The Learn Drive

Tags: #<Tag:0x00007f5ed3d9ee08>

OK friends, now we are really getting somewhere. I have a much better understanding of what is not yet convincing to me in this discussion.

Some concepts that I think are causing trouble:


Because these concepts are so general, using them in simple declarative formulations is useful only if these declarations are followed by examples and statements about concrete intentions. Otherwise there’s the danger that the declaration produces agreement (or disagreement) in principle without cooperation or explicit refusal to cooperate in practice.

For example, the United States Declaration of Independence is famous for its highly general declarative statements, such as “all men are created equal.” Of course, if we confined ourselves to this statement without considering the context and examples in the rest of the Declaration, we’d go around in circles forever. Is it really true that all human beings are created equal? They are not equally tall, doesn’t that disprove the declaration? The are also different in many other consequential ways that are connected with the manifest inequality in the real world. And they are not equal in the affection and loyalty we feel we owe them; for instance, we’re typically more attached to our families than to strangers. Glaringly, authors of the declaration convinced themselves that it was coherent with the existence of slavery. And yet this is not the beginning of a document universally recognized as absurd; rather of a text that has inspired countless people to advance the cause of freedom. The reason is that the declarative portion is followed by a long list of specific instances exemplifying the violations of the type of freedom declared as self-evident in the first paragraph, anchoring that claim in political reality, and justifying an explicit course of action described at the end.

I suggest we learn from this well known example, and not be satisfied with general statements about freedom and coercion, but state explicitly what we are for and against in education. From the hints you’ve dropped in our conversation so far (and I cheat a bit in Woz’s case since I know a few things about how you think :slight_smile:) I suspect we will struggle over this list.

I’ll start with a concrete case that also answers your question about Vicky Hearne. In my family we like reading and admire writers. This goes back several generations. My parents expressed a lot of interest in what I was reading, and although they were busy and not always available for conversation I knew that I normally get their attention with talk about books. I was by no means “starved for attention” but children, like adults, get pleasure from being able to influence their environment and direct attention. I learned that reading was powerful. This was not coercion, but rather the influence of my family, which we pass on to our own daughter. Later, in college, I was assigned books that found boring. However, they were sometimes assigned in classes taught by professors I admired, on subjects that seemed to be considered important for general academic literacy. So I developed a method of coping with these long, boring books that allowed me to learn from them without being discouraged. There was some degree of coercion and frustration in this process – it wasn’t miserable but it was a bit of a grind. I’m mostly glad I read these books, and I’m very glad to have maintained the good opinion of my professors and to have won for myself a sense of belonging. Now, as an adult, even though I’m not an academic, I feel like I have a “right” to read academic material and form my own judgments. If I don’t understand it right away, or if I can only grasp part of it (perhaps the abstract), I don’t mind too much. I think I built this confidence undertaking tasks that were assigned to me by my (good) teachers. Reflecting on this experience, I’ve asked myself whether I was just submitting to authority. I wonder: would Piotr think that I had some learning drive suppressed and don’t even know it?

In answering this question for myself, I call on Vicky Hearne, who disagrees with you that training animals involves conditioning only. Hearne, as an animal trainer, learned that, in case of horses and dogs at least, conditioning only takes training so far; some trainers and their animals can carry out collaborative actions that generalize the trained actions into very high level concepts. The most experienced trainers use words like “heart” and “courage” to describe these actions. Hearne says that these concepts are produced by the relation of the animal and trainer, a relation that is grounded in the nature of the animals.

For instance, some animals deliberately compete; self-sacrifice in competition has resonance with human self-sacrifice in competition, and when humans and animals compete as a team, they can show “heart” – but this is a special kind of human-horse or horse-human heart that can only be deeply understood through experience. (It’s been a long time since I read Hearne, so this is my lesson from it, hopefully not too garbled.)

The relevance to our discussion is this: We agree that conditioning by rewards and punishments is bad pedagogy. You argue for total freedom. But I think my own experience is not about total freedom, but about being molded in my family and culture to have commitments to what you might call “values.”

