The Basics: Formal education and its limits

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In our previous post we went over some very basic definitions on reality, language, and how they both differ. We also came to the conclusion that there are things that language cannot capture about our experiences and how forgetting that language and reality differ allows us to believe the lies we tell ourselves about who we are, and what the world is like. In this post we’ll deal with how our inability to distinguish language from reality affects the formal education system and imposes limits on it.

On formal education and play

The basic gist of formal education is the systematization of learning in terms of content (in the form of curricula), delivery (by trained professionals), and evaluation, with the key word being systematization.

As you probably remember from your younger days, us humans are experts at learning through play. Successful games have the previous elements of learning: how to play and win are the content, the delivery tends to be through practice as well as trial and error by the players, and the evaluation is done by keeping a score. Unsurprisingly, as games become more sportslike and winning takes precedence over having fun or experimentation, the elements of learning also become systematized.

Building things up

It is this sistematization that is both a curse and a blessing, since it provides a framework in which different topics can be interwoven in a logical order, but it also gives the illusion that humanity’s best ideas, discoveries and inventions actually came about in a logical order, almost as if by design. However, all this sistematization rests upon language, both as a means of planning, execution, and evaluation, but also as one of the subjects that needs to be mastered.

It is then that, if we’re unaware of the limits of language, those limits can inadvertently turn into problems whether we act as teachers or as students. Questions like what should be taught, how it should be taught, with what depth, by whom, how should it be evaluated (as an aside, consider whether teaching, learning, or both should be evaluated in a system like this), how often should curricula be revised, and others have a greater depth than their literal meaning.

And breaking them down

The reason for this greater depth is as follows: If, as we’ve seen, language is incapable of transmiting all the information regarding an experience, feeling, or idea, it is also incapable of fully transmiting given piece of information. It is therefore necessary to break down subjects and topics into the bits and pieces that can be successfuly transmited through language. Complex ideas need to be broken down, concepts need to be simpler and the relationships and influences between them are ignored or simplified.

Although a level of abstraction and simplification can be used successfully by some disciplnes (physics pride FTW!), the applicability of simplified concepts and ideas is not universal, and there is a break-even point beyond which simplification does more harm than good. Rarely, however, does formal education show the limits of what it teaches because it’s set up for subjects to constantly build upon what was learned previously. In other words, as students progress from one grade to another, the ideas they are taught increase in complexity and are intended to round-up what they’ve previously learned, it’s just that some students never realize what is going on.

The bigger picture

Some things cannot be taught in school. Not because of religious, legal or financial reasons, but because the environment of formal education is not conducive for some stuff. Given the dependence of formal schooling on language, and the limitations of the latter, there is, therefore, a huge value to learning by doing. At the same time, formal education penalizes mistakes and errors, which are key to learning and improvement.

As cool as knowledge derived from theoretical models can be, nature has the last word when it comes to experimental results, and the same lesson can be applied to every facet of human life. Alongside formal education, there should be some encouragement for young students to explore their interests (like music, painting, theatre, gymnastics, and such) and to consider those interests as part of their development as individuals, rather than their development as students. There is a lot more to life than just academics, after all.

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