The Learn Drive

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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.

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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

Spiral is a nice term. Perhaps each time we disagree about interventions (e.g. coercion, group discussion practice, etc.) it can remind us to make sure that we’re not actually disagreeing about the more fundamental drivers of learning.

Let’s start by breaking down the idea of the learn drive a bit further.

One aspect that we all agree on is the universal desire for comprehension. As your quote illustrated, confusion is naturally repulsive and people will instinctively expend energy in order to reach understanding - even if the only conclusion is that something is not worthy of more attention. That conclusion is actually very important in conserving our limited capacity to learn.

However, there is at least one other aspect that we do not yet agree on, which is actually causing most of the debate about coercion, freedom and influence. It concerns the ability of learners to decide for themselves what is most valuable to learn next. In making these decisions as they learn, is it possible for a learner do a better job than an expert? If there is any natural instinct involved, how does it work?

Perhaps we can discuss some illustrative examples?

Oh, I like this very much!

However, there is at least one other aspect that we do not yet agree on, which is actually causing most of the debate about coercion, freedom and influence. It concerns the ability of learners to decide for themselves what is most valuable to learn next.

I added emphasis to the vitally important word “next.” With this word you introduce the idea that “degrees of resolution” in tracing the path of learning matter when we discuss the best education approach. Let me be extra explicit about why I like this idea.

You didn’t write, but you might easily have written, simply: “the ability of learners to decide for themselves what is most valuable to learn.” As you know, I will disagree with you about that. There are many different things that are valuable to learn, and our decision about what to learn can never be an isolated individual decision. It will always involve others, and where our relationships are highly dependent (for instance, a child in a family, or a novice studying in a trade or profession), control by authorities will play some role. We can think about what is the right role, as long as this “some role” is granted. So if you had written what you didn’t write, and proposed that individual learners always have the ability to decide for themselves what is valuable to learn; well, in that case I’d insist you were wrong, and have many examples of cases where authorities must play a role.

But, in fact, you added a powerful “next.” Let me try to finish your thought, and you can tell me if you think I’ve made it too much my own. The fuel for learning is desire to learn. The strength of this desire is more sensitive to interference than we typically acknowledge. If desire to learn is active, and a learner’s attention is attracted to a topic or problem that seems to them worth solving, you must not interfere. Whatever gain you achieve by directing their attention to the “right” problems will be offset by interference in their pleasure in learning, interference that can easily become a more general inhibition.

(Freud takes a related position when analyzing the cause of stupidity: He says that shaming children about their questions about sex while enforcing belief in religious dogma has more global effects: eventually shame in curiosity and tolerance of incoherence becomes general.)

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Let’s start here, so that I can surprise you with total agreement! :slight_smile: In fact, the external context of family, economy, government, etc., are precisely why I trust learners to choose their own path. Those factors are just so strong and omnipresent that they almost guarantee that a child will, on the whole, independently choose to learn things that strongly align with their social context.

Idzie Desmarais is a great example. Unschooled as a child, she is now an adult and has a blog titled “Yes, I Can Write”. She learned to speak and read and write, but not because a specific curriculum of knowledge was installed into her head. Rather, she made independent decisions to learn those things because, like all of us, she has a strong desire to connect with society and the rest of the world.

Crucially, I think those factors are what truly drove us all to learn to speak and read and write. However, this insight is heavily obscured by the existence of a system that takes the credit. Many important learning experiences did indeed happen at school for us, but only because that’s where we spent most of our time. However, Peter Gray’s surveys of grown unschoolers show that if we hadn’t spent all day in classes we would still have learned all those interesting and useful things necessary for college, work and life. This makes me consider school to be a massive placebo that improves confidence rather than learning.

This takes us back to @Woz’s mountain metaphor. Even if adults can see a worthy summit, each child can best see the paths that can lead him one step forward from his current position.

Combining the two components (i.e. the natural desire for comprehension + clarity of the path(s) immediately ahead) we get a more sophisticated picture of the learn drive as a process that seeks the fastest path to a marginal improvement in comprehension.