I don’t want to mince words about whether commitment to values is freely chosen, but rather to ask about the practical examples and illustrations entailed by our different perspectives. In my framework, it is good to say things to kids like: No, you can’t ignore mathematics because you think you find it boring; let’s find some ways to get you into it more because as part of this family and a citizen of this world you are destined to be mathematically literate.

Do you find this horrid?

Great idea!

Let’s give ourselves the chance to work towards some shared generalisations and abstractions, rather than starting with them.

The first thing that stands out to me here is a sort of survivorship bias. Destiny is great if you reach it.

A young person I know recently finished high school and was told by his parents that because of his low marks, they were extremely disappointed in him for “wasting his entire schooling”. The emotional effect for him was quite shattering. It’s worth noting that his mark was a percentile ranking, meaning that if he didn’t get that score then someone else, somewhere else would have gotten it. In any case, the parents had a clear requirement, which he didn’t meet. On the other hand, he is generally quite a capable young person. He has a part time job and enjoys learning music, language and art in his spare time - but they’re just not the things that his parents wanted him to learn, and for which he would get rewarded at school.

Parents can have many requirements for being part of the family or a citizen of the world. They may want their child to become heterosexual, Christian, politically conservative, etc. However, this desire for uniformity goes against the inherent diversity between individuals.

In families with many children, the problem is easier to see. Often there are some themes in terms of ability, but each child tends to becomes good at something different, if only in order to build a sense of personal identity. I expect that the more children someone has, the more they will have to accept that either: 1) some of their kids are simply better than others (e.g. because of higher literacy & numeracy), or 2) they are all equally valuable members of family and society in different ways.

In addition to focusing on specific situations, I think we should focus primarily on examples of mechanisms underlying learn drive, rather than interventions. Only once we agree on the natural learning process can we agree on how to improve it through intervention.

In practice this might require some effort. For example, @Agaricus’s story about social influences on his love of reading is ostensibly about the interventions of parents and professors. But looking at it in terms of mechanisms, it shows quite a different side: A series of free choices were made about what to learn in order to fulfil some social needs. Unlike most school children, a college student can simply drop out. But there were stronger internal motivations at play. Looking at it this way avoids any need to be prescriptive about interventions.

Here are a couple of concrete situations from people I know, which I think exemplify some natural learning mechanism(s):

  • A friend I knew used to brag how he had a successful career as a lawyer, despite not doing any maths since he was 16. He believed maths was useless, and was positively proud that he didn’t know it. One day in a new job, he had to write some contracts for financial derivatives. He went straight onto Google and learned what he needed to, and then wrote up some spreadsheets on Excel. It took some time, but he learned what he needed because he had an authentic purpose for it (i.e. not just to pass a test).
  • One of my extended family members dropped out of school a bit younger than 15. He worked for several years as a labourer overseas and eventually returned to Australia when he was about 20. Here, labourers require a special permit to work, which includes some trigonometry. I taught him in about 10 minutes what many year 9 students require several hours to learn. The difference was that he had a goal to achieve with that knowledge.

I think this is quite a specific case, and a good one because it unites the idea of total freedom with external input and pressure in specific cases. It’s just like how an adult may hire a personal trainer to help them exercise. They know the trainer will push them harder than they push themselves, and this is part of the value. But, they can still quit when they no longer experience that value.

Not only is it not horrid, it breams with fatherly love. But love is no guarantee of good strategy.

You can see the summit (of the queen of the sciences), but you cannot see the abys in front of your child’s feet. Only she got the detectors to warn you (see “mountain climb” metaphor above in the discussion). It is ok to extol the beauty of the summit, but it is not optimum to pull the kid by hand if she resists. This is particularly dangerous if she claims she can sense a better summit somewhere else. There can be reactance or toxic memory, or a lifelong conviction “I am no good at math”. Math anxiety is far more prevalent than the love of math. Good intentions are a culprit! Without the understanding of the learn drive, we will have more of the same in the future.

