I’m reading this book on data mining by Ian Witten and Eibe Frank right now. Like a lot of the machine learning-oriented books I’ve been reading in preparation for the now-concluded Reconnect 2007 conference, it contains some profound, and possibly unintentional, commentary on human learning and the state of pedagogy today.
Here’s a quote from the first chapter that I found particularly powerful. Shortly before this quote, the authors give an operational definition of “machine learning” as: “Things learn when they change their behavior in a way that makes them perform better in the future,” giving some effort to define learning in concrete, measurable terms. Then they say:
But there’s still a problem. Learning is a rather slippery concept. Lots of things change their behavior in ways that make them perform better in the future, yet we wouldn’t want to say that they have actually learned. A good example is a comfortable slipper. Has it learned the shape of your foot? It has certainly changed its behavior to make it perform better as a slipper! Yet we would hardly want to call this learning. In everyday language, we often use the word “training” to denote a mindless kind of learning. We train animals and even plants, although it would be stretching the word a bit to talk of training objects such as slippers that are not in any sense alive. But learning is different. Learning implies thinking. Learning implies purpose. Something that learns has to do so intentionally. That is why we wouldn’t say that a vine has learned to grow round a trellis in a vineyard—we’d say it has been trained. Learning without purpose is merely training. Or, more to the point,in learning the purpose is the learner’s, whereas in training it is the teacher’s. [emphases added]
Indeed. We want to have — we must have — ways of evaluating learning that are concrete, objective, and measurable. But at the same time, we can’t afford to have schools and students slip into the comfortable zone of mere training and get away from the idea of internalized, intentional purpose in their work.
The challenge of the teacher is to bring out the students’ sense of purpose and not simply replace it with their own. And they have to do so, not to make the student merely feel purposeful, but in a way that leads to measurable outcomes that can be objectively verified and studied. The teacher must be both a devoted inspirer of students and a dispassionate observer of them. The teacher has to enflame purpose in students that actually leads somewhere and produces something. It’s easy to do one thing — either produce purpose or produce good test scores — without the other. It’s incredibly hard to do both.