The Learn Drive

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This is a topic for discussion of Piotr Wozniak’s theory of “The Learn Drive.

I’ve been in a private email conversation (and sometimes debate) with Piotr about the value of schooling for many years. Recently this conversation has become a three way dialog with Georgios Zonnios, who agrees with Piotr that school is bad for learning.

Our conversation has gotten disjointed in email and I’m going to try to tempt them here.

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A good understanding of the learn drive should explain why John Locke, John Holt or Peter Green were right all along. All great educators of the past were aware that coercion in learning does not work. To figure this simple truth out, all we need is to love children more than we love what they might become.

Learn drive makes kids love learning (from the day they are born). When this clashes with coercion at school, we have a war of neural networks that will result in a resolution of the conflict. For some kids, the learn drive will win and result in closing a memory gateway. A healthy kid’s memory will literally learn to reject things delivered coercively at school. At the other end of the spectrum is the submission to the system that will blunt the learn drive and produce learned helplessness. This will turn kids into learning zombies who can accept anything on input, and reproduce “knowledge” like tape recorders. Most of kids end up in the middle: unhappy, unenthusiastic about school, and making snail’s pace progress that let them advance on the educational ladder. Even an unhappy PhD is possible. However, forced PhDs do not change the world. Without a vibrant learn drive, creativity dies out.

Coercive learning undermines intelligence and should be seen in terms of a violation of human rights. When we take away kid’s autonomy, we take away their dignity, love of learning, and future intelligence. By forcing kids to learn, we undermine the future of the planet! No kidding.

In both the military and commercial spheres, individuals are granted varying levels of personal autonomy, according to ability and character. Obviously both require constant learning. By contrast, students at K-12 are hierarchically flat and undifferentiated. The obvious explanation is that militaries and business are both exposed to direct performance feedback in the form of bullets and bankruptcy, whereas schools… aren’t.

Parents are typically too overwhelmed by the information necessary to manage their own lives, to also manage their children’s education. So they delegate and relegate.

Supermemo doesn’t solve this problem, because it focuses on the wrong theme. The existence of savants with photographic memory demonstrates that the goal isn’t worth attaining. The human brain, while highly flexible, is finite. It can accomplish amazing feats, but there is an outrageous cost. Becoming an extreme mental athlete is as unhealthy as becoming an extreme physical one.

At present tech, one can’t rely on a computer to fold sweaters or write Turing-sensible prose. Likewise, one shouldn’t ask one’s brain to compete with a hard drive at memorization. Let the computer do the memorization, and the brain do the interpretation.

What is the benefit of memorization? Faster access? Memory competes with a keyboard and screen, which can retrieve effectively unlimited info in negligible time. Reading is easier than recalling, too.

The problem is not memorization, but intelligent processing. Processing requires flawless recall, facile manipulation, comprehension and creativity. Computers can do the first two, brains can do the second two.

That’s why Textmind is built on the daily processing loop. To mitigate exponential memory decay, the user processes yesterday’s chronological sprint into packetized thoughts suitable for JIT rapid iterative inductive sorting into a grand outline, that evolves in sync with his mind.

What is important to memorize is how to manipulate that outline to execute adaptively. The act of using the outline naturally builds this intuitive sense. The result is that one memorizes a rough sense of where to retrieve information, rather than the information itself. Very little actually needs to be memorized.

For what remains, it appears that Supermemo is the best tool for the job. Especially when it isn’t choked with volumes of information it simply wasn’t designed to handle. And for good reason. Does anybody want to compete with RMS to write a text editor? I don’t.

@cyberthal While I think Textmind is an interesting expression of your own drive to improve your learning, I don’t think a technical discussion of Supermemo vs Textmind is on topic. My understanding of @Woz’s provocation is that he’s making a general critique of schooling. Schools, in this view, are coercive, and coercion hurts learning. Though Piotr is the author of Supermemo, the critique of schooling deserves discussion independently of the value of Supermemo specifically.

Let me say why I think Piotr’s critique is worth answering. I suffered very much from coercive schooling. I was very eager to learn, and was bored in school I often concealed another book inside my textbook, usually science fiction. Such misbehavior was punished. In my case, punishment for talking out and being “wild” (for instance, arguing without raising my hand about poetry with my seventh grade teacher) including literal beatings, an approach that was actually quite common in the 1970s in the USA. I remember thinking to myself, as a child: “I vow never to forget how miserable these adults made me when I wanted to learn.” So I’m inclined to listen to Piotr’s radical proposal for the abolishment of school.