I my lingo “you can’t ignore” or “let’s find some ways” hint at potential coercion. There are many caveats on the way. Perhaps you are still within the push zone? The litmus test is in a child’s face. Fear no apparent coercion when there is a genuine smile.

What your parents did seems to have worked out perfectly (as evidenced by the efficiency of your own writing). They combined lots of interest with little interference. Their interest boosted the valuation of books. Their limited time might have helped the strategy. Loving intellectuals with plenty of time to influence their children need a great deal of knowledge about the brain to be sure they do not do long term harm.

What your professors did had some value too. Their authority was a boost to valuations including the valuation of goals. However, I see here a case for the old soup problem (the good can hide the bad), and the survivorship bias mentioned by George (glorification of schooling). “Coping with boring books” is an example of a bad habit we often develop at school. “Coping” can be a valuable skill, however, if it becomes a habit, the entire lifelong learning process can get affected. We should aim at developing a tingling intolerance of ineffectual learning. Note that a child can show fantastic tolerance for gaps in comprehension. The key difference is the source of reward. While a kid can find dozens of titbits of rewarding pieces of value, the adult may derive the value from goals. This means that the same level of tolerance will increase the learning efficiency in a kid (no frustration in learning), and undermine it in the adult (tolerance of low signal value). The learn drive is the best detector of value, and all attempts to override it introduce an error in the control system.

Some of your learn drive must have been suppressed (this can be pretty selective and domain-specific). There is no better person in the world to answer that question than you. Dig deep in your mind and think: is there some specific kind of literature, some author, some writing style, some period, some subject matter, some language, that bring some toxic memories? Something you would not want to read today before sleep? This is actually very interesting. I die to know. This will clarify the subject!!!

In the matter of literature I have been seriously damaged at school! With utter ignorance, I abhor all Polish classics with an exception of … “Quo Vadis” that I actually happened to read voluntarily at student times! I admired my teacher too, but it did not help. My heart was elsewhere (e.g. boxing!). I conclude I will not read literature again. I am too old to change. I experimented, I tried, I tried to cheat my brain … the damage is too deep!

  • Freedom in education is an unconstrained ability to make all choices relevant to learning: subject, pace, timing, method (see: free learning)
  • Coercion is any factor that affects freedom of learning (see: coercion in learning)
  • Teamwork is any activity done in a team
  • Contract in learning is a voluntary restriction on the freedom of learning for the sake of teamwork
  • Frustration in learning is the effect of repeat failure and sustained displeasure that stems from decoding failure penalty

As @Agaricus suggested, I think those statements could be fleshed out more with some examples. Also, as long as we’re trying to reduce confusion about key terms, I think it may be preferable to avoid introducing even more terms (like “decoding failure penalty”)

For now, I’ll try to propose some concrete examples to your definitions. These are not my views as such. Just some brainstorming to provoke discussion. Perhaps we could discuss where we all agree, and formulate some alternatives where we disagree or where we think the meaning can be improved:


  • A child can choose not to go to school - for a single day, or their whole lifetime
  • If a child has decided to go to school, they can change their mind later and go home - just for the day, or never return
  • If a child wants to spend the day playing video games instead of reading, they are able to


  • A child is offered an explicit reward for learning (e.g. candy, or a car)
  • A child is threatened with explicit punishments for avoiding learning (e.g. detention, no dinner, no laptop, etc.)
  • A child is aware of implicit reward or punishment (e.g. parents showing more affection and joy when they see the child reading; look of disappointment when the child is seen playing video games again)


  • A child helps parents with house chores
  • Two children gang up to bully a third child


  • A child says to an older athlete, “I want to get really good at this sport. Can you tell me how to train?”. This might involve some arguments between the child and coach about the training regimen.
  • A child wants a car (or candy) from her parents, and is told that she will be given it on condition of learning X at school


  • A child is told to learn the names of several capital cities for a school test, but finds it hard to remember them
  • A toddler wants to reach food on the table, so struggles on its tiptoes, climbs on a chair and yells at its parent to try and get the food

More generally, although the learn drive affects people of all ages, I wonder if you think the discussion be framed only around children? After all, they are the only ones with compulsory schooling. On the other hand, most education for adults is of exactly the same style, with many of the same problems (including coercion for some types of workplace learning).

