Good Enough To Get Better

This is an essay about knowledge transfer — teaching, learning and competence.

The “goal” of learning

I have always been passionate about learning, about discovering new things and explaining them first to myself and then to others. I believe education, as in providing people with skills and knowledge that gives them more and better options in life, to be among the most efficient social betterment tools available.

Over the years I have learned and found myself teaching several niche skills, like practicing a #ketogenic way of life, programming Ruby (on Rails) and playing chess.
Learning about keto directs my choice of food in a scientific manner and helps me avoid health problems. I will never reach a stage where I “know keto”, it’s an ongoing process.
Learning about programming helps me be more productive and happy at my job — by learning I can get more done by doing less. I will never reach a stage where I “know programming”, it’s an ongoing process.
Learning about chess helps me make better moves and put the hurt on opponents. I will never reach a stage where I “know chess”, it’s an ongoing process.

In retrospect, there is a crucial difference between the “goal” of learning either of these things and skills I obtained in school. The difference lies in the answer to the question “what do I want to be able to do once I learn this skill?”. In the case of the recent trio, the answer is, in essence, “I want to be able to solve problems (better)”. However, of the things I learned in school, I can not say this.
The purpose of learning to read — to know how to read.
The purpose of learning math — to know math.
The purpose of learning history — to know history.

Looking back on my education, both formal and informal, as well as my own teaching efforts, I have come to a realization that the most efficient outcome of learning is reaching a stage where any further learning can be achieved on one’s own, without any additional “teaching”. Furthermore, this state ought also be full of not only possibility, but desire to learn more.

I believe that optimizing for this would yield a society that is far more intellectually robust and capable of greater ingenuity and discovery. Optimizing for such learning outcomes would also require a considerable re-think in terms of formal education.

The basis of this bootstrapping education would be formed from two tiers of skills:

  1. Understanding and living efficaciously in the world of the present.
  2. Having bold ideas about life in the future.

The bootstrap education

Recently I was considering how I would go about teaching chess to an adult who has never played the game.
This is no trivial challenge. I would definitely have to explain how the pieces move, what the objective is, what the general rules are. That would enable my pupil to “play the game”, but, frankly, with such bare-bones instruction, their game would be poor and would not provide much enjoyment to anyone. And there is so much more to teach — algebraic notation to “read and write chess”, chess etiquette, openings and their tactical ideas, endgame strategy, tactics, pawn structure, position quality, material, using engines in analysis, etc. etc. What should dictate the priority of instruction?

It seems to me that an excellent strategy and goal for teaching chess could be to get my pupils good enough, so that they become even better after the tutoring is over.
That would mean the absolute essentials, but also some “chess fluency” skills like reading algebraic notation, analyzing a position and determining the most promising moves and the principles behind it, as well as providing inspiration to play chess, be it with igniting a pupil’s competitive spirit, or giving historical context of great characters in chess and their achievements.

We could structure general learning in a similar manner.
Teach reading, writing and math, yes. Teach critical thinking, general science, programming and health for that world literacy. Teach expecting the inevitable in technology and personal life for that bold future.

And, yes, absolutely teach programming. Recently there was the Please don’t learn to code VS Please do learn to code and the pro movement clearly has the upper hand, especially with the point that

Coding isn’t some niche skill. It really is “the new literacy.”

Please consider where you can become good enough to get better or help others get good enough to get better, go the extra mile and make a permanent change.

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