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How would you motivate people to learn on their own as an alternative to going to university?
17 points by amichail on Nov 15, 2007 | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments
Assignments and exams in university do provide great incentives to force people to learn things.

But can you provide incentives like that without a university where people do the learning on their own?

Self-learning has its own problems, some that have caught me out on more occasions than I care to admit.

I graduated with an EE degree six years ago, but over the years found myself more and more interested in economics. I read textbooks, papers and articles, and over time I thought I knew something about it. It was only when I went back to uni this year to formally study for an economics degree that I realised I knew jack. All the fundamentals and boring little details that I used to gloss over had more signficance than I'd ever thought. I also had access to the university resources, good instruction and a fairly rigorous course structure. Granted I was motivated and keen to learn (sadly unlike the bulk of the 19 year old kids there), but I gained a much more solid basis for understanding econs than I would have had I not gone back to uni.

I'm certainly no apologist for universities and schools, but wanted to point out that there are some issues with self-learning, namely 1) focussing only on the interesting topics and neglecting the fundamentals, 2) unstructured learning can be ill-directed and 3) good instruction is more efficient than finding your own way.

True, but one needs to be very self-critical when self-learning and interact with others (not necessarily in the formal situation).

To me, formal education is to provide the tools and knowledge necessary to learn on one's own, outside of a formal setting. Think about it. In elementary school, 90% of learning occurs inside the classroom. In high school, maybe 60-70%. In college, maybe 20-40%. Grad school 10-20%.

Ironically, what increases during this development is the need to interact with others: colleagues, mentors and acting as a mentor to others.

Call me a cynic, but I think people just don't care enough to do it. I think a lot of people go to college because they're supposed to, or to get a good job, etc. That's not wrong or bad, but it's just not going to be conducive to self-study.

Once/if you do care, you can set goals and keep working on it until you figure out what works for you.

This is rather unfortunate. A lot of the folks that simply attend college is because they believe they NEED it in order to get a job, be successful, etc. While they're right to some extent (you're going to have a hard time being lawyer with no formal education), people generally miss the point that there are ways to make a living outside of working a boring job.

Some people are simply not meant for college and instead of being forced through by parents, etc, they would be much better off simply dedicating four years of their life to practicing something they enjoy.

I've met several people with no formal education background that now own a couple of small business (nothing fancy, cellphone stores, gas stations, etc) and make more money (and have more fun) than most folks with a college degree at their age. It doesn't take much college to do something entrepreneurial just the motivation to learn and the willingness to fail.

The problem is a lot of folks don't realize that is a feasible option. For the most part everyone is force fed the same routine: "get good grades in high-school to go to a good college and then get good grades in college to get a good job otherwise you're screwed".

I also think that parents can encourage a curious attitude in their children, but it has to happen early. It won't work on every child, but can't hurt to try.

Overly simple answer money. Though even if you pay them how do you know how much they have learned? Certifications such as MCSE, CCNP, RHCE or any other of the acronym certifications. Or in the case of the Finance industry the CAIA, CFA, FRM, PRM, what the hell ever tests. Work well for industry specific general information.

Another way I have found useful is give people a project a real market driven(IE come up with such and such of a product) or some safe lab project. Give basic guide lines and an incentive to finish and let them go at it. You will be amazed people come up with and what they learned to finish the project. Also always be there to help if the get stuck to give new ideas, but never do it for them.

Yet another way keep track of what above average knowledge of a topic each member of the organization, I assume we are talking about a company, has. Make the list relevant to work so people do not think you are invading their privacy and set each person up with another person who wants to learn such and such skill or knowledge base.

How about paying people sort of like TopCoder with its prizes? Unlike TopCoder, you could reward most competitors.

This could turn this into something like a part-time job for high school students.

One can imagine that computer companies would be happy to donate money for these prizes to increase interest in CS.

Unlike TopCoder, you would have many targeted competitions (e.g., compiler design, AI, graphics, etc.).

So unlike university where you pay to learn, here you get paid to learn.

It's funny, on TopCoder, prizes count for close to nothing to most of the top competitors. More than anything, respect is what people strive for -- from others and from themselves. People are extraordinarily excited about the prospect of being 'red' or getting a rating above 2200, and seems to motivate people far more than prizes.