There are many things to think about in these latest posts but I’ll take on just one – or maybe one and a half!

@Woz your paragraph here I find myself agreeing with almost unreservedly:

You can see the summit (of the queen of the sciences), but you cannot see the abyss in front of your child’s feet. Only she got the detectors to warn you (see “mountain climb” metaphor above in the discussion). It is ok to extol the beauty of the summit, but it is not optimum to pull the kid by hand if she resists. This is particularly dangerous if she claims she can sense a better summit somewhere else. There can be reactance or toxic memory, or a lifelong conviction “I am no good at math”. Math anxiety is far more prevalent than the love of math. Good intentions are a culprit! Without the understanding of the learn drive, we will have more of the same in the future.

Here you have separated goal and path. You allow legitimate authorities in influence goals, with respect for the learner’s chosen path. I think there is a serious investigation to be had just of this proposal. There may even be educators and researchers in education who can contribute something. At the end of your paragraph, you suggest that the learner should have the right to choose a different summit. In learning we can be committed to more than one goal, but I agree there are many times when goals compete. You are saying, do not interfere with the learner’s choice.

I hope I’ve understood this correctly. The reason I think it worthy of a focused examination is that we now have to think about “choice” means. I find the example of kids being encouraged to play video games (today, games on their phones) whenever they want, unconvincing. That is because games are not internally generated by individual learners. Games are produced by game developers who have a keen understanding of how to influence behavior. (See Addiction By Design by Natasha Dow Schüll for an excellent study.)

The game developer plays the role of a teacher, pointing to a summit and saying: This is beautiful, and then rewarding learners with candy to keep them going. Not everybody is vulnerable, and not everybody is harmed. I’m not making an argument that games are bad – I hope that’s understood. I’m arguing that it is not realistic to imagine a world of teachers and parents who are imposing education, on one side, and a world full of things to be curious about, on the other side. In fact, we live in a world of competing authorities, competing values, competing summits, and we make our choices through negotiation, power struggles, adhesion to our parents, friends, and mentors, etc. etc.

@Zon, when I talked about our family belief that numeracy is an obligation, you rightly raised the question of relativism. It’s easy to imagine a family committed to innumeracy; what about them? I realize that my example was taken as asserting the natural superiority of our own values; and I shouldn’t object to it being so taken, because the nature of these commitments is such that we act on our belief in their validity. But I’m not blind to the fact that not everybody shares my beliefs, and families can disagree, as I disagreed with my own parents about some key issues regarding my education. What happens when we disagree is that we argue with each other, try to convince each other. Sometimes (in civic life, and even in families) we assert our power to have it our way, even though others think this is wrong. While I do believe that numeracy is beneficial, the more important thing that I meant to argue was more abstract: that our educational commitments are social commitments, and that respect for the fact of authority is the basis for criticism of authority and even for the rebellions that we can’t live without.

I’m with both of you in wanting more freedom. I think we are moving in the direction of trying to understand more clearly what freedom to learn means.

I want to reply specifically to your question:

is there some specific kind of literature, some author, some writing style, some period, some subject matter, some language, that bring some toxic memories?

Yes - interestingly, the topic is “learning a foreign language.” I got a little bit of instruction in French in 1st grade and loved it. How interesting that other people used different words for the same things! I liked learning new words, and now there were more of them!

However there was no language instruction in my school after 1st grade. I don’t know why, maybe French had just been an interest of that particular teacher. I didn’t study a language again until 9th grade. This was a horrible school year, and I hated everything I studied then. Fortunately, I had outside learning that interested me in several areas, but not in language. The only language instruction I had was in school, and the main experience was of struggling to memorize lessons, being discouraged by how quickly they were forgotten, demoralized by my slow pace in comparison to the seemingly infinitude of the task. I tried again a few times later, and never made progress. Lack of other language was a handicap in the rest of my studies, but was never able to overcome my dislike of the process.

