Table of Contents
Reading a book is learning “alone” in some sense, even though the author is involved in your learning process. You don’t have a back-and-forth discussion with the author.
There’s a worthwhile division of learning into two to four types. The main two types are learning with two-way communication and learning without two-way communication. We could further categorize as: two way communication, one way outgoing communication, one way incoming communication, and no communication.
Comments on Learning Communication Types
Who is seriously considering learning with no incoming communication – meaning they don’t read any books or articles, watch any YouTube videos, listen to any podcasts, etc? People do do that in limited contexts, e.g. playing a new video game while avoiding all guides, tips, spoilers, etc., so that they can figure everything out themselves. Although video games themselves do communicate information, inside the game, about how to play the game. Playing a video game by yourself with no hints or discussions is actually similar to doing the same thing with a book – you’re still getting knowledge from other people (the video game developer or book author), just not from even more other people at the same time. Anyway, for life in general, help from other people’s knowledge is good – in general, we want a better, easier life not to purposefully face a harder challenge (whereas with a video game, you might want it to be more challenging).
A big factor to consider, regarding learning, is whether people are having interactive discussions with others, or not, because those discussions enable personalized feedback. (A book can’t tell you specific examples of your personal errors – the author has to write it without knowing who you are or what actions you’ve done in your life.) Everyone reasonable is getting substantial incoming information from others rather than trying to make up everything from scratch alone. Reasonable people use the internet to receive some information. Zero-way communication (or only outgoing communication) is a bad idea.
Some people communicate but not very interactively. E.g. they write some YouTube and Reddit comments in reply to popular stuff but they don’t receive substantial attention and replies from anyone. This is loosely similar to learning without outgoing communication. They could have written the same comments as private notes and it wouldn’t have made much difference to their learning. Outgoing communication mostly affects your learning if you’re actually getting responses, and especially if there is iterated back-and-forth discussion.
Communicating even without responses can matter negatively because people often change what they write when considering how other people will read it. They may write in a more second-handed, pandering way. They may suppress their unpopular ideas.
Communicating without responses can also matter positively because people often write more objectively. They put things into clear words instead of relying on “I know what I mean”. They may hypotheticalize some issues to protect their privacy – which means considering which aspects of their situation are relevant and which are irrelevant, parochial, personal details.
So sharing ideas matters even without responses, and can make a large positive or negative impact. Nevertheless, it’s a minor factor compared to doing two-way communication or not.
Another way to view the main distinction is whether you’re getting any kind of personalized, customized help (from interactive discussion) or just generic help. Generic help comes from things like books, videos and websites which are made to help the public, or some sub-group of the public. They aren’t designed to take into account your individual characteristics, and are usually made by creators who don’t know anything about you.
Parents and teachers give personalized help – they know who you are and respond to your situation (although the personalization may not be very good, particularly in large classes). You are their kid or you’re in their class. Textbooks, encyclopedias and blog posts give impersonal help. Both types of help are common.
Criticism in Two-Way Communication
One of the unique features of two-way criticism is the possibility of receiving customized, external criticism.
Customized, external criticism requires that you communicate some ideas, then someone else writes criticism about those specific ideas, which you then read. (They could also speak and you hear it. Or they could use sign language and you see it. I’ll sometimes use writing as an example to represent all kinds of communication.)
Books don’t offer customized criticism for your situation. Books are one-size-fits-many. A book author can’t customize his criticism to apply to you because he doesn’t know about your individual ideas and circumstances. This makes book criticism more generic and less personally threatening. At best, an author can customize his writing to a group, e.g. writing a book aimed at pilots, aspiring writers, or overweight people.
Book criticism is easier to ignore because it isn’t customized/personalized for you. There is a gap between the general critical comments in the book and your life. Most people find it fairly easy to imagine that the criticisms apply to other people but not themselves. They neglect to do the mental work of applying the criticisms to their own circumstances. If you don’t want to be criticized in most cases about most issues (as most people don’t), then you simply don’t have to figure out how the general principles and generic criticism in the book fit your life. You can enjoy the critical examples in the book without considering all the similar examples in your own life.
In two-way communication, other people can tell you how criticism applies to your life. They can put effort into bridging the gap between a general concept and your specific circumstances. This can be helpful. Maybe you want to improve but you have difficulty figuring out what impersonal ideas have to do with your life. On the other hand, maybe you don’t know what ideas have to do with your life because you don’t want to. Maybe not knowing is a choice. Maybe you’re avoiding negative things that you would feel bad about.
Why do people participate in two-way communication when they don’t want customized criticism? Often they want praise. They want other people to endorse them as being smart, virtuous and a member of the exceptional minority who many standard criticisms don’t apply to.
Another common goal for two-way communication is to say stuff to other people, not to receive ideas. Many people want to be the teacher not the student. They want to win debates but not lose debates. They want to share their wisdom and be the wisest, not learn from others and be more humble.
Two-way communication can also allow you to talk down to people while everyone knows they can reply, which is different than talking down to them in a venue that allows no reply. When you successfully talk down to people who can reply, you appear to win a contest instead of being a coward who didn’t allow any rebuttal. They often lose social status unless they stand up to you. Standing up to you may be hard. You may pressure or manipulate them. You may be mean and insulting, and mock their responses. You may use sarcasm and jokes to make rational responses difficult. There are many social tactics that will allow you to talk down to people independently of the correctness of what you’re saying.
Engaging in and winning a contest between two people is meaningful but requires letting them talk or fight back. If you don’t enable your victims to reply, then observers may think you’re weak and scared that they’d beat you. Allowing replies and still winning proves your strength.
