Why do we make efforts to learn anything? Why do we spend our time and energy learning a new language, how to cook a new recipe, or memorizing a math formula? Among many reasons, one is that, in a broad sense, we find the information we’re learning ‘useful’. But it’s not obvious we’re always learning useful things. Or in other words, we frequently find ourselves (at least I do!) with the impression that we’re wasting our time learning something we’ll never use again. Why is it so? In this post I want to argue that we should rethink what our education priorities are, both in policy and in our personal lives.
Let me be more precise. First, I define learning as the acquisition of new information into one’s body. Since most of the information processing in our body is done in the brain, this most often simply means an acquisition of new information into the brain. Notice that this acquisition of information can take various forms. It can be a transfer from the external environment into one’s body (learning content from books, teachers, or any other external source), it can be an internal development from experience (learning how to ride a bike) or combinations of these. Also, ‘information’ can mean anything: a math formula, a new word, a piece of national news, an emotional skill, etc. A final remark about this definition is that I won’t dive into the Neuroscience or Epistemological details of learning. How learning occurs at the level of the brain (long-term memory, working memory, etc) is a fascinating topic to learn about but is orthogonal to the points developed here. If you’re interested in the subject, I recommend starting with Eric Kandel’s book In Search of Memory, and Brown, Roediger & McDaniel’s Make It Stick.
And what does it mean for an information to be useful? I define an information to be useful if it is necessary in some situation in the present or future. For example, if you travel to a country abroad and go to a restaurant, learning the country’s language in advance is useful. But learning how the earth rotates is not (it may be useful for other situations though). It’s interesting to notice that usefulness can come from “non-cognitive situations”: developing socio-emotional skills is useful for job market outcomes, learning how to paint is useful to create art.
Among the useful pieces of information, it’s useful (already using our definition!) to distinguish two types of usefulness: direct and indirect. An information is directly useful if it will be directly used in the situation of interest (learning the country’s language is directly useful). And an information is indirectly useful if it serves as means for other purposes (knowing how to speak latin to impress your spouse’s family). Thirdly, an information can be ‘fun’: if it serves the purpose of learning for enjoyment to the learner. It’s a matter of preferences, of consumption (as economists would think about it). For me, learning about evolution is fun, while learning about grammar is not. Finally, notice that these three categories are not mutually excluding: an information can be fun, directly and indirectly useful at the same time. Or it can be just two of them, or maybe just one. However, information that is neither directly nor indirectly useful, that serves no purpose in the present or future, is what I call ‘useless’.
A remarkable feature of human memory is that the brain remembers and forgets for the most unexpected reasons (see Schacter’s The Seven Sins of Memory). Who never wondered why we remember the color of an obscure Anime character’s hair, while simultaneously we forget what we had for breakfast yesterday? But despite the apparent mysteries of how our brains work, scientists already know a basic principle of memory: we remember more what we retrieve, and forget more what we don’t. This occurs because of a simple yet powerful fact much celebrated in Neuroscience: neurons that fire together wire together. Every time we retrieve a memory from long-term memory, the connections between neurons supporting such memory are reinforced. The connections that are not used slowly lose strength, until eventually they even disappear. Our memory is not like a computer’s: ours is about the connections between neurons, while digital memory is about the states of hard drive’s resistors (analogous to the neurons themselves).
Nevermind the bit of Neuroscience above. The point is that learning a piece of useless information is wasteful for two reasons: you’ll never use the information in any situation, and you’ll forget it with time. In terms of present day life, it’s a waste of time, energy and resources. What’s the point of students learning complicated physics formulas in high school that they will never use again? What’s the point of taking courses in university to fill a diploma, but that have nothing to do with what you’ll do afterwards?
My conclusions are the following. Governments have scarce resources (both money and time) to invest on people’s education, which implies that priorities must be chosen. First of all, formal education should immediately stop forcing useless knowledge into students. Second, fun information is great, but in a world with limited resources, it should not be the focus of education policies. There are many other environments where people can learn fun information, we don’t necessarily need schools for that.
Third, indirectly useful information should be avoided, but it can be impossible to do so in the real world. I see at least three good reasons why this type of information is still relevant. It can serve as a signal for something else: by obtaining a diploma in a university a person shows that she’s capable of doing hard work and learning about complex subjects. In a world with imperfect information, where it’s costly to distinguish signals from noise, many types of indirectly useful information will remain attractive things to learn. Moreover, as frequently argued by cognitive scientists, shallow knowledge may be necessary for people to build deep knowledge. It’s hard to understand deep concepts of language if you don’t know how to properly put sentences together. Or it can be tough to master basketball if you don’t know how to pass or shoot. And lastly, we may be uncertain about future usefulness of a piece of information. If we can’t tell whether knowing about chemical reactions will be useful for people to know in the future, then it may be altogether interesting to teach about it today.
But, most of all, education systems should focus intently on teaching what is directly useful. And the degree of usefulness varies among different types of information, so the most important ones should come first (not discussing pedagogical plans about natural progression of learning concepts, etc). A virtuous feature of many education systems worldwide is allowing students to choose already in high school (and sometimes even earlier) fields of specialty, like engineering or communication studies.
Of course, the big question is: what is considered useful? The answer is often controversial, it varies by cultural upbringing, it’s part of extensive ideological debates, among many other sources of disagreement. From the point of view of individual education decisions, the answer is also not obvious. We frequently don’t know for certain what we’ll do in the future, and what types of situations will arise that we’ll need to be prepared for. But, be it for governments, education providers or individuals, we should be constantly asking ourselves what is truly useful for us to teach and learn. It’s a pity that so much time and money is wasted away because of our lack of clarity in goals and political incapacity to change education policy.