Learning From All Directions
“There is not a human being from whom we cannot learn something if we are interested enough to dig deep.”
–— Eleanor Roosevelt
To open this essay, I will first list all the directions ideas flow in different environments. Even if these seem obvious, cultivating a mindset receptive to what is already flowing is surprisingly tricky. We certainly want to improve the frequency and efficiency of all flows as they can provide the foundation of a more humane society.
- Students learn from their teachers.
- Teachers learn from their students.
- Students learn from other students.
- Teachers learn from other teachers.
- Schools learn from other schools.
- Workers learn from their supervisors.
- Supervisors learn from their workers.
- Workers learn from other workers.
- Supervisors learn from other supervisors.
- Organizations learn from other organizations.
- Children learn from their parents and caregivers.
- Parents and caregivers learn from their children.
- Children learn from other children.
- Parents and caregivers learn from other parents and caregivers.
- Families learn from other families.*
- Junior researchers learn from senior researchers.
- Senior researchers learn from junior researchers.
- Junior researchers learn from other junior researchers.
- Senior researchers learn from other senior researchers.
- Disciplines learn from other disciplines.
- People learn from their successes.
- People learn from their failures.
- People learn from others’ successes.
- People learn from others’ failures.
Everyone has been a learner. Everyone has been a teacher. In a healthy educational culture, we would embrace both roles and switch as frequently as possible to keep our ideas fresh and sharp. It would be a prominent part of our lives from cradle to grave. We would all simultaneously be co-learners and co-teachers.
It is exciting to watch a baby develop into a talkative complex little human with all kinds of preferences, but to me the most fascinating behavior is when they try to share what they have learned. Children start out as both natural learners and natural teachers. For teaching behavior, it begins by asking an adult to watch a jump over a rock or the twirl of a skirt and progresses to much more complicated behaviors. An almost 5-year old recently walked me through his favorite games on his iPad, intelligently providing a sequence of instructions that taught me how to play. The annoyance of parents repeatedly being called to look at a seemingly mundane thing is understandable, but maybe this kind of instinct is more valuable than we currently perceive.
Teaching behavior especially gets quashed in school where children are expected to sit still and quietly listen exclusively to their teacher for instructions. They learn not to make any attempts to educate each other in a way that would interfere with sanctioned approaches. Eve Ewing, a brilliant sociologist of education at University of Chicago, shared a memory on Twitter that is worth repeating here to illustrate this point.
people ask me when i got interested in educational inequality. One of my early memories is that 2 friends in my middle school class were struggling with balancing equations in chemistry. We were sitting in the back and I was showing them how. The teacher told us to stop.— wikipedia brown, socially distant OG (@eveewing) July 7, 2019
me slowly observing the school system as a child pic.twitter.com/WNJoZOQ149— wikipedia brown, socially distant OG (@eveewing) July 7, 2019
Legendary MIT mathematician and educator Seymour Papert suggested in Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas that as we build better learning environments that realize the computer’s full potential, the line between learners and teachers can fade. In a healthy enough cultural environment empowered by computers, helping another student balance an equation in chemistry would even feel like an act of play. Our idea of what a teacher does would shift away from someone who primarily broadcasts instructions to someone who facilitates learning and thinks like an anthropologist, perhaps with an instinct to learn from the pedagogy of young people like Eve Ewing instead of shutting them down.
As unrealistic as this might sound at first, I think this kind of revolution is entirely possible and maybe even unavoidable on a long enough timeline. Encouraging co-teaching and co-learning (even making it a priority!) as society learns more about the true potential of computers is something to consider. We get the smallest taste of what is possible when a student helps a teacher control a video on YouTube or when one student tutors another on their writing assignment through online communications, but even most technologists are still largely ignorant of the size and nature of the gains to be had. The late Jerome Bruner, an educational psychologist, gave an interview where he speaks on his philosophy of teaching being about unlocking possibilities for the future. While watching it, I think about the possibilities of teaching a student about effective teaching as early as possible.
In a healthy educational culture, we would recognize the potential for learning from everyone we meet no matter who they are and make that a core part of our approach to education in all parts of society. We would recognize the optimal way to maximize our own understanding of the world is to do work in a way that helps others understand it. We would be interested in what others have to share and would always be willing to admit when they have a deeper understanding of a particular topic. Co-learning and co-teaching would be the norm.
This has always existed more or less at the highest levels of scholarship. Whenever somebody writes about something to educate others about their insights, they organize their own thoughts and deepen their understanding of the topic. Others in relevant fields take the new information and perhaps respond to it in a future volume or paper or talk. These exchanges can be quite satisfying when done properly and social interactions motivate future work. The two questions to answer are:
- How do we effectively scale the benefits of going through this process to everyone?