That experience is actually the root my reading your essays for the first time. Almost miraculously, thanks to a fellowship from the Knight Foundation, I had a chance to return to school in my mid-forties. I had just 9 months, but I could study anything I wanted. I was at a big, famous university where there were many advanced courses to explore, but nobody was telling me what to do so I took what I thought might be my last chance, and signed up for a first year Spanish course. I remembered how discouraging it had been to forget the vocabulary I’d memorized in my other attempts, so I searched on the Internet for a digital flashcard program I could use on my Palm Pilot III. :slight_smile:

I found something about spaced repetition and Supermemo in that very first search, downloaded the program, and was finally on my way. Some of my colleagues from Spanish speaking countries were astounded by my sudden ability to communicate with them using my terrible grammar and seemingly random collection of words (After the first three months of memorizing basics, I started looking at articles in the newspaper and memorizing whatever I didn’t know, which meant for some odd vocabulary.) What a pleasure it was to finally succeed.

So, yes! I had this experience. I also have toxic memories of trigonometric functions. Although I got into college coursework in math, and liked topics in algebra and number theory, I was never able to make progress in analysis because the geometric functions were gibberish to me. I always had to look them up, never had a good intuitive sense, and even doing simple calculations, if some kind of trigonometric substitution was required I had to grind my way through. How embarrassing this is today. And guess what: Trigonometry was also a 9th grade class. It’s like a bomb went off in my brain that year, and any subjects that were emphasized then became radioactive.

I think I know why you ask this question: You want to argue that the most important thing is to know when what we are doing educationally is setting off radioactive bombs, and – even if we do nothing else – at least stop doing this. You also want to argue that the sign of a ticking bomb is simply resistance and lack of pleasure. You say not just learning can be fun but learning must be fun.

Although I only read the short abstract you linked to, her description of the “machine zone” sounds almost indistinguishable from flow. I don’t deny the dangers of gambling or addiction, but with such similarities between flow states and addictive states we must really consider context (like in the rat park, where a rich environment greatly reduced the likelihood of morphine addiction).

The only way to deliberately influence behaviour - and the reason why games can be so much more compelling than school - is to understand the mechanisms behind how the brain actually works, and pull the levers that already exist within. If, as you say, game designers really understand how to influence behaviour, then they must have a very good understanding of psychological mechanisms. It also wouldn’t be surprising if some of those mechanisms underly the learn drive, since games engage the brain very effectively, and almost all games involve learning or levelling up in a variety of ways.

So rather than discussing, at this point, whether to encourage video games or not, we should first discuss the psychological levers that those video games are pulling, and if those levers also underlie the learn drive. Then we can make more informed conclusions about how and when to pull those levers.

Thanks for restating my idea so succintly (as “relativism”)!

I would agree, but also significantly extend, the point you make about “educational commitments” being “social commitments”. Instead, I would say that we learn to in order to achieve our goals or fulfil some need. The important thing is that they’re “our” goals.

For example, we could be driven to learn in order to:

  • please a parent/teacher/sibling
  • satisfy curiosity or relieve confusion (“why does my car make a clicking noise?”)
  • help solve a problem (e.g. lost hiker looking for water)
  • help achieve a bigger goal (e.g. getting to university)
  • win a competition (e.g. improve diet to train for a race)
  • explore something intrinsically enjoyable (e.g. video games, music, natural landscapes, animals)

With this last example, I bring back relativism to point out that diving into books, exploring nature or exploring classical music are all considered fairly intellectual, while exploring video games is not. And yet all these situations pull very similar emotional and psychological levers.

