Shifting the Spectrum

By Jonah Kagan

August, 2012

I like to think of the variety of learning styles among students as a spectrum. At one end lies autodidacticism–that is, the teaching of oneself–while at the opposite end can be found the style of learning most easily exemplified by the lecture method–the style of learning from others. The best method for each student and subject falls somewhere on this spectrum, and indeed each educational institution holds its own prejudices about exactly which parts of the spectrum will yield the best results for its students.

With all the new attempts to bring the power of the internet to bear on education, we have seen an odd effect: the joining of the two opposite ends of the spectrum. As lectures from the top universities are released for free online, it seems that anyone with access to an internet connection can climb effortlessly from the lonely deserts of the autodidact to the tops of the ivory towers of knowledge.

However, if we look closely, we may see this new trend for what it really is: a mirage. The autodidact is no closer to the students sitting in lecture than he was before. The reason for this, however, is that he was not so far away to begin with.

Traditionally, an autodidact teaches himself from books, and now, from the wealth of knowledge freely available on the internet. He surveys and learns from the wisdom accumulated by those who came before him, whether they be academics or bloggers. Anybody who took the time to write down their ideas becomes a potential teacher for the autodidact. Viewed from this perspective, he is not unlike a student in any institution receiving a lecture. The student in an institution listening to a lecture just happens to be more obviously, concretely connected to her teacher.

The new offerings of lectures on the internet do not bring these two students closer together, but rather illustrate how close they were in the first place, at least in terms of the fundamental nature of their learning styles. Both are presented with the opinions of others (which we may call opinions because at the base of all knowledge lies belief), and then try to choose what to try to assimilate as opinions of their own. The fact that lectures are now available on the internet just means that both are now able to learn from an increasingly intersecting set of teachers.

One might argue that the autodidact charts his own course, and is therefore different from the student who blindly follows the educational path laid out by her teachers and institution. However, a student in an institution has made the choice to be there, and has thus in some sense agreed to the course of study offered there. We can even look to schools such as Brown University, which allows students to construct their entire educational plan, as examples of the agency that students have in this regard. Moreover, the autodidact cannot help but follow the prescriptions of those more knowledgable than he, whether it be following a tutorial or simply looking up a reference found in a bibliography. The differences between the two students really come down to form and scale–intrinsically, they are both following predefined courses, with a measure of agency thrown in.

If the autodidact and the lecture student are both so similar, what can we say about the spectrum? Since, essentially, both students are learning knowledge from others, they can both be placed at the end of the spectrum previously occupied by the lecture student. So what, then, remains at the other end of the spectrum, which we previously defined as the style of teaching one’s self? Well, if we interpret this literally, or we try to define the antithesis of learning from others, we find that the other end of the spectrum must consist of the style of learning which forsakes all knowledge previously accumulated by others. In a word, at the other end of the spectrum lies discovery.

We don’t normally think of discovery as a style of learning, but rather as an event, an occurence, a lightbulb moment or revelation. But in this context, discovery refers to the type of learning that occurs from repeated trial and error; from making up a new solution to a new problem; or even from making up an old solution to an old problem, from reinventing the wheel. Learning through discovery is the opposite of learning through imitation.

With this redefined spectrum, we can expect it to function the same as before–that is, each student will learn best in a style somewhere on this spectrum. But now, considering the array of educational institutions in this new light, most appear clustered towards one end of the spectrum. This end of the spectrum, dedicated towards learning from others, is not a priori worse than the other end of the spectrum. Regardless of which type of learning is better1, however, it seems obvious that these institutions neglect the needs of those students who might learn better in an environment devoted more to the discovery style of learning. And it’s not just that we are forgetting the other end of the spectrum, but the entire middle as well!

By exploring the rest of the spectrum, we will provide educational opportunities better-suited to each individual student. Furthermore, since the different learning styles not only differ in the students they serve best, but also in the subjects they are most effective in teaching, we will also be more likely to produce students with different skill sets. Creativity, for example, is a faculty that seems perfectly suited to learning by discovery (I can’t even imagine how one would teach it by imitation).

For institutions seeking to serve a wide range of students and produce in them a diverse set of skills, it seems imperative to offer both learning from others and learning by discovery. If you are thinking, “My school already does this!”–for instance, by prompting students to create original work–ask yourself how original the work is, or how much opportunity there is for true originality. Chances are, what you think of as original work is really just imitation with some original aspect–an imitative shell with your own special filling. Once again, there’s nothing wrong with this type of work; it’s incredibly valuable. But is it truly original? Does it have any aspect of discovery?

In a recent independent research project, I kept coming up with ideas, only to find that for each new idea I had, there was already a paper published proposing the same idea, or a very similar one. Every time I had an original thought, somebody had beat me to it. I was becoming more and more disappointed by this, since the goal of research is to contribute new concepts to a field of study. When I stepped back and looked at my work not as a researcher, but as a student, I realized that what I had accomplished was actually quite significant. I had learned by discovery. The fact that I was not the first to come up with the ideas was not a detriment, but rather a confirmation of the merit of my ideas and the effectiveness of my learning.

In a traditional education environment, when faced with the problems I faced in my project, I would have been directed to the appropriate papers so that I could learn and apply the solutions of others. Instead, lacking a resource to point me to these established solutions, I inverted the process. When faced with a problem, I had to come up with my own solution.

It seems thus that the essence of learning through discovery is to face the student with a problem before showing them the established method of solving it. In the purest case, on the furthest point of the spectrum, the student would never be exposed to the “correct” solution. Of course, it would be crazy to expect a student to construct the entirety of human knowledge anew in a void, so in practice this extreme should never be the only style of learning applied. But of course, it would be equally crazy to expect a student to learn all he is to learn simply by listening to and imitating others, wouldn’t it?

If the answer is no, that it wouldn’t be crazy, then perhaps that explains why our current educational system is so set in its lecture-based ways, which date back to antiquity. But I’d like to think that for most people the answer is yes, and that as a society we know that a balance between extremes is usually for the better. In this case, the problem may be just where we define the extremes to be.

  1. Everybody who thinks/talks about education seems to have an opinion on this topic, along with a plethora of arguments to match. I think it’s impossible not to be biased by which style of learning works best for you personally. (Can you guess which style works best for me?)

Thoughts? Am I crazy?
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