- What impact will it have on how society operates?
Our ultimate goal is not to learn how to build a website for technology’s sake though—it is to start the process of sharing our ideas in a manner resembling how today’s experts share their ideas through books, papers, and their own blogs. We want students to think about how they might eventually teach the thing it is they are learning, so let us bring the day where they start having various teaching experiences forward.
How fast could we provide a student the experience of effectively walking another student through setting up a blog to solidify their understanding? From what I’ve seen it is about a day. How fast could we give an assignment that is creating an original walkthrough for other students to make some technical adjustment to their sites? I would guess a few weeks but have not facilitated that in person yet. These experiences can be immensely empowering and socially rewarding! Building mutually beneficial relationships with peers that motivate us to keep striving is the heart of progress.
Drawing from lessons in Piaget’s constructivism (article/Wikipedia), Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (article/Wikipedia), Bruner’s spiral curriculum (article/Wikipedia), and Papert’s constructionism (article/Wikipedia), we would also expect students who had a nurturing early childhood and elementary school environment to adapt to these professional (and now very approachable!) expressive tools much faster. Practice following picture instructions to build LEGO sets, teaching friends how to play board games after first being taught by an adult, readings guides about how to make art or beat a video game, and building and remixing Scratch coding projects are an excellent foundation for following instructions to set up a blog and thinking about how people might use it.
Solidifying a few technical skills in middle school that facilitate learning in all directions and working in a cultural shift of expectations and incentives, imagine what might be possible in high school and college as students universally document their own learning with the intention of helping other students in their learning. How would their site evolve if they continued into the rest of their lives, the endgame behavior we should encourage? One of the best examples of what this might look like is data scientist Chris Albon’s personal site. The home page is a comprehensive directory of small examples relevant to the tools and concepts necessary to work as a data scientist. Going through the process undoubtedly solidified Chris’ understanding, he has an organized set of notes he can reference from anywhere, he can refer coworkers to the resource, and the whole world benefits from having access. He also sells an excellent set of machine learning flashcards that were helpful in improving my own understanding of data science. If only every professional was so kind and prosocial.
For the high school student who has already become proficient in basic blogging, instead of sections for various things a data scientist needs to be familiar with, there might be a notes section for each class they are taking (not everything has to be Python code like Chris, though that would be cool for math and science classes). Sections might be expanded through their entire school experience into college, indeed their entire life if the tool is not so much trouble to use. Students could learn from other students, even ones in other schools if the safety of students could be protected (though to be clear outright compelling students to share work publicly with their peers is a mistake; this should be a non-threatening voluntary behavior made possible by a nurturing culture). Teachers would have a much better map of what their students understand than looking at transcripts. They might target specific gaps. They might even learn something from their students.
Imagine what an employee with an established habit of documenting their knowledge as part of their normal workflow could contribute in a workplace that embraces learning from all directions. What if everyone was able to be like Chris? The skills, techniques, and institutional knowledge of a senior employee could be passively transferred to other employees. The exact steps taken to complete previous projects could be preserved to replicate at a future date with updated data. Junior employees with innovative ideas could demonstrate them quickly. What one person knows, maybe all could eventually learn, or at least they would know where to go to learn it. Knowledge silos that plague current institutions could be eliminated completely. Efficiency would skyrocket.
In academia, maybe this foundation is what it would take to abandon paywalled journal articles and for Open Science to become ubiquitous. The habits formed could encourage humility across disciplines and encourage us to rethink what is possible in initiating newcomers. Maybe the public’s lack of trust in academia goes away when open notebook and reproducible approaches to research are introduced in high school. Maybe the multi-disciplinary work necessary to inform climate change policy and the rebuilding of outdated institutions starts to look more realistic.
If you think this is impossible now, you are probably the kind of person who would have also thought universal literacy was impossible 200 years ago. There are much better guides and tools to facilitate reading and writing on the internet with fully expressive tools than there were even 5 years ago. Our ideas about how difficult this would be are probably outdated, especially if we are not seeing students and our peers for their full potential as co-learners and co-teachers. Student minds are not empty vessels to be filled for being productive at jobs several years down the road. They could easily play a key role in helping us bootstrap universal technical literacy as co-teachers now while they are still in school.