For clarification: Do you think there’s value in value judgments about the worth of our endeavors? We all share some underlying physiology, no argument there. All experiences of pleasure probably have something in common, given our common evolutionary history. But I do think there are things worth understanding in the relation between these common elements of pleasure and our intentions, activities, and goals. I think you are arguing for a “bottom up” explanation; getting to judgments about what to study and how to learn and teach through understanding of the biological basis of pleasure. Is that right? I’m not sure that path is very easy. Is there a chance a top down method would work better?

This topic is so vibrant that I suspect we will break some technological limits on the scope of the discussion? :slight_smile:

Yes, there are blind pathways strewn with candy leading kids astray (e.g. in videogames). In theory it seems possible to design a learning space in which a human would land in a local maxiumum of some virtual reality. Such a design is unlikely in the light of the access to an infinite variety of explorations on the web. However, it is interesting theoretically.

If someone was to find a fake summit in virtual reality, coercive learning is the exact societal error that could perpetuate the fake find for ever. Learn drive is partially stochastic and its optimality must be seen from the populational point of view.

I see the freedom to learn in terms of human rights. That is an overriding argument. For abolishing slavery, the fate of cotton farms was secondary. However, it is still useful to show the optimality of the learn drive, i.e. the idea that Paul Raymond-Robichaud thought of as possibly provable in purely mathematical terms.

Optimality of the learn drive refers to its being the best comparator of value of knowledge, and information channels. It does not mean that the learn drive is free from competition from other rewards (e.g. gambling, alcohol, sex, etc.). The key to harmonious development is freedom. It is the limits on freedom that result in reward deprivation that may lead to addiction (incl. game addiction).

The videogame industry is often used as an efficient killer of the noble idea of child’s rights and freedoms. Allegedly, given their liberty, children would spend all days playing videogames. It is not very different from the claim that the uneducated slaves, given their freedom, would spend all their days drinking themselves dumb. The risk of game addiction is non-zero, but it is remediable and provides no excuse for limiting freedoms.

A good videogame will indeed leave a path of candy. This candy is primarily knowledge! Other gamification factors can also play a role. Points or competitions are of secondary importance for a healthy brain. In other words, game developers must work on becoming attractive by virtue of knowledge benefit provided. Otherwise, we could make a roulette, pinball or a slot machine into a bestseller. Most of free gamers keep switching games and get bored fast. Most of free gamers outgrow games by devoting their time to other passions. Those who don’t outgrown gaming for a while, derive their reward from success (e.g. in e-sports). Only a tiny minority are hard core cases that have their roots in reward deprivation or genuine pathologies. In that, gaming is not different from alcohol. There will always be victims.

Parents who impose consistent screentime limits may drive up the value of gaming reward, but may avoid the variability effect. If they add pressure for good grades, the relative valence of gaming increases. If they are inconsistent and keep oscillating between love and restrictions of freedom, they can trigger variable reward mechanism into a positive feedback loop. Those cases give games their bad names. Yes, Parents can do more harm than games.

As gaming is partially driven by variable reward, it is the adult world that has a greater contribution to addictions than games themselves. Most if all, I blame authoritarian upbringing. See: Reward diversity in preventing addictions

There is a widespread claim that game designer, advertiser, political campaigns, and the like, employ an army of brain researchers who design algorithms that can control the brains (see: brain hacking). Those claims are cast mostly in reference to new technologies that are not well understood. By analogy, we could say the same about literature or the movie industry. In theory, Hollywood could also employ behavioral experts who would churn profits by having audiences addicted. The main difference between movies and games is not that the latter are a more dangerous medium.
The main difference is that most adults watch movies, and fear no movie addiction. Very few adults are gamers with an actual understanding of their rewarding nature. We tend to fear things we do not understand.

In all above deliberations I forgot to add that videogames carry tremendous educational value. I used to say that the only kids around who speak foreign languages are those who spent some time abroad. Today I see more and more children who master English by playing computer games.

The potential of videogames is virtually limitless. This is why they should be explored. Free kids are great explorers of the new.