However, I send my own child to school. When I discuss the prospect of home schooling with her, she vehemently protests. She goes to a school where there is a progressive approach to teaching, the students are generally respected as rational beings capable of constructive dialog about their own instruction, including evaluation of effectiveness of classroom activities, corporal punishment is unheard of, and the teachers are – for the most part – role models. She likes her school, likes learning, and would be hurt if asked to stop. Therefore, I don’t follow Piotr all the way to his conclusion. I think: Piotr is talking about bad schools, but a critique of school must address the possibilities of good schools.

But then I have a second thought. Piotr is not merely criticizing the misery of bad schools. He is saying that the practice of having adults direct a child’s learning is itself harmful. What if “good schools” are only “iron fist in velvet glove?” Is there a damage done by good schools?

@Woz I direct this question to you.

SuperMemo must have entered this discussion by subliminal association (by URL or name?). The topic is The Learn Drive. This is one of the most misunderstood mechanisms of the human brain that leads to a myriad of bad strategies in policy, esp. education. It is the learn drive that implies that parents should be free from the burden of “managing education”. Child’s interests and passions should dominate.

Incidentally, the remarks about SuperMemo seem to reflect popular myths about spaced repetition. I would love to reply, but insist we stay on the topic. Only the abuse of the technology justifies references to “athleticism”, “finite brain”, “memorization vs. intelligent processing”, “reading vs. recalling”, “sprint”, “packetized thoughts”, “volumes of information”, etc. There are multiple forums on the web where those topics dominate the discussion unnecessarily and skew the popular perception of a vital learning tool. As much as any learning prop, it should be under the control of a (healthy) learn drive. Only then can it play its role. The learn drive is an antithesis of athleticism for it always looks for the highest value at the lowest cost.

I think all parental dilemma’s can easily be resolved by taking a bold assumption: when it comes to learning, the child is always right. This should be true unless the learn drive system is extinguished by schooling. As long as the child is happy and makes her own choices, I see no threats on the horizon. After all, democratic schools are also schools and they might be an acme of freedom in learning.

Supermemo vs Textmind probably doesn’t fit into this thread. Regarding topicality, I left my thought somewhat implicit, so I’ll complete the thought.

School is bad due to perverse incentives, as I briefly sketched. The question is how to fix it. The Supermemo answer is to let kids learn via incremental reading and cloze deletion. Supermemo’s been around for a while and that hasn’t happened. Smarter students do use spaced repetition, usually Anki. So the question is, why hasn’t anything fundamentally changed?

My answer is, because Supermemo didn’t handle the info overwhelm problem that afflicts parents and students alike. Give me Textmind as a kid, and I no longer need school, which was a waste of my time. Give my parents Textmind, and they’ll have the bandwidth to provide pedagogical guidance, for a process tailored to each of their children’s needs. Institutions might be a part of that process, but they would bring much more applied pedagogical intelligence to bear on the individual student, who would himself be more intelligent.

Without addressing the info overwhelm problem, I don’t think the school problem can be fixed. High-performance families can homeschool or unschool, but they’ll remain a minority engaged in an time-expensive hobby.

At the other end of the bell curve, there are those families who benefit most from an authoritarian approach, same as in business and military. Therefore school will always exist for them. The authoritarian approach has become unfashionable with political correctness, and as a result those who would benefit from it experience more negative life outcomes.

The fundamental problem is making the shift from the ancestral environment, for which we are evolutionarily adapted, to the information economy, for which we are not. We therefore require technological aids such as treadmill desks to repurpose brains designed for arboreal hunter gathering.

So, in conclusion, the school good/bad debate is irresolvable because the problem is upstream.

There are multiple forums on the web where those topics dominate the discussion unnecessarily and skew the popular perception of a vital learning tool.

What are they?

Important clarification: I do not want to “abolish schools”. I want to abolish coercion. The simplest term for an outline of a good reform is “school choice” without “compulsory schooling”. A democratic school or a home school are schools too. Worldschooling or “just living” are also educational environments and there is no sharp boundary between the great and the awful. Moreover, bad schools can be great too. For a kid in Liberia, a school is a better option than selling vegetables all year long. For a kid in Senegal, a school is a better option than Daara (personal opinion). In the ideal world, schools should be free of charge, and a child should be free to choose. When a child is not enthusiastic about homeschooling, we just need to trust her reasons and let her go the way she feels works best. If this is complemented with the observation of the intact enthusiasm for learning (i.e. no learn drive injury), the parents can sleep in peace.
Adult interference has its good and bad aspects. It can operate within a push zone that tends to be microscopic for independent autonomous minds. In practice, this translates to an approach in which adults inspire, minimally assist, or even act as servants of knowledge. “Iron fist in velvet glove” may show up when schools use a reward system that overrides the learn drive and conditions it out of the picture. When kids are paid to read books, they may also love rushing to school for the next reward. However, in the process they may gradually lose their innate love of learning (Alfie Kohn wrote quite a few books on this).

