We all know everything.

Thanks to the Internet, we all know all the facts. When you learn something, you’re just decreasing the lookup time.

Sometimes this is useless. I don’t think it’ll ever be important for me to know Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. If I did need to know it, I could spend 30 seconds looking it up.

Sometimes this is moderately useful. I could look up a recipe for lasagna every time I want to make it, or I could just memorize it. It’d be a little easier to make.

Sometimes this is very useful: knowing a programming language inside and out will save you so much time. If you have to look up documentation for every line of code, it’ll take you hours instead of minutes.

Sometimes it’s crucial. Being able to speak a language is qualitatively different from having to look up every word, conjugation, and grammatical rule. Even more so with physical tasks: knowing how to swing a baseball bat vs. knowing all the things you should do when you swing a bat. But either way, you’re not making something out of nothing, you’re just decreasing the lookup time of existing facts.

I’m thinking we should just stop teaching the first two cases, and optimize for learning the “very useful” and “crucial” cases. Interestingly, I’m also thinking that learning the “very useful” and “crucial” things is more fun.


Ram -

As a teacher, here’s my philosophy on this:

I distinctly remember the two weeks I spent in third grade learning how to use a card catalog. At the time, this did not seem as obviously absurd as it does in retrospect. The teachers had no way of knowing that what they thought of as “moderately useful” information would be in a category you didn’t even mention (more useless than useless) before their students even left the K-12 public school system. But it did, and now I know that’s two weeks I will never get back.

Here’s the thing: imagine that those two weeks had been spent not being told how the card catalog works, but being given a book to find and free access to the catalog and being told, “Go get ‘em.” Then this wouldn’t have been two wasted weeks; it would have been two extremely valuable weeks of practice with one skill that will always be useful forever, viz. learning how to do something you’ve never done before just by observing the relevant system and figuring out how it works. I still wouldn’t need to know how a card catalog works, but the skill I practiced would be one that I use every day of my life.

What I’m getting at is, teaching knowledge at all is actually not a good idea. What we should be teaching is skills. If the students get knowledge in the process of learning these skills, all the better for them. I think you’ll find that most of the things in your “crucial” category are actually skills in this sense, things that you get better at with practice (as opposed to, for example, Lincoln’s birthday; the hundredth time you look it up, you’re no better at it than you were the first time). Facts and knowledge can (and, in a surprisingly large proportion of cases, will) become obsolete; the ability to find the facts and knowledge for yourself will always be crucial.


Dan -

Sure. Maybe instead of “what we should be teaching” I should have said “what we should be learning.” And my main point was that a lot of these skills (like speaking a language) are just knowing a lot of facts that you can recall quickly. For example, where to search, or why you’d look at X instead of Y. I could be wrong.

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