I want to keep pushing us past the limit of what we agree on. In your argument against set limits on screen time you write:

From my point of view, looking for a specific number of optimum screen time can be compared to looking for the optimum amount of jogging per day for everyone, or optimum sleep length

I agree with this! Let’s start there. Do you agree with the following statements?

  • Choices about how much to exercise or how much to sleep are consequential choices, and our ability to make these choices can improve with reflection, knowledge, and practice.

  • Adults and other mentors have an important role to play in helping children learn to make good choices, including how much time to spend playing games on the phone?

If you do, then we are pushed into a more challenging zone of how to fulfill our role. (In some of your writing you seem to say: "Do nothing! Free children will make the best decision without adult involvement.)

I think value judgements about a child’s learning are no different from any other value judgements. Therefore, tolerance for diversity is important, even if it happens to be children’s judgements with which you disagree. That is very challenging for adults because of: 1) lack of empathy from the adult brain (which @Woz mentioned previously), and 2) a sense of superiority.

Lack of empathy may be inherent due to the changes that occur in all brains as they mature. However, the sense of superiority is more remediable. Views on natural superiority have changed with respect to slavery, women’s rights, indigenous people, people of darker skin colour, etc.

In this specific case, we know that children adapt to whatever world they are born into. The same child born in ancient Greece or modern China will live as a native to its surrounds. In today’s rapidly changing society, each generation is largely born into a different world. It makes sense that children could adapt more effectively themselves than if we taught them from our obsolete views.

While the context can look scarily different to an adult, the human experience is largely the same. As Peter Gray says about online multiplayer games: “Making friends within the game requires essentially the same skills as making friends in the real world. You can’t be rude. You have to understand the etiquette of the culture you are in and abide by that etiquette. You have to learn about the goals of a potential friend and help that individual to achieve those goals.

Dismissal of video games misses the fact that they can be the most efficient way to learn what adults want their kids to learn: literacy, numeracy, social skills, decision making, problem solving, etc.

What I would really like is to avoid putting the cart before the horse. This thread about the “learn drive” was born from our agreement that there is a natural instinct or drive to learn. I suggest we explore that in much more depth by looking at examples of what drives “natural learning” in the absence of planned instruction.

For example, I gave two examples earlier of people I know who learned maths very easily out of a real-life need, even after they developing toxic memories of math at school. You also gave a great example of learning Spanish of your own accord. I think those examples, and discussions around them, can provide the basis for agreement about the internal forces that truly drive learning, because there is no confounding effect of deliberate planning by some authority.

Once we reach more agreement about how and why such learning occurs, we can begin to discuss how to accelerate that natural learning through interventions like:

  • external planning by some authority
  • limiting screen time
  • driving kids away from video games and towards books
  • promoting family values
  • coercing children under special circumstances

Until we agree (more) on what the learn drive is, we will find it difficult to agree on whether or not those interventions help or hinder it.

@Zon So you take us back to the beginning: What is the learn drive?

I like this spiral. In the email conversation that preceded bringing the topic here I paraphrased (possibly badly, I don’t have the book handy) Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi: where he uses the experience of focusing our eyes to illustrate the pleasure we take in making/finding coherence. When our attention is drawn to something that (for some reason…!) we don’t want to ignore, we begin to try to make sense of it – can you say “by necessity?” Shall we look for the roots of the learn drive there, in our participation from before birth in forming ourselves in relation to a coherent world?

I agree. Jogging, sleep and learning are all subject to homeostatic regulation. Those needs can balance nicely without interference. However, if the exercise time dwindles, or sleep is insufficient or late, assistance is welcome.

I mentioned here that total freedom in modern world may result in maladaptations in areas such as sleep, food and exercise. These are the areas where we drastically stepped away from conditions in which we evolved.

Interestingly, I cannot say to what degree problems in those areas are inevitable. In all those fields there is an interfering hand of the adult world. We would need to study radical unschoolers. Unlike ancient tribes, they have access to electricity, fridge and a warm sofa. Do they fall victim of inevitable dysregulation? I am not sure. School and authoritarian parenting cause a cascade of problems with brain control systems. Diet, sleep and exercise are primary victims. Trouble with computer games may follow. This way a child may spiral out of the ability to self-regulate. This perpetuates the cycle of authoritarianism.