The bottom line is you can't force somebody to learn something. Assignments and exams compel people to temporarily memorize a list of facts or a pattern of calculation, but they have no impact on whether someone understands the underlying principles behind it. Without that kind of understanding they often can't apply what they've learned in unfamiliar or superficially irrelevant situations, or extend the knowledge on that topic when it falls short. For example, lots of electrical engineers learn about signal processing, but only the ones who really understood it would be able to see how it can be a useful metaphor computer programming (as in SICP.)

In my life, I have found the things I've remembered most are the topics that I've used to accomplish some task I wanted to accomplish. I remember how to program because there are programs that I want to write and knowing things like algorithms and data structures helps me do that. I hardly remember a thing from chemistry or biology because there's nothing I want to accomplish with that knowledge.

In the future, the greater availability of information is going to make a traditional "well rounded education" less and less useful. Every year or so, another newspaper article comes out decrying our education system because students can't find (obscure country) on a map. Yes, it's great to know things, but when was the last time you were trying to do something and you ran into a roadblock because you didn't know which continent Mt. Everest was on or what the longest river in the world was? What's the point of memorizing things like that when you can look them up in 30 seconds?

The model for education should be: 1. Find something you want to do 2. Learn what you need to know to do it 3. Do it, maybe learning additional techniques or facts along the way. Add them to the body of knowledge on the topic. 4. Repeat.

I guess my answer to your question is: no, you can't provide incentives like exams and assignments without a university. The real world provides far more effective incentives already.

I think there is a good question at the root of this. Universities were once the best source of information, but now they're not. However, they provide many things that make it easier to learn (expert evaluators, like-minded peers, social expectations) that aren't easy to find elsewhere. How can you duplicate those benefits?

"Money" sounds like a horrible answer. "Forced learning" discussions are missing the point (or at least discussing a different question than I am). The answer I would expect to hear here, "join a startup", is not very user-friendly.

Assignments and exams are much less important than being around your intellectual peers every day. If instead of going to a university, you moved into a big house with 50 other smart, ambitious guys and a big room full of textbooks on every topic, after 4 years you'd know at least as much as if you had gone to a university, and probably more. You might be a little sexually frustrated, though (edit: and socially retarded, as well).

Just keep raising tuition and cutting financial aid.

People that need to learn to be motivated won't be motivated enough to learn on their own. Low standards in school and a lack of clear guidance as to the point of it all makes people uninterested in learning. So start young, before they've become disinterested. Focus on the ability of learning/creating to make people truly happy and on the propensity to make people rich.

Find out what kinds of things they'd like to do but feel they aren't capable of doing. Then, demonstrate which things they can learn now which will get them closer to doing the very things they can't do.

If you can convey that each thing they learn can be used as a building block to learning things that are currently way out of their league you might have some success.

Very low cost exams or other verifications that results in a certificate with publicly known high standards.

Any high schooler should be able to afford the test, but people should be immensely impressed if they pass it.

Once they are known and respected, they become resume fodder and that leads to money.

I left for Italy after enough university level Italian to learn more on my own, and fended for myself for a year. That was probably the biggest single "learning experience" of my life, and a lot of fun to boot.

Provide role models and mentors. Let them find a subject on their own that they can love and be the best at amongst their social circle.

Ask little kids. They do it naturally.

People are motivated by one of two things: pleasure or fear.

I enjoy learning random stuff, but I plow through difficult computer-related stuff for one reason: it's a fast-paced, cutthroat competitive world out there. I need every little bit of advantage I can scrape up. I like it like that, but I imagine most folks would find that belief to be very uncomfortable.

So I guess the enemy of self-directed learning is contentment?

Forced learning is unreasonable. If you can't demonstrate the merits of something, so that a student judges it would be a good idea to learn it (now), then in what position are you to say it really should be learned?

If motivation to learn something requires external incentives, then why bother learning it? We should learn things that are intrinsically worthwhile.

I disagree.

"Education and religion are two things not regulated by supply and demand. The less of either the people have, the less they want." -- Charlotte Observer, 1897

There is very much a reason that it is the law that children must go to school until 16: we want to enforce a certain amount of education on them, otherwise they'll think they never need it.