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Individual cases are useful in establishing the probability that the discussed model is right. Once we have a good model, why should we not speak of an optimality of a solution given a set criterion (in our case “developing an intelligent brain”)?

Total freedom needed to be restated in the context of sleep, food and exercise control problems, because these were the areas that cast doubts on side effects of total freedom. Total freedom is nothing else than the freedom, as defined above, with the emphasis on “no exceptions necessary”. A concrete instance is the discussed freedom to play videogames. It is a great example because, in addition to the coercion of schooling, this is one of the prime freedoms taken away from kids. The only rebellion against “values in society” is the well-justified abolition of the myth that “school is good” and replacing it with the opposite and universal truth that “coercion in learning is bad” or “without pleasure there is no good learning”.

Some remarks to the rest of your text:

  1. The best assistance for the learn drive is (1) non-interference and (2) provision of knowledge-rich environments. For example, one laptop per child, or hole in the wall, are great ways of assisting the learn drive
  2. The tweet from Dana M. Lewis is sweet. I would only caution that it is the fourth link in the communication chain, which can easily be subject to severe distortion through generalizations, cognitive biases, behavioral mythology, etc. The only true way to assert coercion is to ask a child and/or look for a smile. A smile on “Love books” may equally well mean a smile on “Love being with other smiling faces”.
  3. Similarly, true value of “group discussion practice” can be found in interview. It may happen that it would work for 11 students and not for one outlier.
  4. I love the idea of the debate becoming kung fu. As long as all participation is voluntary :slight_smile:

I see the above as an unnecessary “complication” of a very simple model in which all knowledge is evaluated by the knowledge valuation network.

Decisions guided by the learn drive rely on the knowledge valuation network for value comparison. The comparator is an essential part of the control system involved. All extrinsic influences will be filtered by the network. They can be accepted, rejected, or opposed via reactance. Their valence will depend on other components of the network. The ultimate decision is always “isolated individual decision” due to the fact that it happens “inside the brain”.

Examples would be helpful to clarify terminological discrepancies. Not only do we have the ability to decide. We keep deciding all the time. A brain immersed in an environment will continually learn. On occasion, upon coercion, it will even attempt to resolve a hard case of incoherent learning and deposit vestiges of coerced knowledge. The decision is always derived directly from the knowledge valuation network.

Here is more evidence that we are using words differently, or modeling the processes differently because the two prior statements are contradictory (by my glossary). We must not interfere because the ability to decide generates optimum learning trajectory (and the pleasure of learning)

George agreed only because he stepped away from the model of decision making in the brain. All decisions are “isolated individual decisions” because they are a reflection of processing “inside” the brain. Other individuals can affect valuations by planting knowledge, changing the environment, painting specific valuation, etc. All those effect will be filtered by the knowledge valuation network and produce “isolated individual” outcome. That outcome may or may not by influenced by extrinsic efforts from others.

I think we struggle because my model speaks of a neural decision tree that is pretty deterministic and lives inside the brain.

Metaphorically speaking, like the designers of the education systems around the world, you seem to believe that you can break the tree trunk by massaging the leaves of the decision tree. In reality, you can only plant individual coherent memory traces that can be associated with valuations. What brain does with your influences is entirely up to the brain. The reactance component may produce outcomes opposite to those desired.

@Woz My love for you leads me to aggressive response in martial arts style: The assertions you are making strike me as ideological. That is, what I understand you to be proposing is an abstract model, described by means of common use words redefined to have specialized meanings in reference to other specialized words. (That is, jargon.) Let me ask about a concrete instance:

It is the evening before the first night of Passover. A child, as the youngest at the Seder, will have a special role to play, asking the “four questions” that begin the recitation of the legend of the flight from Egypt. The child is proud of this role and has been looking forward to it. There are some challenges, since the service is in Hebrew and English, so the pride goes along with some nervousness. But a little review will help.

