Thursday, June 22, 2006

Oral culture (still)

The current thought about education (at least in India) seems to be that reading and writing enable a person to make it in life. Indeed it is so.

But: looking at many people, it seems that for them, the oral instruction is more important in their learning process rather than book-reading. Writing has an even shakier role to play, one writes to communicate and many people don't seem to need to communicate through the written word and because of that lack of practice, they cannot do so effectively when called upon to do it.

People learn by hearing other people describe something to them, by other people tutoring them. And also, many people are incapable of learning through a written documentation such as a user manual of a device.

This seems to be because they do not know the art of learning through the manual. This also implies they do not know the art of learning. The routine education by rote simply drills in knowledge into them and that knowledge cannot really be put to any use because they do not understand the way that knowledge bootstraps with other knowledge. They do not "know" the building blocks because no one described it to them, and no one described it to them because those building blocks are implicit in the brain and not explicitly knowledge(intuition) and hence not describable. Only thing that makes those building blocks (for arguments sake we assume they already exist in the brain) robust and "present when needed" is exercising of those building block usage: this happens only when someone learns by thinking about something, understanding something step by step - not by having someone impart the final finished product.

So, should we not teach our children to learn from the written word, given that there is an increasing importance of the written word in our lives, especially given the Internet. People should stop tutoring kinds in class rooms about science, maths , what have you. Instead they should initially tutor the kids to learn from 'manuals' and subsequently monitor their progress while they actually do so subsequently. In a country like India, this could also become a great leveler as well: assuming that rural, underprivileged kids could be effectively taught to learn from the manuals as it wold allow each child to learn according their needs and abilities. And all the time they would be learning it in a manner that is effective. What is learnt is learnt indeed because they have really learned it only as a consequence of having understood the subtle steps involved.

Of course all this presupposes the manuals themselves are written with the end goal of implanting the building blocks the the learners mind: for example no point in having a physics textbook that tells you the laws, the equations and presents tons of "worked examples" etc. Instead, that book should throw light on the underpinnings of the law, the building blocks of problem solving the problems themselves should throw light on the various implications of the law, allow the students to be cogmired in apparently paradoxical situations. Such students as have the interest will emerge and will emerge wiser. The rest did not have it in them anyway, they are better off studying something else.


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