The difference between me and my sister is a nice anecdote. I love to learn; I read books out the wazoo, etc. My sister, on the other hand, hates it. For the longest time, my parents had to watch her do her homework, or she wouldn't do it.

The thing that eventually got my sister to do her homework by herself? Getting it through her teenage head that if she reliably does her homework, my parents won't be on her case every 5 seconds. She's now learning, not because of intrinsic love of it, but because of extrinsic reward: independence from my parents.

School is unpleasant. This turns people off learning. Then schools say: see? kids don't like learning. we have to force them.

That isn't a valid argument. If pleasant, voluntary, interest-based learning was offered, you don't know how children would react.

The same thing with your sister. the offer usually made is something like: obey me, and do your schoolwork. it won't be fun, but when you grow up you'll thank me later. if you don't obey, i'll hurt you.

That provides no information about how your sister, or any other child, would have behaved if offered some better options.

What I would like to see is more of the Socrates style teaching. I think that's a lot like the kind of pleasant, interesting learning that you're talking about.

I guess my question is this: if you say you're only going to teach voluntary, interest-based things, how do you make things interesting? How do you make math interesting to a kid who doesn't care if he knows how to add? How do you make history interesting to a kid who thinks it's awful?

There's a lot of value to a well-rounded education. If you don't "force" kids to explore a variety of areas, they'll have a tendency to become focused and centered on the one thing that really gets them off. That's great, unless they start blowing off other subjects and whatnot. It's the reason most universities require a variety of general education classes for all freshman.

So I think we have to "force" everyone to study different topics, not just the ones that intrinsically interest them. The key here is "forcing" the kids to like the material. How do we do this?

Well, I don't have a great answer to that. The only thing I can point to is that one great teacher we've all had (or I hope you've had). That one teacher who was able to just turn you on completely. But it was the teacher that was special, not the material, not the procedure, not the tests, not the class.

My favorite example is Mrs. Sams, my calculus teacher. When we got to the fundamental theorem of integral calculus, we held a mock wedding between the derivative and the integral.

"It's the reason most universities require a variety of general education classes for all freshman."

It's a bad thing universities do for a bad reason. They waste people's time.

An individual knows best how to find their own talents. When a person knows exactly what they want to do, as long as it's moral, that's what they should be helped to do.

You get a well rounded education by googling when you decide you need a question answered.

"The only thing I can point to is that one great teacher we've all had (or I hope you've had). That one teacher who was able to just turn you on completely."

Yes, I had one of those! I absolutely LOVED going to her class every day. I didn't really learn much, but that's OK!

I don't need to be forced to learn about a variety of things and do what's best for myself. A lot of people don't. Why assume that kids do, just because they are young?

I realize some people think everyone needs to be forced to do what's best for them, which at least isn't an ageist double standard. But in that case, what exactly is purported to be preventing reason from informing our decisions, and why can't we overcome that obstacle?

(BTW I do think there are various obstacles to a reason based life. Just not insurmountable ones. I'd rather face them than "force" people. Using force has downsides beyond being unpleasant. Like what if the forcer makes a mistake? The student will say, "I don't want to", but that was a given anyway. So how will errors be discovered and corrected?)

Another issue is that people who want to learn worthwhile stuff are often forced to go to school instead. I for one was often torn away from chess to be extremely bored at school. That is one of the results of indiscriminately forcing everyone to go to school with no regard for personal circumstance.

One of the premises of the Montessori method from the article is:

That children learn in a distinctly different way from adults.

That isn't reasonable, and isn't backed up by any serious theories of learning. There is only one known method for creating knowledge/complexity (evolution).

I kind of see what you are inferring to, but "There is only one known method for creating knowledge/complexity (evolution)" is not a strictly true statement.

If "evolution" implies some sort of selection among competing candidates of "knowledge," then the above statement is strictly false.

Say, a -> b, b -> c |=> a -> c.

The consequence ( a -> c ) is newly "created" knowledge, because you may not have known that fact when the two premises were stated, yet the consequence required zero competition. Point shortened, logical reasoning requires no competition, hence logical inferences, which can be new knowledge, are not evolved. They are "merely" deduced.

I'm just attacking that one statement of yours and not discounting your criticism of the Montessori method. It is a worthwhile clarification though, because you are talking about "serious theories of learning." I have not thought much about it, but I do think there are merits, at least theoretically, to the Montessori method.

