The Learn Drive

Perhaps the lines are blurry in everyday life, but if we are talking about formal school environments, there is typically a very clear power differential between adults and children.

As long as there is a standard curriculum in place, then decisions about what to learn are entirely out of the hands of students. In Australia, Maths, Science, English and the Humanities are compulsory until year 10 (about 16 years old). Here, the final say is clearly and unquestionably in the hands of adults and out of the hands of students.

In the classroom, the question of how to learn is also almost entirely in the teacher’s hands. Finally, the question of if it’s learned is entirely up to the teacher (or examiner, etc.) to answer.

It is true that these adults often make ongoing judgments and adjust their approach, but when the learners themselves aren’t involved - in setting the curriculum, or deciding how to learn in class, or how they would like to be assessed, or whether or not they have succeeded in any meaningful way - then the process is disempowering and fosters a dependent, rather than independent, attitude.

I totally agree with your (@Zon) criticism of standard curriculum in formal school environments, and I think we’re beginning to outline the “zone of work.” Let’s stipulate that lining kids up with textbooks and worksheets and coercing them into learning a set of material for regurgitation is no good. But what comes next after this stipulation? @Woz is an advocate of total freedom. (Maybe you both agree.) I’m prepared to be convinced, but I’m not yet. I’m going to say that the null hypothesis is not “total freedom” but rather best practices of progressive educators with golden hearts (as Piotr says) who work to figure out, along with their students, what is the best approach both individually and collectively. We aren’t operating in a vacuum, but with the benefit – that is, if you consider it a benefit – of over a century of work since Democracy and Education. If this work hasn’t been well integrated, and even been rejected; well, let’s win our arguments and defeat our enemies.

I would remove “for regurgitation” and agree with the rest of it because:

  1. Everyone would agree with attacking that strawman. Teachers will say they are teaching a set of material for understanding. If no one thinks they are teaching for regurgitation, we aren’t saying anything important.
  2. The predefined “set of material” is the key point, which includes within it the seeds for coercion, and the reason for uniformity and lack of room for learners to make indepedent choices about what to learn.

I would like to think of myself as such an educator. Many of my students certainly love my approach, which includes a great deal of freedom to go tangents and develop their individual strengths. The principal of my school took a small survey of teaching strategies that students enjoyed and many mentioned my classes and my unique approaches. I’m proud of this. And yet there are deep problems.

Firstly, my students are comparing me to other teachers. In that context, I charitably think of myself only as the friendly jailor, who makes their stay most enjoyable.

Secondly, when they venture too far on a tangent, no matter how much valuable learning is involved, I know I have to put an end to it because it steals time from the “set of material” that I will give them a mark on. A lot of pain can be created if I let students spend time in class enjoying youtube videos on astronomy, but they then get a bad mark on their biology test (which they were meant to be studying for instead of learning astronomy). They will think “I’m not good at science” or worse, “I hate science”.

Hence, no matter how progressive a golden hearted teacher is, the curriculum and assessment regime creates the ultimate boundaries within which all thought must be constrained.

From an Occam’s razor perspective, I still think the null hypothesis should begin with the most basic factor: the individual. Any other intervention - no matter how progressive or enlightened - is an additional causal factor, which needs additional justification. The more extreme the factor, the more justification is required. In this case, we are talking about educators influencing many aspects of development from childhood to adulthood. The fact that this is ubiquitous is no evidence to its effectiveness.

I think the century of debate, and the difficulty of integration, has shown that - like politics - there will never be a clear winner. In the same way that societies have become more secular, allowing a wide variety of religions and beliefs to coexist, I think that the only solution is for society to become more “secular” in terms of these debates, and allow many more schooling systems to coexist - including @Woz’s total freedom.

Your creative output tells me that you will find it very easy to subject yourself to self-observation and see how the learn drive makes you choose A over B in learning (given an absolute absence of coercion of circumstances). Why do you choose Book A over Book B? Would you accept someone’s advice in that choice? How would your pleasure of reading, attention, creativity and memory be affected if someone else came and commanded, against your will, that you must read the book you did not choose to read? You do not need to read science papers to quickly figure it out for yourself that you are wired to love learning, and that this love thrives on autonomy, freedom and peace. Only if you had doubts would I bother you to wade through my own take in “Pleasure of learning”.

I agree. It is 3 am in Poland, and I am biased, but you framed the issue of coercion beautifully! This reminds me of the best words from John Holt. However, Gary used the term “candy for vocabulary”, which has two interpretations with two different verdicts:

A. A child is told: “if you learn those 10 words, you will get candy”. The adult chooses the words, child’s learn drive is overridden by extrinsic reward. Bad.

B. A child has learned 10 words and is not motivated to do a review (e.g. in spaced repetition). The learn drive has been respected. Candy is only serving as a prop in the lesser “pleasure of knowing” (we know from SuperMemo that it may turn into a “displeasure of not knowing”). Candy glucose might even turn out beneficial in learning :yum: OK (or good)

I disagree. An autonomous child can very quickly learn to say “no”. This keyword clearly separates freedom from coercion.

