Educational objectives often subvert themselves

Some “educational” activities have intrinsically meaningful purposes, but in most educational environments, the primary concern is cause others/oneself to know something, which is generally not an intrinsically meaningful purpose (contra Enabling environments’ activities directly serve an intrinsically meaningful purpose).

A fixation on learning outcomes is a fixation on what would normally be the effect of a deeper cause: an intrinsically meaningful purpose involving that material. By attempting to produce the effect without the cause, the teacher makes the students into dependents. He’s the source not only of expertise but also of purpose. In such a relationship, the teacher’s role is defined by his superiority. This often manifests as (unintentional) condescension.

Internally-modulated learning is self-actualizing; externally-modulated learning is self-abnegating. Students sense the abnegation and often respond either by disengaging or by shrinking their sense of intellectual responsibility. Both of these behaviors magnify the asymmetry between the teacher and student, which in turn magnifies (intentional or unintentional) sense of superiority the teacher conveys.

Deep understanding requires (and is a result of) intense personal connection. Condescension and external dependence are unlikely to produce such a connection. Often, the teacher/author themselves doesn’t have such a connection to the material, which makes the condescension worse (see Authored environments are significantly colored by authors’ motivations). Per Bret:

I don’t imagine that many designers are inherently fascinated by counting to ten, or addition. So material on those subjects is created neither for direct empowerment or sharing the love, but from a standpoint of “I know this concept, and you don’t this concept, and I think you need to know what I know.” That creates an imbalance, an asymmetry, between a “teacher” and a “student”. And that asymmetry often expresses itself as condescension.



Email with Bret Victor, 2015/03/19. Re: Toys with weight-bearing educative properties

Email with Michael Nielsen, 2019/08/23. Re: Transcending the Primer

Of course, in some sense I’m quite enamoured of goals like “enabling people” … But I’m also very suspicious of such goals. I think > 99.9% of the time they end up patronizing. The only thing I know of which consistently gets away from that failure pattern is to make the primary goal something else, something that’s intrinsically important.

E.g., if you run the Apollo program you’ll certainly be enabling people. But it’ll be secondary to getting to the moon.

Last updated 2023-07-13.