Can we really scale human learning?
We hold what we call weekly "Brainrains" where I work. This is when each team member takes a turn to share with the rest of the team anything that she or he finds fascinating. The member gets to highlight the essential points of the topic. We do this for an hour – the presenter takes 15 minutes, while the rest of the hour is devoted to conversations among everyone present. The presentation is in the form of slides from their own research, mostly online. Some of our sessions even included a show-and-tell where we can hold and touch the stuff brought by the presenter. We have been doing this for over 7 years.
Upon reflection, I realized I remember more about chess from Ryan than I do from googling it. I know a lot more and care more about turtles now because of a Brainrain by Trixie. I learned more about sports injuries from Dom than I ever would on my own, online. I recalled a lot more about Filipino theater from Maan and about our native language from Darwin than when I searched for these topics on Google. But why? Why does it seem like I learn more from these people when Google offers a lot more about any of these things, anytime, anywhere?
Scientific studies have shown that the best way to learn is when you are moved to be active and engaged, and when the learning is meaningful and socially interactive. When deciding if a learning platform, app, gadget or even a toy will really make you or your child learn best, these are the 4 key points to check: active, engaging, meaningful, and socially interactive.
This is because there is no way around our wiring – we humans learn most from each other. The "each other" is diminished if you just rely solely on online materials and apps. Our "Brainrain" started as an intuitive attempt of our team to be open to a larger pool of things through our colleagues' individual interests. It opened our otherwise curated individual selves to so much more. Google helped find answers, but it did not create them for us.
A non-negotiable skill that is crucial to learning is critical thinking. When I was in high school, we had an English teacher whom everyone remembers up to now. Her name is Ms Galang, and for all the memorable ways she made us all revel and see our past, present, future and even "pretend" selves in literature, I remember her most for one thing: the "pause" she demanded from us after she asked us a question.
Every time she would ask a question (not your "yes," "no," or "what" questions) about what we thought of a book, she would require us to take a few minutes before we raise our hands. She would say, "Take time to figure it out inside you first." That really made a mark in the way I thought about things that up to now, when I'm asked a question, I do not speak unless I am sure that my answer will be coherent and relevant. My Dad also encouraged conversations a lot for as early as I can remember, and he also gently questioned my answers so that I learned to think about my own thoughts too.
In an article published at NPR.org's All Tech Considered, an education expert's comment I think echoed Ms Galang's wisdom: We have "to take a moment to think, figure out what type of information they needed, how to evaluate the data, and how to reconcile conflicting viewpoints." This is largely lost in the Google era, whether you are of the Google generation or not.
The last 45-minute stretch of our Brainrains is reserved for conversations among everyone present in the session, and this is when critical thinking takes place. During this part of our Brainrain, all Googled information are placed in the "colosseum" of our minds, fighting it out, questioning this or that with counterevidence, or even just laughing at the imaginative and comedic aspects of the topic. That is what Google, even in a telecon, cannot mimic.
Google is a megamarket of information. It is not your brain. Google is for finding answers but not for making a response. Making meaning out of those answers, making sense of contradictory information, reflecting on your own biases when you digest information – that is what your inner Ms Galang is for. That is what your mind should be shaped for – not a temporary staging for Google entries as they are presented.
Unfortunately, Google or any AI search engine cannot teach you critical thinking, because the nature of critical thinking itself is not about the quantity of information you can access but what you do with them. That is shaped by your experiences, and largely by your experiences with other humans – not just how they think, but how they express it, how they came to know of it, how they went against it or for it, and how their lives have changed, in small or big ways, because of it. Your own experience with human beings seals the deal in learning. No learning platform will be worth its salt if it does not foster critical thinking and it does not largely involve learning from other humans, particularly interacting with them.
A survey asked the most coveted employers in the world what they value in applicants. It turns out it is not how savvy they are in accessing information, or even whether or not they can code, as is the rallying call of many. It's their "writing and oral communication skills, critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills, teamwork skills, ethical decisionmaking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings." This requires a kind of thinking where you can draw from many disciplines because "many real-world problems have dimensions that are humanistic, scientific, technical, medical, and aesthetic."
"Scaling" is such a seductive phrase in many corporate sectors. I think it is a powerful concept especially to give access to more and more people to resources. The key concept in "scale" is quantity – multiplying by factors or raising to orders of magnitude. But the key concept in being human is complexity.
Information, products, production processes, and systems are scalable. This is why we build AIs – they are great with massive loads of information. But humans are not scalable. You can scale information, but human learning cannot be scaled the way we scale information because genuine learning is not just "input" but experience, processing, failure (Yes, especially failure!), risk, and probably the most important of all, unlearning. Humans are complex creatures who have genes, moods, creative outbursts, sadness, medical issues, children, and aging parents to attend to. We grow old and die. That is the human package.
Google is not bad. Learning platforms is not bad. But you have to be really wise in using them so that you know that what you get from them is just part of the journey. The real proof that you have learned is not what you know but what you do with what you know. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.