Our roles should easily be achieved with non-coercive means. When all things fail, there is always a contract. Total freedom is possible, welcome, and morally necessary.

In the light of this thread, the learn drive is our best ally. This is the force that helps us become human, and it will help us step up to a new level.

perhaps “the same skills and more…”?

I have recently witnessed a case of two young social misfits meet remotely in a computer game. Their exchange of affections was out of this world. They both knew which buttons to press, how to jump in joy, how to wave, and what to say. They had to execute a complex social code straight from the keyboard. The wave of joy seemed to have no end despite the fact the guys have met previously (in real) only a few times and had few memories of those encounters.

This inspired a thought that those who follow the prescription of Manfred Spitzer and have no access to digital technologies before the age of 18, can be seriously socially handicapped … in an entirely new way!

I know quite a few children who are home schooled, but only one who is radically unschooled. One of their parents is employed as a school teacher in a public school, and is a well informed, committed, and sympathetic person. Another parent is a writer. Older siblings were also radically unschooled. The child I know is by far the most independent I’ve met here in the Bay Area. The unschooling principles followed in their household include permission to walk and bike everywhere they want, and they range far more widely that other children, see more of the world, experience more dangers, use more resourcefulness. I admire them and like them. I do notice both light and shadows; they are a human being after all. If there’s a value in talking to each other about individual cases, I think it lies in reminding ourselves about the range of what is possible to do without evident harm, rather than in giving us evidence of optimal solutions.

@Woz You are frustrating me in this statement:

Our roles should easily be achieved with non-coercive means. When all things fail, there is always a contract. Total freedom is possible, welcome, and morally necessary.

I already know that this is your deeply held belief. But I remain unconvinced, and restating your conviction doesn’t help me. What does total freedom mean? Don’t we have to follow grand declarations with concrete instances in order to understand better? I don’t think you can achieve the kind of freedom you are referring to without cultivation; for instance, models and instruction that helps you articulate, commit to, and rebel against the values of your society. That’s education! Concretely, it means a teacher or parent saying: “This is important to learn.” But just saying that doesn’t mean you are learning. @Zon says: we should discuss “what the learn drive is” because protecting and serving the learn drive is the most important thing we can do to assist with learning. How do we do this?

@Woz @Zon A possibly illustrative edge case. This is influence. Is it coercion?

Another interesting example, which I learned about at a Bay Area school:

For all 6th graders there is a compulsory class that teaches group discussion practice. Before each class, a short text is sent the students. (For instance, a newspaper article.) In the class, 12 students sit in a circle of desks facing inward, and 12 additional students sit in a larger circle around the inner circle. After a little while, the students switch positions, with the inner circle students moving outward, and outer students moving inward. The students in the inner circle discuss the article. The goal is to discuss openly, share opinions and ideas, and – importantly – to understand something about what their classmates are thinking. While the discussion occurs among students in the inner circle, students in the outer circle (and the teacher) take notes on the discussion. The notes are about the content of the discussion, and also about the process of discussion. Before switching their seats, the students taking the notes share their observations. The discussions are evaluated as good discussions if there is complete or or nearly complete participation from all students, if a range of ideas and questions are articulated, and people treat each with respect; for instance, not interrupting. This is a favorite class among the students (I heard from them), and improves the quality of other classes in the school.

A few things relevant to our discussion:

This is “learning how to learn.”
It is value laden and highly structured.
It is fun for students but under the ultimate control of teachers, who design the process and can intervene to enforce the values.

PS I think you will already know that, while I think it’s important to see the connection between this exercise and democratic civic life, I don’t assert that it teaches universally valid approaches. I once met somebody who described his education in a Buddhist monastery through intense, almost violent verbal debates. See the below excerpt from Discipline and Debate: The Language of Violence in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery By Michael Lempert