Thursday, March 01, 2012

A Better Way of Learning

One problem with the usual approach to education at all levels is that it mostly consists of having someone learn something not because he at the moment has any need to know it but because someone else told him to learn it, possibly on the grounds that the knowledge or skill will be useful at some time in the future. It is much easier to get someone to actually learn something if it is of immediate use to him. The best way of learning a computer language, in my view, is not to start by working your way through the manual but to start with a program you want to write. You then have an immediate incentive to learn what you need to write it, and immediate feedback as to whether you have succeeded.

That approach works in a wide variety of other contexts. When my home schooled son was about eleven or twelve, he was running a weekly D&D game for a group of other home schooled kids. It was good training in responsibility. Each week, when the other players showed up, he had to have already done all of the work of preparing that week's session—otherwise the game, his project, would fail. Each week he did. It was, I think, better training than if he had been a student with homework due on a regular schedule. The homework would have been someone else's requirement, with no justification other than someone else's orders. This was his project—and it was obvious what he had to do to make it work.

Suppose you are a comfortably well off parent. Almost everything your child wants—toys, books, games—is available to be bought at what is, in terms of your income, a trivial cost. That makes it hard to do a believable job of teaching your child the importance of saving, of deciding which things he really wants and which he can do without, skills that he will need, as an adult, to function in a world of limited resources.

If your child plays World of Warcraft, he will learn the relevant lesson with no need for you to impose arbitrary limits. He will have a limited amount of gold and a considerable variety of things he would like to spend it on. Increasing that amount will require him to spend time doing daily quests,  figuring out what he can craft and sell at a profit and crafting and selling it, or perhaps, if he is a mage, running a magical taxi service teleporting other characters hither and yon for pay. Whatever his effort, he will probably not end up with enough gold to buy everything he wants. Here again, the lesson works because it is, in its own odd way, real. These are the things he has to do in order to achieve the objectives he has himself chosen.

I was reminded of the same point today in a very different context. At lunch there was a talk on the Northern California Innocence Project, which is run out of, and largely staffed by, the law school I teach at. The purpose of the project is to identify people who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit and get their verdicts reversed and them released. While the project involves some lawyers and at least one faculty member, a lot of the work is done by law school students. Seen from one side, the purpose is to get innocents out of prison. Seen from the other, it is to help educate our students. 

Considered as education, it is a strikingly successful example of the  approach I have been discussing. The students are learning legal skills, how to interview witnesses, convince judges, prosecutors, juries, file the right paperwork, make the right legal arguments. They are learning those skills not because someone else has told them they will need them five years from now to do the work someone then will pay them to do, but because they need the skills now to do something they very  much want to do, to right a wrong, to rescue someone unjustly imprisoned. 

Pretty clearly, it works.


Avraham said...

In ancient America the idea of the self made man was popular. every child grew up hearing stories about Abraham Lincoln getting an education all on his own and passing the bar.. This was for some reason very much a part of Jewish education in America. It was an American ideal that the Jews that came over from Europe accepted. And to a large degree i agree with this ideal. however i do want to mention that it seems to me that to get proficient in nay field one does need a mentor or someone active in that field.

Xerographica said...

A better way of learning has to somehow involve being able to admit when we might have been wrong!

It also has to involve understanding that nobody has a monopoly on facts...aka Hayek's partial knowledge concept...which is why libertarians should RSS subscribe to the Crooked Timber Liberal website (see the above link).

In your post you mentioned having limited WoW gold and numerous ways to spend it...which is of course the opportunity cost concept. Which economist, if any, would you primarily credit with developing this concept? I have my own answer but it differs from that of a respected I was just curious to see what your answer might be.

DerekL said...

It's worth noting that the students taking part in the Innocence Project aren't virgin material... They come to project with some experience, some training, and a desire to participate.

IOW, something of an edge case to be extrapolated from only with great care.

David Friedman said...

"A better way of learning has to somehow involve being able to admit when we might have been wrong!"

The approach I am describing generally solves that problem for you. If the program you just wrote doesn't run, that's convincing evidence that something about how you wrote it is wrong. Similarly if the D&D game stalls half an hour in because you hadn't prepared your plot in enough depth or if, at a deeper level of failure, the players all drop out because they aren't having fun.

And similarly for the other examples.

David Friedman said...

On the question of opportunity cost, I have no idea who first came up with or developed the concept. Probably someone in antiquity.

Tom Crispin said...

We adopted Dean Ing's idea for teaching our home schooled daughter the concepts of saving and limited resources. At age 8 or 9 she was given a large allowance but was made responsible for many purchases.

At our next visit to the fast food restaurant, she asked if she could have an "ice cream" desert. When I said that she didn't have to ask because she was paying for it, her response was on the order of: "What! Spend my money on that s***? No way!

Andreas Collvin said...

I agree with the programming analogy to the extent where the problem domain is still fully covered, should it be a prerequisite to not impose a cost to the environment in which you're learning, greater than the advantages that will possibly be gained (who's included in the scope of the cost analysis is important too) from the acquisition of knowledge; both in terms of overall efficiency and unexpected side effects. This is indeed a real problem that I encounter daily; not as a pro. programmer (my C++/assembly is part of my spare time), but people learn, some don't (...), at the expense of other's. Then again, if you don't learn to ever bare the cost of your mistakes... Balance being the keyword.

jimbino said...

Half of the time spent in primary and secondary education is wasted. The problem is, you don't know which half.

