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Dieting and Education

October 30, 2014

In a recent TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson, a well-known speaker on education and creativity, compared the idea of education to the idea of dieting. He says, and I'm paraphrasing here, that education and learning are not the same thing, in the same way that dieting and losing weight aren't. Learning is the ultimate goal of education, just as losing weight is the goal of dieting. But I could be dieting without losing any weight, just as a school or a nation could be working on education, without really getting anyone to learn. There is a lot of truth to this analogy. There's a difference between focusing on education and focusing on learning, and for a society's education systems to thrive, it needs to shift its focus from improving education to improving learning.

Before I go into the topic in too much detail, let me first explain what I mean when I say that education isn't the same as learning. Learning is something that happens from self-motivation, to an individual. If Brian's sitting in a classroom or reading a book, he's learning. In other words, he's taking in information and processing it, understanding it and making the information his own, fitting the new knowledge in with what he already knows. But education is something quite different. So Brian's still sitting in a class, this time, it's a teacher that's educating Brian. She's pulling out pieces of information and presenting it to Brian for him to process and understand. But the key here is that even if there's some education going on from the teacher's point of view, Brian might not necessarily be learning. The information may just be bouncing out, either because he's not interested or it's not relevant to him. Dozens or hundreds of students could be each individually learning, or in the same situation, one teacher could be educating dozens or hundreds of students at once. Are you getting the picture? Learning is inherently an individual, internal process for each person, whereas education is an emissive, group process aimed at a large number of people. Learning is something that's motivated internally, initiated by the individual. Education is something that's initiated from an external source, coerced upon Education is just an initiative to get people to learn, not an end in itself. And that's where the problems come in.

The United States spends more on education than any other developed country in the world. For what purpose? It would seem obvious that the purpose of education is to get people to learn. That's what schools are for. But as Ken Robinson put it, you can talk an awful lot about education without ever talking about learning. Things like budget considerations, education politics, and the simple gap between scientific research on the subject and the practice prevent educators from really tackling the core problem of the issue, and just more finances and more testing aren't going to solve the problem.

There seems to be a general consensus over the policy-makers, the government, and the general public that says that for some ridiculous reason, the issue of producing better, more informed people is nothing different than producing high-quality, functional machines at a factory. The politicians and the public seem to think that as long as we keep track of things with a gigantic, overwhelming, and outdated pile of data through monolithic testing, and as long as we keep getting rid of the occasional defects through punishment, it'll somehow produce perfect, flawless, and high-performance "citizens" that chug along, making money in the society. If the sole goal of a country were to continue increasing its average per-capita income and neglect any human measure of success, why, that would be a fantastic choice! But as long as people have emotions*, economics is not the measure of success by any stretch of imagination. It's just a tool. Measuring the success of a society by how much money it has is akin to measuring the skills of an engineer by how many calculators he uses, or how many buttons his calculators have. The economics of a commmunity doesn't come near to determining its success, just as the number of colors an artist uses in a painting isn't an accurate measure of his expertise. What's important in education is not that people that come out of the system earn a lot of money or are all college professors**, but that they learned useful, practical knowledge that will improve the quality of their life in general. As long as a society concerns itself not with whether or not people are learning, but instead with whether or not their education policy is successful, their education policies, whatever they are, won't be successful. Not by a long shot.

Learning is a human process, whereas education is an industrial process. Just because we throw books, videos, lectures, and charts of information at them doesn't mean they'll get absorbed, let alone make meaningful impacts on the lives of the everyday students. If a society really wants to ensure that its education system is robust, it needs to ensure first that each student is learning useful and meaningful knowledge to him or her, and that this learning is having an impact in the student's life.

The United States right now is concerned with how effective its dieting plan is. It's concerned too much with how little it can eat and how much it can work out, and doesn't seem to care whether or not it's actually losing weight. Similarly, just because there's education happening doesn't mean its most fundamental goals are being met. And in this particular case, at this particular time, they're not being met. Information is being given out, tests are being taken, and people are graduating, but are schools and education policies really delivering on the promise to change people's lives? If we really care about learning, I think that's the question we need to answer first.

*And from what I've seen, it's going to be that way for a while, so don't hold your breaths

**Though in a good system, a decent fraction of them will be well-funded and rather intelligent