Please explain how authoritarian approach helps children. I suspect some big myth lurking behind this claim. The harm of authoritarian parentings has nothing to do with political correctness. It is derived from brain science.

The biggest misconception I see in your claims is a trouble with adaptation to information economy. A child’s brain can adapt with ease. The main obstacle on the way of adaptation is adult interference. This includes schooling, or wild hysterias like that of “digital dementia”. 13 years before YouTube, Papert wrote about letteracy for Wired. Treadmill desks are an adult invention that suffers from a lack of foresight that a well adapted e-kid exhibits from their preschool years.

Some other problems I see:

  1. Schools are bad because they take away child’s freedom. Perverse incentives are just a subset of the problem. Do you count coercion as an incentive? When a kid cannot leave for a bathroom, or cannot use a mobile phone, it is not an incentive issue.
  2. The fix to the school problem is simple: free the children (I recommend Peter Gray’s book “Free to learn”).
  3. Unschooling is no “time-expensive hobby”. It is the cheapest form of education in existence for it sets no goals and asks for no resources.

More SuperMemo myths:

  1. SuperMemo has many tools for handling “info overwhelm” (of students, not parents)
  2. “cloze deletion” as a “solution” to the problem of schooling must be a case of erroneous mind reading

Moderation intervention: Inviting @Woz to discuss the Learn Drive on our forum is an experiment of “writing in public.” It requires some discipline about staying on topic. I recognize that having the inventor of Supermemo active here is a temptation, but I’d like to direct Supermemo specific discussion here: https://www.reddit.com/r/super_memo/. @cyberthal if you want a Supermemo discussion on the QS Forum, I’m also glad to participate there. Feel free to start one!

@Woz I think there is a lot of work to do on the concept of coercion. You say:

there is no sharp boundary between the great and the awful

This is correct, and it also applies to the boundary between freedom and coercion. I coach a soccer team. We begin the practice with some warmups. There is a team spirit that can be felt when everybody does the warmups together. Often it is fun and gets the players going. Sometimes, though, the group is restless. (They are eleven, and sometimes tired and distracted at the start.) I try different strategies when warmups aren’t working. Sometimes I get them immediately into “small sided games” where the spirit of competition gets their energy going. Sometimes I ask the silliest kid to pick the first warmup. (This sometimes elicits an unorthodox warmup called “dance party!” in which they flail wildly for 30 seconds.) There are all kinds of different ways to get the kids going. Sometimes they fail! But I think it is my responsibility as coach to help them motivate themselves to practice, and often a practice that starts off “blah” picks up steam quickly and ends with everybody trying hard, having fun, and getting better at soccer. Is this freedom or coercion?

I think there is a close analog to what a well intentioned teacher tries to do, and in fact I do this because I’ve copied it from coaches and teachers who have experience and success. I’ve learned from them. I think your concept of coercion needs to take into account the collective learning we do as a group, learning about educational methods and processes that only exist because we don’t merely let nature take its course.

It might be worth distinguishing between andragogy vs. pedagogy. This distinction means that there are intuitions and frameworks which may be more true for adults than they are for children. Do you see a distinction here that’s worth noting, in adults vs. children?

My spouse was heavily involved in OLPC (possibly the single longest engineer in the project) & I’ve been curious about the critical retrospective recently published. My understanding is that the pedagogical inspirations (e.g. Seymour Papert, who you’ve referenced) proved to be overly optimistic when deployed in practice, e.g. to classrooms in Peru.

One could attribute it to various factors (one can always say “it wasn’t done right”). It sounds like the broad criticism was that, just because the founders/leaders of OLPC “best learned this way” (as children?) didn’t mean that it was going to work for all children – a case of privileging their own demographic and experiences in designing something for others. I’d be curious to hear your take on a retrospective with OLPC.

And… maybe people who are “good at learning” later in life are more likely to have responded better to non-coercive, intrinsic motivation as children – but not necessarily that the non-coercive environment was causal?

