how to cook – learning for its own sake – the primary reason for the learning is to become a chef and be able to cook with some level of automaticity. In both examples, the more we learned, the more we could do and the less mental effort we needed in order to do it.

So, the second reason I bring up these two ideas – knowledge is instruntal and most offen engaged in to achieve automaticity – is that these ideas have large implications for teaching.

First, these ideas seem to imply that the best way to motivate students to learn things is to show them what they can do with those things after they are achieved. While we teachers are ofen told that the best way to motivate kids is to make the subject relevant, this seems only part of the truth (for the subject may be relevant to an area of a child’s life that they don’t care much about.) Instead of making the subject relevant, it may be better to get students hooked on Bacon’s idea: knowledge is power, and here is the power you will have if you gain this knowledge. Here is the task that you will be able to perform, which others who don’t have the knowledge will not.

By way of a story, I was convince some students that learning fractions and percents was a useful thing by giving them a scenario relating fractions to the supermarket. (I made the subject relevant.) They were not biting, giving me a litany of excuses as to why I was wrong. So, I decided to show them a task that they could not perform if they did not know fractions or decimals:

“Okay, guys. Answer me this. One store sells x on sale: get 4 for the price of 5. Another store sells x on sale: get 7 for the price of 9. Are any of these deals better than the store that sells for a flat 10% off?”

It wasn’t making the subject relevant that got the students: it was showing them the actual task that they could perform if they learned the knowledge.

The second implication of the two above ideas is that we teachers might just need to except, and even teach our kids, that the more you learn about this subject, the less you will have to think about it when you perform the task. I learned, at some point, that while I might want my students to enjoy acquiring knowledge for its own sake, sometimes the best justification to them was, “Do it now and the hard work is over. If you struggle on this problem now, the next problems will probably be easier.” This was often a way to quickly motivate students into getting the hard work over with.Like weight lifting, sometimes the best motivation to keep going is the realization that struggling today means the same weight lifted tomorrow will be easier.

Lastly, sometimes we teachers need to accept the fact that much of what we are teaching kids is not for the sake of them becoming scholars, but actually so that they can be better at not thinking. We must, in my opinion, get rid of the idea that teaching kids should have the  end goal that they will be “life long learners.” We can aspire to this, but we should not expect it because in the vast majority of cases, it is untrue! When we teach driving, we rightly expect that students will not study how to drive any more than is necessary, because the goal of this teaching is precisely so that driving will become automatic enough to render thinking unecessary (or at least minimize its presence during the task). Much of what we teach (I think particularly of math and language arts) is of this variety: we teach not so that future knowledge will be pursued, but primarily so that certain basics will be mastered. (Yes, there are always the students that WILL take it upon themselves to learn more, and we should encourage them, but most important is teachng students automaticity.)


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