With a few well-timed pushes and demonstrations, I wouldn’t be surprised to see teachers making pull requests with edits for their students’ essays, students forking each other’s notes, teachers forking each other’s lessons, and students writing up guides on their static sites for their teachers on how to properly pause a YouTube video a decade from now. While some of those words may sound unfamiliar at this point, most people would have looked at you funny if you had said “nouns”, “verbs”, and “adjectives” 200 years ago too. If a 13-year-old can be taught what forking is and a 15-year-old can be taught to merge a pull request, we can too. Maybe we should ask them for help understanding it after they learn it, not just to do it for us. Some could write an instructional blog post as an assignment.
The technical challenges are much easier to solve than the cultural ones, but technology and culture do influence each other. Learning from all directions efficiently depends on the internet. Right now, the experiences people have in online interactions are drastically different depending on aspects of their identity like race and gender. While the internet can be a toxic environment for them, it is simultaneously an invaluable resource for educating people about how those toxic cultural norms work and came to be in the first place. We can learn a lot from our peers as we navigate cultural transitions and challenge conventions. If we have a genuine interest in what others have to share and engage with their concerns, it will go a long way in making sure the ongoing changes to society end up being humane.
The above details what I think is possible. The below details how I started thinking about learning from all directions and why I care passionately about building a more humane approach to education. Sharing personal stories is part of how we change culture.
One of the most important experiences in my formal education was a health economics study session the night before the final exam, appropriately the very last final of my undergraduate career. I had grown disillusioned with how schools worked overall by that point and spent a lot of time that semester thinking about how they might work instead. Some of my experiences and observations leading up to that night were:
- I dropped my music major because they wanted me to spend more time following the traditional graded performance curriculum and less time on collaborative creative recording projects outside of school
- Topics I knew to be exciting from my independent studies were being ruined by dull slide shows hastily assembled by professors strapped for time
- I observed students were not able to fully absorb economic concepts the way they were presented in the time allotted
- Most students cared more about grades than developing a deeper understanding of the material and did no self-directed learning outside of class (a function of the incentive structures and stressors of modern society)
- My roommates were all kind and curious autodidacts working on inspiring art or technology projects, and learning from them did not cost money
- When discussing why we were different and eager to share in each other’s educational goals, I was not satisfied with the answer “that’s just how some people naturally are”
- There was a constant general feeling for me that our approach to education across disciplines was still primitive.
There was a lot on my mind to be grumpy about. I could not wait to get out of school where I could focus more on a studio space my roommates and I were building. Still, I love study sessions and there was something romantic about one last all-nighter to cap it all off. There were two key fellow students involved in the session. Student1 I did not even know, but they advertised they were selling their notes for the exam and I messaged them for a copy promising to pay them back in class. Student2, a friend from music school who also ended up majoring in economics, was looking for a study partner. Usually we nerded out about the songs we were obsessed with, but for this magical night we would be bingeing on economics.
The exam was the following morning. We got our coffee and snacks and settled into a random row of books to study in the crowded library for the next 10 hours. Looking up, I saw a copy of Milton Friedman’s Price Theory on the shelf and giggled at the coincidence. It would not be the last laugh of the night.
If I was by myself, I probably would have pulled the book off the shelf and wasted several hours, but Student2 was very good about keeping me focused. We dove into the materials provided by the professor and Student1. I would spend 20 minutes studying a concept and then would try to turn around and explain it to Student2. If they did not get it, I’d go back to the materials and try to distill it further, deepening both of our understandings. They would do the same. Trying to study how Medicare works, I probably did stupid stuff like read Lyndon B. Johnson’s biography instead for a few minutes, but Student2 would pull me back and tease me. I do not remember exactly how the night evolved. I know there were several recurring jokes. Given my mindset, the banter went something like…
Stephen: “Fuck this, I’m dropping out. I don’t care.”
Student2: “Dude, do it.”
Stephen: “Alright, but I’ll still help you study.”
We made our way through the material and started quizzing each other. Whenever we got something correct, we would give overly ridiculous praise to psyche each other up. There was so much laughter we would have to occasionally reprimand the other for being too loud, always an extension of the ongoing joke that was the session.
I was fascinated that Student1’s notes were proving far more helpful than the official class materials, and I distinctly remember my imagination spinning up. What if preparing notes for other students was an actual class assignment? What would 50 different sets of notes even look like? What if students collaborated to build notes for other students? What if part of the course was to teach other students? What if students collaborated to entirely lead the course? What if a student’s primary goal wasn’t their personal performance, but making sure everyone else understood what was happening? Wouldn’t personal performance be a byproduct? Why weren’t materials like this handed out by default? Was the professor going to learn anything about how to provide materials for a class from Student1’s notes?