I think I have some skepticism between the distinction of adult/child and the potential for incorrectly inferring causality based on correlating non-coercive approaches with later academic success.

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Cruelty to one’s own children is a feature of grain-based civilization, but not of barbarian herders or hunter-gatherers, with rare exceptions. The question is, why? My answer is that the herder lifestyle is similar enough to the ancestral one, and the grain-based one is not. In the latter case, dysfunctional children require corporal punishment. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

The first hint of this is Cain the farmer’s murder of his brother Abel the herder. Though there is no indication that Jesse ever struck David, he nevertheless grew up true due to facing wilderness hardship and beasts alone. His sons, however, raised in palatial luxury with the same parental style, were spectacularly bad.

Sociologists find what they want to find and publish what their peers permit. They are too busy suppressing the significance of IQ to tell the truth about education. Which is, that it doesn’t matter much. One’s adult intelligence is mostly dependent on one’s genes, not one’s education. The K-12 education system is a rat race driven by parental ambition in which all strive by hook or crook for placement on the bell curve’s right tail, despite that their places were assigned from birth.

If IQ were treated as fixed instead of variable, then educators would instead try to maximize a student’s future status given his genetic ability. Character rather than intelligence would be recognized as a moral achievement. The abolishment of enforceable apprenticeship and enshrinement of the fiction that every lad can complete university are utopian.

Solitary individuals of intellectual bent are prone to opine that all children should be liberated from the oppressive and farcical education system inflicted upon them in their wasted youth, but their error is one of projection, the outlier imagining he is the norm. Radical child emancipation is no newer a concept than communal living. We long for a past we have left behind. Test your son with the bear and the lion, and you may forgo hurting him yourself.

Ironically, the individualist’s disaffection with school is proof that he needed one. True IQ outliers rarely have parents who match them, much less peers. They would benefit most from a school that concentrated them together, saving them from an alienated upbringing, and challenging them with material appropriate to their level. A school in which they would be normal, not freaks.

@Agaricus

I think the line between freedom and coercion depends on each individual child’s freedom to move in an independent direction to their coach or their peers. That generally comes down to whether or not they can opt out, and whether or not they are punished for independence. In the soccer team you coach, can a kid abstain from the warm up or other activities? If they refuse, is there punishment?

In most schools, children are formally punished for a range of things, including abstinence - from homework, classwork, P.E., etc… The punishment may no longer be corporal, but it has only been sublimated from physical to emotional pain. Instead of caning, the child must deal with separation from friends and disapproval from parents and teachers. The only reason for these approaches is to create pain. Why does lunch time detention exist? To artificially create enough pain to hurt the child into changing its behaviour. There is no other reason. Even ostensibly neutral feedback like academic grades often exist in large part to change the behaviour of the student by artificially applying social pain.

While isolating personal characteristics as a separate factor could be useful, describing “non-coercion” as a causal factor is a backwards phrasing of the problem, because it presumes that coercion is a fundamental part of learning. Instead, the null hypothesis should be the basic state of human learning (i.e. observation, thinking, imitation and fulfilment of basic needs). Coercion is then the alternative hypothesis, in need of proof of its superiority.

Thus, the important part of the question could be clarified in the following form: “If people who are “good at learning” later in life are more likely to have responded better to non-coercive, intrinsic motivation as children, why not everybody else?”

The burden of proof is on coercion. Not “non-coercion”.

Your mail is a fantastic source of good reasons to explain why the idea of the learn drive is so important in education reform.

Ref andragogy: The misleading intuitions about learning that are born in the adult brain are a norm. They are one of the underlying problems of education. They are natural, and I am a recovering guilty party too. It is the understanding of the developing brain that calls for a radical change to education strategies. It is the understanding of the learn drive that explains why we can safely trust children with their choices. Adults have no true empathy, and no good memory of their own brains. This is why they are so cruel in designing the system that is supposed to “help” children.

Ref OLPC: Negroponte’s “one laptop per child” is flawless on theoretical grounds, and it WILL work on all healthy children in conditions of freedom. However, practical applications need to battle a horrifying number of forces: cultural, political, technological, and more. The battle with educational mythology might be the toughest! We all see how “one laptop per child” results in catastrophic results in western families: gaming disorder, family wars, school refusal, addictions, “digital dementia” (myth), and more. The root cause is the dismal understanding of brain science (even among psychologists, psychiatrists and educators). Kids need to explore without adult interference! Negroponte’s pilot programs came closer to that ideal. Sugata Mitra’s hole in the wall is a good inspiration too. The idea that unprepared teachers should learn to use laptops so that they could teach children is a travesty of the entire concept. Without a freedom to explore, OLPC will never work, and can even harm children and families. When you mention “classrooms in Peru”, note that “classrooms” have a tendency to turn off child’s memory, and turn off exploration even better. Without exploration, the policy is dead on arrival.

