Tuesday, November 06, 2012

A Few Words on Conventional Education from Marvin Minsky

Marvin Minsky is a renowned MIT professor of artificial intelligence, robotics, and cognitive science. He is the author of a number of publications on cognitive science, including The Society of Mind, and The Emotion Machine (Intro).

Here are some of Minsky's thoughts on "The Concept of a General Education" from his MIT webpage:
§2.6 of The Emotion Machine: The “playfulness” of childhood is the most demanding teacher that one could have; it makes us explore our world to see what's there, to try to explain what all those structures are, and to imagine what else could possibly be. Exploring, explaining and learning must be among a child’s most obstinate drives—and never again in those children’s lives will anything push them to work so hard. [1]

Indeed, some children focus so much on their hobbies that their parents fear that this will conflict with their education—and try to find ways to discourage them. However, this essay will propose, instead, to postpone “broad” education until each child has had some experience at becoming an expert in some specialty.

So here we’ll propose to re-aim our schools toward encouraging children to pursue more focused hobbies and specialties—to provide them with more time for (and earlier experience with) developing more powerful sets of mental skills, which they later can extend to more academic activities. These issues are important because our children today are growing up in increasingly complex and dangerous worlds—while our institutions are failing to teach correspondingly better ways to think. The result has been a global pandemic of adults who lack effective ways to deal with increasingly challenging situations.
Conjecture: once a child builds a cognitive tower that works well in some particular realm, that child will thereafter be better equipped to develop proficiencies that can be used in other domains.

The idea is that it seems plausible that the first few such developments could have a major effect on the qualities of that child’s future ones—because those will the child’s first experiments with organizing such ‘vertical’ structures. If so, then this would imply that our children’s early education should focus on activities, hobbies, and specialties that have the ‘desirable’ kinds of such qualities. Of course, this also implies that we’ll need good theories of which such qualities would be desirable’and what kinds of curriculums could help to promote them.

To what extent can a child’s mind spontaneously ‘self-organize’ its higher levels, without any external guidance? To what extent can we help children to learn how and when to make higher-level abstractions or to resort to self-reflection? I’ve never seen much discussion of this; instead, we assume that such developments happen spontaneously if we just expose a child to the proper kind of curriculum, that child’s mind will somehow construct appropriate systems of processes to represent those experiences. Then, when we come to recognize that some children excel at doing such things, we simply assume that those children are ‘brighter’ than the rest—instead of trying to find out what’s happening. _Marvin Minsky
Minsky seems to have come to conclusions about early childhood education which parallel some of the approaches taken in The Dangerous Child Method. Children do need to become self-directed and self-motivated. They do need to develop relative mastery over a number of skills quite early in life.

Where the professor errs is in his pragmatic and overly conventional assumption that this more optimal approach to the education of children would be neatly folded into conventional education. But anyone who is familiar with modern conventional education -- particularly government schools -- would immediately see the impossibility of this approach, in most cases.

There has never been a greater need for Dangerous Children.

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