In any learning decision there is definitely an ultimate decider. The discussions can go on overnight, but it is essential who drops the flag at the end. If the flag is held by the child, she is the boss, and the learn drive is safeguarded

If only 5% of the population followed your lead in that, you would transform the world. However, I am looking for theoretical optima, not social and/or cultural optima. I am like those presidential candidates on the extreme left: the idea is bigger than the need to win :slight_smile:

I stand with “total freedom”. Lesser knowledge cannot diminish my human rights as much as is the case with disabilities, race, sexual orientation, and the like. Even more, I argue that total freedom is actually beneficial for learning. This is why the learn drive is so important. Someone might be tempted to reduce freedoms in the name of efficient learning or “child’s own good”.

We are not free from death, taxes, law, and the like. Kids are not free to ally with the second law of thermodynamic. Their rulebook can be one sentence long: “Do not destroy. If you are not sure, ask up”.

The issue of freedom prompted me to delineate it more precisely in “Optimization of behavioral spaces in development

I would simplify the above and posit that all we need is to end compulsory schooling. This almost meets the conditions of “total freedom” if we neglect the fact that 99% of the kids will still not be free because the burden of coercion will be taken over by their parents. I fear parental coercion even more than systemic coercion.

[quote=“Zon, post:23, topic:7683”]
In the same way that societies have become more secular, allowing a wide variety of religions and beliefs to coexist, I think that the only solution is for society to become more “secular” in terms of these debates, and allow many more schooling systems to coexist - including @Woz’s total freedom[/quote]

Educational choice is essential. However, “total freedom” is not just one of many options. Educational choice implies total freedom. If a child chooses a rigorous school with a tough curriculum, it is not coercion. This is a contract with possible coercive clauses taken on voluntarily. It is kid’s best own interest to enter into a such contract with some reasonable exit clause.

Here are some comments that I made while reading yesterday’s messages from Gary and George:

  • again: coercion in football is not a good research ground because of procedural learning, non-neural “learning”, etc. … this is pretty removed from the concept of the learn drive
  • “beating is criminal” is a phrase that carries a generalization that would penalize a mom who saves a kid’s life with a slap (in Gershoff vs. Larzelere battle, I stand with Larzelere as the brain science beats statistics biased by a good heart)
  • coercion is any override of a child’s will, which may be beneficial in a microscopic push zone
  • teamwork is based on implied contracts, and team members enter the contract voluntarily. This is not coercion. This is adaptation where group goals temporarily override individual goals. Learning to co-operate is taking priority over individual learning
  • adaptation to teamwork is a choice. For someone who wants to work in NASA, teamwork practice is good. For someone who wants to solve the greatest questions of mathematics, the priority of teamwork may be less, and solo efforts adds extra benefit in autonomy and self-dependence
  • if there is frustration in learning, we know something is dangerously wrong. This would be the red flag to backtrack and provide more space for the kid’s brain to recover.
  • to all parents of late talkers I recommend Sowell’s books on the subject or my own precocity paradox. Late development trajectory must be ruled out before interventions begin! I can only imagine how modern school would torture Einstein with therapy only to stifle all his creative spirit. These days, the drive to succeed translates to a drive to academic instruction, and drive to therapy and then drive to medication
  • I am very curious what conclusions you drew from Vicky Hearne for our discussion. Animal training may be a very bad metaphor because all training is based on conditioning. If this is love and rewards, I have no issues. The dog will fetch a ball on instinct. But there is no learn drive to make it dance vertically on a ball on its own
  • the adult can influence the learning trajectory by modifying the environment and by suggestions. The entire adult world should serve a child with assistance. We used to say “it takes a village”, and we drive to the point when an adult talking to a kid is viewed with suspicion. I talk to hundreds of kids and try not to pay attention to the rest of the world

Your macro-metaphor of lining up textbooks works also at the micro-level in micro-decisions (e.g. which YouTube icon I click, or which hyperlink in Wikipedia I follow). Those decisions must be autonomous. If we could demonstrate the optimality of the learn drive valuations, we could show that only total freedom ensures optimum education. There is a problem of local minima in all optimization problems. This is why the learn drive must be partly stochastic (creative). This way, the same learn drive, in the same environment, for two identical brains will produce vastly different outcomes. This aspect of chaos makes it hard to prove optimality, however, this can be tackled by demonstrating the value of educational diversity (e.g. by analogy to evolution and the development of ecosystems, which stand a metaphor for society).

There is a simple metaphor for the superiority of the learn drive over direct instruction. In mountain climbing, the adult may see the summit, but the child can see the path. The adult will always attempt to deterministically go for the summit in sight. The child may climb to new heights (i.e. new discoveries). The view of the path ensures local optimality of the climb, and global optimality for a population of climbers. This way the individual climb does not need to be globally optimal nor deterministic.

I agree with George that adding the word “regurgitation” dramatically weakens your stipulation and makes the thesis easy to circumvent.

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?

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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.