Constructionists could not have been biased by their childhood experiences (unless in retrospect) because the adult brain is predisposed to accept the adultcentric view of education. It is the study of children and neuroscience that provides optimal answers.

Intrinsic motivation is nothing else but the expression of the learn drive and we are all born with it. It is the coercion that destroys it. Non-coercive environment is as “causal” in good learning as the rain forest is “causal” for the thriving frog population. The causality shows up once we cut the trees. Instead of looking at correlations, look inside the brain (or better yet, watch the children learn, … on a laptop :smiley: Here we come back to the main theme of that thread: good understanding of the brain leads to good educational strategies.

Has your spouse lost her faith? Please have a chat or even ask to write on this forum. It is painful to see the genius of Papert or Negroponte be wasted through endless distortions and culturally ingrained mythology.

If you attribute the quest for child liberation to projection, you provide a powerful proof that without understanding the learn drive, we will continue promulgating myths that prevent free education. Brain science provides all the necessary answers: a free brain guided by the learn drive provides the best choices in exploratory learning (thus best adaptation). This is true for all healthy brains independent of their position on the bell curve.

Your idea of a school for outliers is one more proof of your attachment to the concept of schooling that can easily be severed with a good understanding of the process by which the young brain conceptualizes the reality. A free outlier will find his place in the world as efficiently as a free laggard. Naturally, this implies that free outliers have a right to unite and form their own schools if they think it serves any good purpose.

You coach a soccer team? Me too! Sort of :wink:

Sports may not be the best research ground. On one hand, we need to distinguish between the declarative learning and the procedural learning. It is the former that is most vulnerable. On the other hand, Wolff’s law (not Gary’s) says that tissues get stronger with stress. You can build a muscular slave too.

If you say that with your little push everyone is having fun, you state that you fit your “coercion” within the push zone. This is much easier in soccer than in math. In sports, the zone is wider.

I like Gray’s approach to sports with minimum adult interference. When I come to the field, I try to act as a glue and an arbiter of occasional conflict. I let the kids use my adult assets for their own goals. The rest is up to the kids. They often do not warm up right. For that they may never reach the level of Mbappé. However, we aim at mental and physical health most of all. They are free to come and leave. There is no age or ability segregation. I had games with a spread from 6 to 60! Interestingly, many of “my” kids join the city’s football club, and these are the biggest talents that tend to drop out first. How do you explain that?

A well-intentioned teacher is a sneaky concept. Those good intention will provide a “velvet glove” to hide the “iron first” of compulsory schooling. Those velvet gloves will take a 6 year old with a thriving learn drive and, within a span of short 3 years, transition the kid smoothly and painlessly to the rigors of cramming with a loss of learning autonomy, goals and dreams. This is a process of boiling a frog with no noticeable distress. All teachers I know are fantastic people. They are not just well-intentioned. They have golden hearts. This goodness provides an effective camouflage for the problem of the coercive undercurrent.

The rule of the thumb for educational choices is that if the reward in learning comes from knowledge, it is likely to be optimum. If the satisfaction comes from an extrinsic reward system, it is pretty likely to harm learning in the long run.

Now we are getting somewhere.

I like Gray’s approach to sports with minimum adult interference. When I come to the field, I try to act as a glue and an arbiter of occasional conflict. I let the kids use my adult assets for their own goals. The rest is up to the kids.

I’m in partial agreement. I have learned through experience, instruction, and imitation that my first approach to coaching (skill-based drills, following by a scrimmage as a reward) was no good at all. The focus on drills was nearly useless to the young players, who couldn’t see how they applied, drilled their accidental errors into lasting bad habits, and were bored. I took some coaching classes (school!) from US Soccer, and learned their “play-practice-play” system, and our practice sessions immediately improved. Your argument, as I understand it, is that the “practice” part of this system is likely to be harmful, as it is too school-like. My counter argument is that if I let them play through the practice period the weaker players tend to get increasingly left out of the play, become confused, and tensions rise. Meanwhile, the stronger players become more individualistic, hog the ball, and start to lose their sense of the flow of the game. (It turns into one-on-one battles.) By creating some structure for the session, with the first play period being setup to emphasize certain skills, the practice period involving teaching the skills, and the second play period being open/free play to see what we can do with the skill, there is better teamwork and – it appears to me – more fun and learning.

