Friday, March 7, 2008

Training vs. Learning

While snooping around the various tubes of these Internets, I came across the following line in a post about self-education:
“That’s not education; that’s training.”

This particular post comes from a writer most of you would consider pretty far right of center...maybe even far right of right. But then, people on the left can't even bring themselves to type the word "training" when discussing education. "We don't train our children," they say. "They're not puppies."

We all know that discussions of educational matters in this country swing from one extreme to the other, barely pausing at the reasonable center to acknowledge it exists. All education is either Inquiry-driven and Discovery-centered, or rote, mechanical memorization (to the left). All education is either traditional and content-rich, or flabby, non-rigorous playtime (to the right).

I think one of the reasons this happens is that both sides are trying to put two different things into a single category. So they pick the category they like and attack the thing they've forced into it, that doesn't even belong there...and they blame it for not belonging.

There is a difference between training and learning--at least the way I choose to define those words. You need training to acquire and hone a physical or mental skill. You need to be taught how to do it, you need to practice doing it, and you need to keep doing it until it becomes second-nature--until it becomes unconscious. To me, that is the defining characteristic: if it is a skill that can become autonomous and unconscious, it falls under the heading of training.

There's more here than you might think. It's not just decoding phonemes or memorizing your multiplication tables. It's also typing, riding a bike, and taking driver's ed.

This can get confusing, because layered on top of the trained skill is the second category of learning. Learning is never unconscious or automatic. Learning requires active thinking and pondering and deciding. You can--and constantly do--think about things you've been trained to do.

Example: when you drive to work every day, you do so (most of the time) on autopilot. You listen to music, you talk to your carpool-mates, whatever--and you often have no conscious memory of the road behind you. But when it starts to rain, or some jackass in front of you slams on his brakes--all of a sudden, your conscious mind takes over, and you start thinking about your driving. Autopilot gets turned off. How can you tell? Simple: you turn off the music and tell your friends (or kids) to shut about for a minute, because you "have to think."

Have to think? Weren't you thinking before?
Not really. And that doesn't mean you were asleep, or driving dangerously.

I'm defining consciousness the way Julian Jaynes does, more or less, in his impossible-to-prove-but-endlessly-entertaining book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Trust me, it's a lot more accessible and fun than it sounds. Even it's a load of crap, which it may well be. As a metaphor for how we think, though, it's fascinating.

By Jaynes' definition of consciousness, most of what we do every day is unconscious. To him, the idea of consciousness is the (seemingly) unique ability of humans to self-dramatize--to imagine a "mini-me" inside their heads, whom they talk to, reason with, ask questions of--a "second self" that rides along inside their heads, watching, reacting, and thinking about what takes place. It is for this reason, he argues, that we often remember events in our lives as though from a distance, in the third person--because we both lived it and observed it. Consciousness is the ability to stand a bit outside of experience and think about it objectively--even while living it actively. As opposed to, say, a cat, who just wanders around and does things based on reflex and instinct and need, but does not ponder on it, and say, "hmm, I think I'll go kill that pesky mouse." Or, "Why, oh why, must I keep killing mice?"

By that definition, a whole hell of a lot of what we do during the day is unconscious. When I scratch my itchy nose, I just do it--the way a cat just does things. Things like that don't rise to the level of conscious need, with my mini-me saying, in my head, "Dude, scratch your nose already."

So: driving. Our unconscious minds are big and complex and can handle things like driving. They have to. We cannot do complex things like this without relying on our unconscious. You can't consciously think about all the aspects of driving while you're doing it: the gas, the break, the clutch, the rear-view mirror, the left side mirror, the right side mirror, the steering wheel, the signals, what's going on to your left and right, what's going on in front, what's going on behind. To do so would make you not only crazy, but also a lousy driver. You simply can't handle that much information simultaneously. The tasks that can be automated--the things that can become habit--get pushed back to the unconscious, so that the things actually requiring your attention can be handled by mini-me, up there behind your forehead, saying "Dude, keep an eye on that Hummer. I think he's drunk."

Or..."Dude, you should NOT have had that last margarita. You're all over the road. I swear to God, if we get out of this thing alive, I am NEVER driving drunk again."

And this is something profound. This is evaluating the world around you, evaluating your ability to perform your skills in a variety of contexts, and drawing conclusions about what you should or should not do in the future. This is learning. Learning, defined this way, cannot be prepackaged and predigested. Learning is--and must be--and can only be--what happens when you apply thinking to training.

Looked at this way, then, training is not some right-wing, parochial, anti-learning throwback. In fact, high-level, critical thinking is impossible without basic training. You can't think interestingly or creatively about how numbers work if you don't know your numbers. You can't drink in the imagery and wordplay of e.e. cummings if you're still trying to figure out how to pronounce each word. You have to nail down the basic, trainable stuff first, to free up your conscious mind for thinking about those things.

And this is not simply an elementary school issue. As you go through school, new skills arise, demanding new regimens of training--all the way up to medical or engineering school, for some people.

Do we need inquiry and discovery and play in our elementary schools? Of course. Children are astonishingly capable of critical thinking at very young ages (I can cite many examples from my own Things). But we can't ask them to love reading literature before we teach them how to read. We have to teach them how to read fluently and effortlessly, so that they can stop thinking about the reading itself, and start thinking about what they're reading. So stop fighting phonics, for crying out loud. Stop trying to build pretty houses without foundations or beams.

And guess what? Older kids need to learn the basic rules of grammar, so that they can stop struggling with how to put a sentence together and start playing with sentences. Too many teachers want them to play with structure without every learning that there is a structure. And the play is fun, so why not? And the grammar training isn't, so why bother? But educational decisions are not supposed to be made according to what is most fun to teach. (yeah, I know--that's obvious, right? If only it were.)

This also informs the way we look at artificial intelligence. Computers are astonishingly capable of being trained. They can be taught to do millions of things, and to do them at lightning speeds. The hard part is the conscious part. Can we get computers to be conscious--to think about what they've been trained to do or what they've downloaded into memory, to reflect upon that information, to draw conclusions--in short, to learn? Maybe yes and maybe no. For now, anyway, computers are a hell of a lot more trainable than we are. But only we can think about we've downloaded and what we've done, and learn from it.

It's a shame we do it so rarely.

1 comment:

denn d said...

I thought about this every time I wrote down my job description, and it often sort of bothered me.

For a long time, I didn't like the order of the phrases "Training and Professional Development"—I sometimes switched the order when I explained to people what I did, mostly because the P.D. part sounded loftier and the rhythm of the phrase appealed to my tongue more somehow.

I later came to prefer T. & P.D. because of the reason you mention—that "training" on a program can serve as a centerpiece for professional "learning".

However, I had not made the general connection you just explained. I suppose I should have. Anyway, thanks for that insight.