Throughout anyone’s lifetime -whether done purposely or not- learning will be a constant. Whether learning in a formal setting like school or a work place or in countless informal settings in which our everyday interactions occur, learning is something we can can’t dodge. In today’s world, in order to stay relevant learning has to be constantly done and self directed. But everything we learn can be classed under two categories – closed or open. As will be discussed below these two modes of learning have powerful implications which go beyond how they affect individuals and have effects of society and its flourishing.
In the closed mode of learning, people learn towards an objective or an answer. People know the end in sight but all they care about is somehow devising some way of reaching that end; the logic of how that end is reached can be damned once that answer is obtained.Too many times, under this mode people fail to truly grasp what they are learning and once the usefulness of that information has passed (e.g. using it to pass a final or exam), people eventually fail to retain that information. In many ways, the schooling system falls within this category with the test and syllabi students are trained towards mastering. For example, if taking a Calculus II course, learning how to integrate by parts is a requirement which has to be ticked off. In order to integrate by parts, most students (especially engineering students and students who are not applied math majors) have a neat mnemonic they use (I confess I am guilty of this) but any mathematics major will tell you that using that trick is garbage and would somehow come up with that answer to your amazement just like a very elementary calculus problem is being solved.
Under the open mode of learning, no objective or answers are worked towards. In this category, people learn in order to understand and know all the steps and logic of the topic they are attempting to learn. For example, as an aerospace engineer by background, I am learning machine learning. I have no question per sey I am try to answer or any objective (beyond mastering the subject) I am working towards. The closest thing to an objective for me is my a plan to use machine learning at a later stage in my startup. I simply looked for all books related to machine learning I could find and began systematically reading them up and also programming different machine learning algorithms so I can first hand see how they work. Along the way, I even tweak around some of these algorithms so I can see how they work under different conditions and with different set of data. Under the closed mode, rarely do people tweak things around and think about different scenarios. I have also encountered difficulty along the way in setting up the different algorithms and also understanding some concepts. But I have no answer manual which I can refer to or that smart kid in class who everyone gets all the help from. I simply have had no choice but to think through what I am doing and really try to get down to the logic of what I am trying to solve and use all the resources at my disposal to the best of my abilities. This mode of learning actually can occur be both within a school setting also outside a school setting; more outside a school setting most of the time. Within a school setting, this tends to happen more towards the graduate level (i.e. masters and PhD) in which students have specific topics and problems they are working on.
Both modes of learning have their advantages, draw backs, and implications. As much as the goal should be get students into an open mode of learning, due to the fast paced nature of formal schooling with the limited time available and the course load, this is difficult to achieve. But for individuals who educate their kids, this is possible to achieve because time is very flexible and almost unlimited and kids can be gotten from an early age to solely focus on subjects in sync with their aptitude and preferences. But a draw back under the closed mode of learning is that too often kids never develop a life long habit of independent learning and their natural curiosity is stunted. Furthermore, from an early age, kids begin developing the mentality which fits a regimented life and society (regimented in the sense of people telling you how to live your life) in which you get order from above (in this case the syllabus and course objectives) and you simply learn how to stay on course on a narrow path and never deviate and ask critical questions. For not deviating or asking any questions, you are rewarded in different forms; the most obvious being almost automatic grade promotion.
Without a doubt, the open mode of learning is the most superior mode. It is under this mode that people fully get to understand subjects under consideration and fully grasp its logic in all its steps and interconnections. It is also under this mode that individuals have been driven to asked very critical questions which have lead to the challenging of once agreed consensus and dogmas which have lead to progress is different fields of study and endeavor. In many ways, the human progress which have revolutionized the world and made the world more comfortable for had their origins within this mode of learning.
As the educational system continues to produce mediocre results despite the educational funding trend line being on the upswing for decades, maybe it is time to fundamentally examine and challenge the prevailing mode of learning/teaching within the educational system. Its might be in challenging the prevailing mode of learning that students will be put on a path in which they will learn how to be better critical thinkers who ask questions and have a genuine love for learning. Maybe finally will all the precious tax payer money spent on education yield proportional results.