I use this very simple example to call out two elements of your argument that seem to me inadequate:

  1. What is coercion? We agree that beating children is criminal; and we also agree with Alfie Kohn that behavioralist approaches using extrinsic rewards are mostly bad. (Though there may be some daylight between us on this: I think even seemingly stupid rewards like “candy for vocabulary” can be useful in particularly difficult learning situations where other means of forming a relationship of predictability are difficult to establish; but let’s leave aside these instances.) Even though we are mostly in agreement about these forms of coercion, I think there is much refinement of the concept needed when it comes to school. We humans are social. We have “social skills” that help us cooperate and learn. There is some pain and tension involved in forming and developing our relationships. And there’s a long history in progressive education of trying to understand what’s useful and what’s not useful in building relationships of learning. My coaching example is a simple illustration of how a group, including both the instructor and the students, coach and players, can learn together. I become a better coach in relation to learning what works and what fails with the team. They are bonded together as a team through their common attempt to get better. Some of this seems like it crosses the border into what you would call coercion, but I’m not sure. In other words, I don’t think you can get away with just decrying coercion, without some more texture and definition.
  2. What does brain science have to do with the learn drive? You make an appeal to the authority of science and I’m prepared to follow you into this material – but you have to lead! I would be more likely to look into the history and practice of progressive education, as this is where the golden hearted teachers have been developing their practical knowledge, but you direct our attention differently. So: go ahead! What do you have to show us from brain science?

If an individual is prevented, by other people, from independently choosing their own targets, then the environment is coercive.

If a girl can’t learn maths because she has no books, internet or other sources, there is no coercion. If she can’t learn maths because her father won’t allow her to, that is coercion. If she must learn maths even when she doesn’t want to, that’s also coercion.

From this perspective, any amount of cajoling, persuasion, etc is fine as long as the individual feels empowered to have the final say.

Although you mentioned this example as an aside, I think it strikes at the heart of the issue because you make the subtle but critical assumption that that vocabulary must be learned somehow. It’s also pretty clear that this is the opinion of the teacher/curriculum-writer and the student has no choice. If the student did have a choice, they would either:

  1. Want to learn the vocabulary and candy would not be needed, or
  2. Simply spend their time doing something else

Describing the freedom of children at Summerhill, Zoe Readhead (daughter of A.S. Neill) said:

Summerhill children are very conservative about how they are taught. You can dish up information on a cold plate. Since children are not captive in the classroom, when they go, they want to learn. So teachers don’t need to put jam on it.

Finally,

Pain per se is not a problem. Pain can often be worthwhile, but it has to be from the perspective of the person who experiences that pain. There must be enough meaningful benefit to cover the costs. Most people are motivated enough to do a hard day’s work for a day’s pay, but not to work so that someone else can get paid. Nevertheless, most often the case is that the adult sees the value but the child must do the work.

Let me focus on this, then. Often the edge cases have something to teach

Do you take the extreme position that teachers should play no role whatsoever in influencing what any child learns? I can’t imagine seriously holding this position, and I don’t attribute it to you, but I state the extreme case in order to mark a limit of agreement.

If you agree that adults are needed for children to learn, then we can talk about what our role is. You write:

From this perspective, any amount of cajoling, persuasion, etc is fine as long as the individual feels empowered to have the final say.

I think this picture of the learning situation does not resemble reality very well. There isn’t really a decision process that results in anybody having a final say, but rather a continuous relation in which we make ongoing judgments about what’s helping and hurting, where are obligations and responsibilities lie, and what is beneficial in the long term despite inconvenience or pain in the short term.

In the extreme case of candy-for-vocabulary: I know a child who cannot talk well. He is five years hold. His frustration level is high and he does not have a concept of learning to rely on. It is difficult for him to establish continuity of relations, the kind of tit-for-tat that most kids learn in infancy and gives them pleasure. The seemingly simplistic behavioral techniques (candy for vocabulary) have built some predictability into his relations with adults, and established a foundation for further learning. There are obvious limits to this approach. We agree on that. However, I’m arguing that general statements about coercion and commitment to give the child the “final say” can’t easily be relied on in real learning situations. They are ok for representing a posture of respect toward a child. But they don’t seem to me to reach very far into the problem of how to learn.

Vicky Hearne has some interesting things to say about learning in Adam’s Task, Calling Animals By Name. The topic of coercion is handled in a rather deep way there.