Student2 once again rescued me and we closed out the most enjoyable study session I had ever been a part of. Following my all-nighter tradition, I insisted we take a break to watch the sunrise. Energized by the sun and still delirious, we waltzed into the exam room unable to stop giggling. I paid Student1 for the notes and briefly tried to explain how helpful they were in some larger sense, but we had an exam to take. I smiled the whole time and may have exchanged a few more stifled giggles. As disillusioning as the last few semesters had been, undergrad ended on a wonderfully bright note.
I took a cliché soul-searching solo road trip to Chicago a day later to see the exceptionally creative musician Andrew Bird perform at a church and The Hideout. I thought about all my years of schooling, education outside of school, my deep frustrations, my surprising last experience with health economics, and most of all the culture of music education. Peer teaching, an approach to education I was starting to favor, is a central part of how music education works because music is naturally a highly collaborative discipline. Even in middle school beginning band, our teacher would let 6th graders in before school for self-directed rehearsals where we exchanged tips as we got to know our instruments. In high school marching band, various sections would breakout for self-lead practice sessions. A section leader would assume the role of teacher and make sure everyone learns their part. Similar practices happen in other ensembles with “leads” or “1st chairs” spending time that the main director doesn’t have.
In my university jazz program, undergraduate and graduate students were much more integrated than my economics program. Graduate students would direct undergraduate ensembles, undergrads and grads would mix together in ensembles directed by faculty, graduate students would tutor undergrads as part of both of their official curriculums, and lots of students got tapped to help faculty carry out their projects. Everyone shared the music they were into, and no two musicians played exactly alike. Even after I left the program, I still got calls from faculty and students to help with their projects or requests for information about recording.
How would you approach education taking the collaborative approach of music programs as a more humane model?
- Classes would have student section leaders responsible for making sure everyone in their section understands the material, kind of like more integrated study groups
- Advanced students (usually older) would have regularly scheduled tutoring sessions with those less advanced and everyone would be expected to participate
- Advanced students would lead some classes
- Some classes would mix experienced students with less experienced students
- Promising students would collaborate with faculty
- Everyone would make their notes public and share what they were thinking
- They would write guides for their peers on how to approach various problems
- Most importantly, there would be an appreciation that everyone has valuable, unique experiences that they bring to the work that is worth learning about
There are a lot of technical and cultural barriers to making this work. Take economics as an example. Some of the above prosocial collaborative behavior already happens and so many economists have made important contributions to society, but economics is infamous for how male dominated it is and how many practitioners fetishize pure quantitative skills and confrontational competitive environments, especially in PhD programs. Criticism in seminars is blunt, which is appreciated by some, but too frequently it feels intended to humiliate the inexperienced. Similarly, unsolicited help can be poorly disguised attempts to intellectually show-off.
There is a pervasive belief that some people just “aren’t cut out” for economics as a discipline. In reality it might be that those who “aren’t cut out” would prefer and thrive in a more nurturing culture similar to disciplines like sociology. Economics loses out significantly from their missing contributions. Maybe people avoiding the current academic culture of economics might flock to it under circumstances like the ones I describe above.
There is also a crippling sense of superiority in the discipline that prevents some economists from trying to learn from all directions (I learned this sense of superiority too and only ditched it when I took sociology grad classes). Economics is often seen at the top of the hierarchy of social sciences, so some ignore other disciplines entirely. It is not uncommon to read criticism about an economics research project trying to solve problems without thoroughly investigating literature from other disciplines with established approaches. Status hierarchies make it so that it is socially acceptable for the most senior practitioners to ignore concerns from younger generations.
Economics is also trying to figure out why they have a diversity problem (though there are many, many economists aware of the problem and working to enlighten their colleagues).
All disciplines have weaknesses to criticize, but economists historically have enormous influence on policy and our ideas about potential human behavior, even human morality. Ideas from economics have shaped what questions we ask and what solutions we consider. How often have we talked about using education as a way out of poverty compared to eliminating poverty as a way into education? How often have we talked about paid labor at a workplace compared to unpaid labor at home? How often have we fixated on and incentivized things easy to quantify like grades for individual performance and in the process neglected potentially more important yet harder to quantify behavior that increases the collective performance of a group?
The solution is not getting rid of economics. We need better economics and more collaboration. We all need to embrace our potential as teachers and students, that is learning from all directions to move forward. That starts with an attitude adjustment that can be made immediately. It continues with more writing and sharing. Then we make the environment more humane for our co-learners and co-teachers. Then we figure out how to thrive together by writing and sharing even more.