"That isn't reasonable, and isn't backed up by any serious theories of learning."

I don't know whether that's true or not; I'm a developmental psychology ignoramus.

"There is only one known method for creating knowledge/complexity (evolution)."

Are you saying that other known methods for "creating knowledge/complexity" like those employed the human brain or artificial computers are really just evolution working through indirection? i.e. evolution made humans, therefore, anything we credit to humans should really be credited to evolution?

Well, then I see your "evolution created all known complexity" and raise you "fundamental laws of physics created all known complexity". HA! Check and mate!

The human brain uses evolution, computers today don't create knowledge.

I thought this was well known. The famous question, asked by Paley and others, was: where did complexity come from? And the presumed answer was: a designer (God, who imbued some other creatures with limited design abilities themselves). This was never a great answer, because where did the complex designer come from? But anyway, then Darwin came along, and he came up with a different way of accounting for where complexity came from. Imperfect replication + selection -> complexity/knowledge. That's what evolution is. Human brains create complex ideas and new knowledge. No one has ever come up with a different solution to the classic problem. Therefore, human brains do evolution. they do replication and selection of ideas. and this can't be different for adults vs children.

"computers today don't create knowledge"

Whenever a computer program discovers a new prime number, or any of a zillion other things, a computer has created some knowledge. If you want to say that this is really a human operating through indirection, we need to again follow the chain all the way back through evolution and say that it was the fundamental physical laws which "created" the knowledge.

If I am misunderstanding your definition of "create knowledge", please clarify.

"human brains do evolution. they do replication and selection of ideas."

I'm not sure if I'm understanding you correctly here, but I'll respond to it as I interpreted it.

Let's be more precise, since "evolution" can pretty much apply to anything. e.g. The Grand Canyon "evolved" from a big chunk of rock. I assume that you're referring to the process of natural selection when you say evolution.

It's true that memes replicate and undergo a process analogous to natural selection in biology, memes float around the memepool, and their success at "infecting" minds (getting that mind's owner to agree with the meme) determines their fitness, which in turn allows it to reproduce, etc. But this is entirely separate from the process used within the mind/brain to determine whether or not to agree with the meme. Through some process brains arrive at decisions and opinions, and those decisions are what put selective pressure on the memes. But this says nothing about what's going on inside the brain to arrive at the decision, so we can't say that the brain operates by evolution. All we can say is that once the brain arrived at a decision, that decision added a bit of selective pressure on the memepool.

Saying that decisions themselves are produced by an evolutionary process is analogous to saying that death operates by evolution. Death is a biochemical process, and there's no natural selection going on inside the organism to cause it to die. We don't yet know what's going on inside a brain to arrive at decisions.

Anyway, having said that, there is a theory that brain development operates by something called "Neural Darwinism", but I don't know how valid it's considered to be. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neural_Darwinism

"Imperfect replication + selection -> complexity/knowledge"

Yes, but the converse is not true; complexity/knowledge do not imply imperfect replication and selection. Natural selection doesn't have a monopoly on all complexity. It's entirely conceivable that the brain uses some "algorithm" other than something analogous to natural selection.

Where else does complexity/knowledge come from, besides evolution, then?

While it's possible some answer to that question will be invented in the future, it definitely doesn't exist now, and is not known to Montessori.


A computer finding a prime number isn't creating new knowledge. The knowledge about prime numbers was in the program. Following those mechanical instructions isn't a creative act. The chain doesn't go back further because the programmer created knowledge that wasn't a mechanical/simple transform from some previous chain link.

You'll have to define "mechanical/simple transform" and explain why it is that humans don't count as "mechanical". As I interpret it, "mechanical" just means "follows the fundamental laws of physics to get from state at time t to state at time t+1" so your claim makes no sense. What do humans have that's special and allows them to perform "creative acts"? And what's a "creative act"?

"I thought this was well known."

All the forced schooling at their education is not well rounded after all.

*and their education

i don't think you understand evolution. BTW children's brain structure is fundamentally different from adults, the neurons literally are different - one concrete example of this is how children seem to learn languages effortlessly until they're about 8 or so; adults can never become as fluent. japanese people literally cannot hear the difference between 'r' and 'l' - again, brain hardwiring is different.

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