I think it important to be exposed to music, math and foreign languages at a very early age, since it's so much harder to master any of them once you turn 25 and recognize a need.

English as a first language also needs to be mastered at an early age. I know high-flying physicists, for example, who teach economics & law, and whose writing shows a lack of exposure to 7th-grade English grammar and sentence diagramming.

Allan Walstad said...

Being an Austrian devotee, I thought I recalled that Wieser had invented the term "opportunity cost." So I checked and Wikipedia agrees. Must be true, right?

Xerographica said...

"If the program you just wrote doesn't run, that's convincing evidence that something about how you wrote it is wrong."

When I write a program...sometimes I have no idea why it doesn't run. So I end up removing sections of code in order to find the darn bug.

Why isn't the libertarian strategy working? Where's the bug in the code? Adam Smith argued that government should only do A, B, C, D...Bastiat argued that the government should only do A, B...Spencer argued that the government should only do A, B...Rothbard argued that the government should not do also argue that the government should not do anything...

Why isn't the code working? Where's the bug in the code? To throw in another analogy...what happens if a president is failing to pass a bill that has a dozen different items? How does he find the bug in his bill?

When it comes to the libertarian strategy...what would happen if we take out the section that involves arguing what the government should and shouldn't do? What would we be left with?'s all about ceteris paribus. The only thing that I argue is that taxpayers should be allowed to choose which government organizations receive their taxes.

Just like it's a good thing on WoW for people to consider the opportunity costs of how they spend their limited's also a good thing for taxpayers to consider the opportunity costs of how they spend their limited taxes.

We all intuitively understand the opportunity cost concept. The time you spend leveling one WoW character cannot also be spent leveling any of your other WoW characters. Therefore, we are forced to prioritize which WoW characters we value most.

What people do not intuitively understand though is that prioritizing how we spend our limited time/money is how resources are efficiently allocated. It's extremely difficult for people to grasp the value of millions and millions of taxpayers prioritizing which public goods they value the most.

A better way of learning has to involve being aware of confirmation bias. We have to be able to step away from our own perspectives on the proper scope of government in order to determine the actual scope of government.

Xerographica said...

Allan Walstad, right...he gets credit for the term itself...but what about Bastiat's essay on the Seen vs the Unseen?

"It is not seen that, since our citizen has spent six francs for one thing, he will not be able to spend them for another. It is not seen that if he had not had a windowpane to replace, he would have replaced, for example, his worn-out shoes or added another book to his library. In brief, he would have put his six francs to some use or other for which he will not now have them."

As David said...the concept has been around since forever...but did anybody before Bastiat really develop it to the same extent that he did? It seems most of essay is dedicated to the concept...which also covers the opportunity costs of war.

Allan Walstad said...

I'm a fan of Bastiat. Bastiat is combatting an economic fallacy by looking back at what might have been but is not.

As I understand it, the insight contributed by the Austrians was distinct, namely, that the significance of cost is its role in decision making: cost (as opportunity cost) is prospective, not retrospective (and it is subjective, not objective). People making decisions about how to allocate their time and resources, at the point of decision, pursue their first best option (as they see it), and necessarily forego other options. The best of those other options is the cost. Once a decision has been made and pursued, the opportunity to choose otherwise (back then) is gone. Moreover, you can't go back retrospectively and identify the cost of a decision without being able to re-create the mind of the chooser at the instant the choice was made, which so far is still impossible. I spent $30 on wine tonight, but you don't know the cost of that purchase unless you know how I valued the other things I might have done with the money, or even with my time.

Dr Hubert Jackson said...

Do you play wow? I liked that bit of economic reasoning. I came for the economics but was quite surprised to find not only WOW but also D&D references.

David Friedman said...

Yes I play WoW. And have discussed it occasionally in past posts.

L said...

Great post today, Professor. We've been homeschooling for 12 years now, and began to unschool about 2 years ago, taking a lot of your advice and outside-the-box ideas. Thanks for sharing so many of your experiences.

Dr Hubert Jackson said...

Ah, thanks. I'm new. I just found your blog from a friend and this was about the 2nd post I read. It's on my regular list now.

I was quite surprised to find a WOW reference while surfing for econ stuff and reading up on anarcho-capitalistism.

Dr Hubert Jackson said...

BTW, I play on Uldaman

Daniel said...

The older I get, the more jaded I am about my education. I haven't really thought about it very much, but I think you are certainly on to something here. Great post.

ALF said...

Schools serve the interests of the institutions or persons that finance and govern them, namely the state, the church, the parents. Schools and and universities make it difficult for children and young people to take part in economic life.

Anonymous said...

I think this is why chess is such an effective way of teaching kids how to think. They have the immediate incentive of winning the chess game and they are left to their own devices to figure out how to achieve this end. And it turns out the only way to do this is to think logically and learn to calculate. However, no one tells them to think logically, they learn to want this on their own.

Arnold Pears said...

This basic concept is the cornerstone of much modern pedagogy in higher education. While learner trust is sometimes required, providing creative and self motivating tasks that have immediate social and technical relevance clearly helps learners to engage.

Another aspect of this is personal agency, the ability to feel that you are making a difference to something. Many university learning tasks are theoretically sound, but lack a relevance to the learner's context. Why should I expect my learners to solve my problems, presumably they have problems of their own that they would like to solve, and that lead them to choose their educational profile in the first place.

Giving learners more freedom and creativity is a good first step to a more relevant higher education system for today's learner.

Unknown said...

Really great post, thanks for sharing this and i came to know about wow from this blog.

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