In the evening, old cousins are playing video games. They have high skill and the youngest wants to stay up late into the evening watching them. They aren’t very enthusiastic about this, having their own teenage topics to discuss. It is far past bedtime and the youngest is cranky, in part because of conflicting desires, in part because of pride. The youngest doesn’t want to be excluded even though they want to go to bed, and even though they want to have a fresh brain tomorrow for a busy day and a long Seder. A meltdown is coming.

I find this an easy puzzle to solve. I say: "My dear, you must go to bed now. Your brain must be fresh for tomorrow so you can be part of the ritual and play your role. You will have plenty of time to play these games. Later, I may ask the older cousins to be kind to the younger one and offer some instruction and special attention in the video game department.

In sketching this “pedagogical situation” :slightly_smiling_face: I think: Hooray for adult authority.

Question: Do you find it too coercive?

An valid abstract model is always a great tool to make mental computations. If the model is solid, prescriptions are likely to be excellent. You can call “modeling” ideological, but we all do it in our own areas of interest all the time: at work, in politics, in religion, etc. In this case, the fact that the model is a bit counterintuitive leads to a cascade of reactions based on the natural tendency of the brain to defend its own models. That can be frustrating, and the frustration is greatest if the semantic distance is huge.

Do you find this pictorial expression of the war at school more convincing?

The key phrase in your story is " the youngest is cranky, in part because of conflicting desires, in part because of pride".

It seems to indicate that a healthy sleep drive is in action, and needs no assistance. The troubled part is “conflicting desires” and “pride”. In a well-balanced system the kid should naturally drift to bed.

The tough part may come from the unpredictable environment. On one day the kid is free to go to sleep, on the other day, he is exposed to peer pressure or social pressure to stay up. This is a clear departure from a healthy hunter-gatherer scenario. Off the top of my head, the best approach is to avoid similar disruptions in the same way as we avoid friends coming for a party at 3 am without invitation.

If there is an internal conflict, the adult may approach and the kid may be conducive to non-coercive solution, esp. that all ingredients are in place except for the “disruption”.

My final verdict is that the adult should show a bit of foresight and engineer the environment that would provide a “protected zone” that is vital for sleep, creativity, health, learning, happy life, etc. If there is a “protect zone” instilled as a habit, and fortified with some adult commentary, it will become hard-wired as obvious and good.

In short, don’t invite cousins in the “protected zone”, or negotiate “protected zone” when visiting cousins. Or, if everything else fails, negotiate a contract solution with a kid in advance (e.g. “there will be cousin threat in 3 days, we must stick to the usual bed times or all things around will collapse. I suggest we … [quid pro quo if necessary]” :slight_smile:

I think my scenario is more realistic, even if rewritten into just-so stories about typical hunter gatherers, who may actually be even more mythical than flight from Egypt! That is: complex social environment, not lab conditions. Lots of people around. Conflicting demands and desires. Wisdom needed in exercising authority. Freedom gained steadily through reflection on relationship between chosen actions and required actions, ability to predict short and long term consequences, love and responsibility toward others. To me this is the rich language of education - would you permit the pretentious Bildung? - that is needed to think about the problem. With this approach you don’t have to anticipate all the eventualities and engage in contracts, because you build trust that allows improvisation in facing less than fully predictable realities.

Please refer back to my text above. We are speaking about sleep. We do not sleep in complex social environments. We sleep in a bed in a quiet room. This is not a throwback to hunter-gatherers. This is the most basic human need required for intelligent functioning. This does not even require a cultural paradigm shift. All humans know instinctively that sleep should be protected.

At the time when a kid needs to sleep, he should be in a protected zone. If it cannot defend itself, it is the adult’s job to provide.

Do you say it is too abstruse to comprehend? Can we not find a mind with a good sense of folk wisdom who could translate science models into a pop story? Holt and Green succeeded big time (as testified by 2 million homeschoolers in the US). Is it too much to demand that all learning must be pleasurable?