How to Be a “Great Student” and Learn Absolutely Nothing At All

If I wanted to find the smartest kids on the planet, where would I look?

Charles Chu
Jul 30, 2017 · 5 min read

Many people, I bet, would suggest the IPO — the International Physics Olympiad. Each year, high school students from around the world face off to hours and hours of difficult physics questions.

Only the best come out on top.

And for 11 of the last 25 years, the winners have come from a single country — China.

Why does China dominate?

One competitor from the UK comments:

“…the Chinese education system, coupled with discipline through fear works. … China starts preparation for the competition when their participants are just 8; they work ~16 hours a day on physics problems. The result? Winning with ease. … I’m currently [one of] the best physics students in the UK and I’d pay anything to have had an upraising like that, instead mine was consumed with PC games, and posting on forums.”

In middle school, I had my own taste of Chinese “discipline through fear.” In China for summer break, I joined a local swim team for a day. One of the girls was giggling to a friend’s joke. The coached walked up behind her, scolded her for having fun, and hit her on the head with heavy metal rod. She made sure not to laugh again.

Yes, when it comes to solving physics problems, the Chinese are the best in the world. But that leaves me with a question.

So what?

What does a show of mental acrobatics do for us? Who cares if you’re a bit faster than the kid across the room? And is it fair to call such a kid “smart”?

This reminds me of a conversation between Al Seckel and Richard Feynman — everyone’s favorite safe-cracker, prankster and Nobel-winning physicist:

“Several conversations that Feynman and I had involved the remarkable abilities of other physicists. In one conversation, I remarked to Feynman that I was impressed by Steven Hawking’s ability to do path integration in his head. Ahh, that’s not so great, Feynman replied. It’s much more interesting to come up with the technique like I did, rather than to be able to do the mechanics in your head. Feynman wasn’t being immodest, he was quite right. The true secret to genius is in creativity, not in technical mechanics.

Any competent graduate student can learn to solve problems fast. But to innovate, to invent a completely new way of solving problems or seeing the world — that’s what earns you the Nobel Prize.

You can’t beat a child into creativity.

10,000 Hours of Nothing

In middle school, I took first place at a regional math competition.

Why? My parents and teachers trained me to identify the “tricks” needed to solve problems fast. After countless hours of practice, I could glance at a problem, scribble a few notes, and have my answer faster than any other student.

Two problems with this approach.

First, I did not understand what I was doing.

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Feynman tells the story of his trip to Brazil. The students there could answer exam problems with incredible speed, but they could not apply their “knowledge” at all to the real world.

Feynman eventually diagnosed the problem:

After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. When they heard “light that is reflected from a medium with an index,” they didn’t know that it meant a material such as water. They didn’t know that the “direction of the light” is the direction in which you see something when you’re looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?” I’m going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water,” nothing happens — they don’t have anything under “Look at the water”!

I, like those Brazilian students, had been trained to be a well-oiled machine. Feed me the right questions — the ones I was programmed to answer — and I would spit out the right answers.

But ask me to create, and I could do nothing.

This is what happens when you make learning about competition, scores, seconds, metrics and targets. All the complexity and wonder of learning is neutered, reduced to numbers on a page. Education is no longer about learning, but about faster calculations, higher scores, competitive rankings.

There is no time to understand, because to understand means to lose.

And when a rare educator shows up that cares, he too is neutered by the system.

“At one point, the neurology department asked me to test and grade my students. I submitted the requisite form, giving all of them A’s. My chairman was indignant. “How can they all be A’s?” he asked. “Is this some kind of a joke?” I said, no, it wasn’t a joke, but that the more I got to know each student, the more he seemed to me distinctive. My A was not some attempt to affirm a spurious equality but rather an acknowledgment of the uniqueness of each student. I felt that a student could not be reduced to a number or a test, any more than a patient could. How could I judge students without seeing them in a variety of situations, how they stood on the ungradable qualities of empathy, concern, responsibility, judgment? Eventually, I was no longer asked to grade my students.”

-Oliver Sacks, On the Move

The Fires of Industry

That brings me to my second problem.

What happens when you take a child from her sandbox — where she has learned to get dirty, play, laugh, and see the world with wide, curious eyes —to lock her into a “regime of fear” where the new Gods are efficiency and optimization?

Will she still build sand castles?

And, what happens when that girl becomes a mother? What does she teach her children?

Let’s look again at that young student from the UK, who envies the Chinese and would “pay anything to have had an upraising like that.” In the same comment, he shares his vision for society:

“(1) A productive society is one with experts.

(2) Expertise is only accomplished with relentless practice.

(3) The most productive society will be accomplished if citizens are made to constantly work at their discipline.

There will, of course, be a transition stage in which those that lack real expertise are weeded out; but, I’m ashamed to say, that seems the most productive society.

All of humanity reduced to a single, pale dot. Our purpose? Productivity.

Only the strong survive, the weak are “weeded out,” and we move forward to the fires of industry.

“Together, my Lord Sauron, we shall rule this Middle-Earth. The old world will burn in the fires of industry. The forests will fall. A new order will rise. We will drive the machinery of war with the sword and the spear and the iron fist of the Orc.

“We have only to remove those who oppose us.”

Why, as I read this student’s words, do I feel a deep ache in my gut? It is not anger I feel, but shame — for although I was not the one who wrote those words, it could have been. His beliefs were my beliefs. His world was my world.

What a small, terrible thing it was.

The Polymath Project

Figuring out how to live in a world we don't understand

Charles Chu

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Rethinking the obvious @

The Polymath Project

Figuring out how to live in a world we don't understand

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