The Illusion of Learning

All too much of what passes for education today consists of curricula and courses designed to create the illusion of learning.

There’s also the difference between skills that are useful for additional learning and additional learning itself. For example, the skill of reading is relatively limited in its application if the “reader” only applies it to signs and labels once he or she leaves high school, but vital to someone who wants to be a high level professional. One might even say that reading skills convey a certain illusion on learning on the sign, label, and headline-only reader.

Likewise, students who are passed on without learning skills, or reading and learning the course material — and there are literally millions of them — are given the illusion of learning. This creates anger when they can’t find or keep jobs because they don’t know enough, or when their employers find that various rules require convoluted and time-consuming processes to fire them.

Another illusion of learning is the idea that the purpose of education consists largely of having the skills to find information. Being able to locate information is not the same as knowing it, or knowing what it means, or the implications behind the facts, or what led to those facts or what may flow logically from them. Merely finding information doesn’t mean that the finder can use such information. In many professions, actual physical or specific mental skills are also required. Reading about a complex medical procedure doesn’t provide the necessary skills for a doctor to operate and accomplish that procedure. Often, even practicing that operation doesn’t provide enough knowledge for a doctor to deal with more complex cases. Being able to look up economic statistics, or sales figures, doesn’t provide the expertise to analyze them and to project likely outcomes for a company or a government.

And in some cases, failure to learn basic and simple skills that seem unnecessary in our computerized and high-tech world can create problems for the individual and those around them. For example, the child who doesn’t learn multiplication and division tables is going to be handicapped all his or her life, because most of those children won’t have the basic tools for mathematical estimation as adults. I can’t even count the number of times someone has entered the wrong number or entry into a cash register or computer and insisted to me that the result is correct — when it wasn’t. Why? Because they couldn’t estimate the range of the probable result. In cases such as medicine or pharmacy, an error such as that can be life-threatening. In business, too many errors of that nature can lead to lost revenues… or lost jobs.

Once upon a time, students had to learn to memorize poetry and passages from plays. This wasn’t thrust upon students as a form of torture, but to provide them with hard-wired, learned passages as examples of proper use of language. In addition, students were required to write far longer papers than they now do, and at earlier ages, and those papers were graded with liberal amounts of red ink. The loss of practice in writing, especially the loss of directed and harshly corrected writing exercises, and the loss of all memorization of good literature for students corresponds rather directly with an increasing loss of writing skills. Merely being able to read individual words does not correspond to being able to understand or to write.

In my wife’s field — vocal music — all too many students fail to grasp the idea that successful singing is the combination of intellectual understanding and trained muscular and musical coordination. They don’t understand that their muscles have to be trained to get results, and that requires practice of specific techniques in specific ways. They also don’t understand the need to recognize the muscular sensations associated with proper singing and to learn to replicate those sensations on a reliable and continuing basis. To sing correctly, one doesn’t just memorize the words and “sort of” follow the melody. A good singer needs to know the rhythm well enough to beat it out without looking at the music, to know the actual meaning of every word, even if the song is written in a foreign language, as well as explain what the song is about, and be able to sing the melody using a single syllable [such as “la”]. Anything less is merely an illusion of having learned the song.

The recent financial crash was due in large part to reliance on the models of a few people without those who were responsible for decision-making learning or understanding the implications of those models, combined, of course, with a large amount of greed that make it easier not to learn. Interestingly enough, most of the regulators responsible for overseeing the market did happen to come from the generation that has been shorted on basic learning. And they didn’t bother to listen to, or learn from those few older heads in an industry dominated by the young.

I could give more examples, but that would be redundant. Every truly skilled occupation requires that type of in-depth learning… and it’s the kind of learning that’s becoming rarer every year because too much education consists of learning facts and where to find them, and too little consists of truly learning and understanding anything in any depth.