Helpful Two-Way Communication
Two-way communication also allows collaboration. You can give and receive customized answers to questions. You can share suggestions and leads. You can cooperatively refine an idea. You can each work on an idea and sometimes come up with an improvement that the other person didn’t think of.
You don’t share all the same weaknesses as other people. There are some things you won’t figure out that they will, and vice versa. When one of your weaknesses comes up, someone else may succeed, and vice versa. This allows collaboration to pass obstacles that you alone would get stuck on.
Note that you do share some of the same weaknesses as others. You may have many of the same weaknesses as your friends. If you find someone really different than you, fewer weaknesses will be shared. But even if you get a large, diverse group of people, there will still be some things everyone is bad at. Our society has some weaknesses that most or all members are bad at. That’s true even if we view our society as the whole of humanity.
Shared weaknesses can come from systematic errors in our culture. We take some ideas and spread them to almost everyone via schools, TV and other means. Some of those ideas are wrong.
Let’s define teaching as when someone gives a learner external guidance. This isn’t just any sort of help or advice. The teacher is taking on a leadership role in what happens. Some (never all) learning happens based on the teacher’s initiative or “motor” (as Objectivism calls it) rather than the leaner’s initiative or motor. A person called a teacher might do 20% teaching, or 50%,or 80%. That means they take e.g. 20% of the initiative, or do 20% of the guiding of the learning process, or have 20% of the control over what happens. Teachers vary in how controlling (or “hands on”) they are, and students vary in how passively obedient they are. By this definition, most books that explain ideas don’t teach. Some books do teach – e.g. a cookbook which tells you step by step what to do. A book with practice problems in it does some teaching because it guides the reader regarding what activities to do to practice (rather than leaving it up to the reader’s initiative to decide they should practice and then seek out or create practice problems).
A reasonable first reaction is that teaching is concerning. Learners should guide and lead their own learning, right? It’s their own mind at stake and they should be the primary decision maker who takes responsibility for a good outcome.
Having a teacher forced on you is awful. Unwanted control over your mind is evil. It violates basic human rights. Education is a disaster when the student sees the teacher as an enemy.
But what about people who have a hard time learning, get stuck a lot, and voluntarily seek out teaching? What about people who think their ability to lead and guide their own learning is unsatisfactory? This could potentially include even people who are good at learning but do not believe they are world class experts at learning, so they could still benefit from expert help sometimes. (I’ll answer this more in the next section.)
Sadly, most of the people seeking teachers voluntarily are people who were already damaged by teaching in the past. They spent a lot of time having teachers guide their learning process, and now they get stuck without a teacher, because they aren’t using to guiding their own learning. Note: School teachers aren’t the only teachers that children deal with. Parents are often the most important teachers.
People who are coerced by teachers for years often become bad at learning on their own. They aren’t allowed to lead and guide their own learning, and they later find themselves without the skills needed to do those things. They’ve always been forced to follow lots of leading and guidance from a teacher, and now they don’t know how to learn without a teacher supplying that. Teaching often creates dependence on teaching.
Forced teaching often makes students more passive, whether they want to be or not. In a teaching process, students react to the teacher instead of going in their own direction on their own initiative at their own pace. Then the more ambitious people often find, later in life, that they don’t take initiative enough. Sometimes they then take initiative to find a teacher (including e.g. a life coach or advisor) to help them.
Note: Damage from teaching can be repaired. Problems can be solved. And damage is a flawed mental model. I’m using it here because it it has some usefulness for expressing some ideas. But it’s also bad in some ways. If you always think in terms of yourself or others being mentally damaged, that’s bad. It’s a bad lens to use as your only way of looking at the world. It’s too negative. It can push people towards perfectionism, unrealistic standards, utopianism, idealism, etc., which can lead to sadness, demotivation, low self-esteem, alienation, disliking others for not being good enough, feeling hopeless about yourself or others, etc. You should spend some of your time thinking we’re all flawed; no one is perfect; you just need to move forward with practical problem solving in the situation you’re in. No matter how good people get, they’ll always be flawed (imperfect), including you, so you need to be able to live and cope with that. But flaws and progress do matter, too; it’s not all relative.
Most teachers (including both parents and school teachers) are themselves bad at taking initiative, leading or guiding their own learning, taking responsibility for their life, or doing self-paced projects. Such people make poor teachers. Why are they bad at those things? Their education was just as damaging as everyone else’s. Teachers don’t get a special, unique, rational education or childhood.
Teaching also typically has authoritarian elements. Teachers decide what success and failure are. They judge what is a right or wrong answer. They judge what is good or bad work. They control the answer key. The concept of a student disagreeing with a school teacher isn’t taken seriously. A child disagreeing with his parent is seen similarly. There’s a presumption that the teacher is right. This sort of control is part of how teachers usually guide students.
Teaching also damages the abilities of students to judge answers for themselves. They get used to believing their ideas are as good as an authority (their teacher) says. They under-develop the skill of judging for themselves. This is a major factor in why people find it hard to start guiding and leading their own learning.
A further consequence of students listening to authorities, like their teachers and whoever made the textbooks, is that students learn to judge who has how much authority. They learn the hierarchy of authority. Which sources of information have priority to be accepted over others? Who should they listen to when authorities disagree? Thus, students spend a lot of time learning to navigate social status hierarchies. They learn in particular about the status hierarchy for who is considered an authority on various types of school knowledge. But other status hierarchies function similarly. People’s skill at dealing with status hierarchies, and focus on them, carries over and encourages them to deal with other parts of life by status. It’s what they know how to do.
Status hierarchies are complicated and convoluted. Learning to navigate them and make the same status judgments as other people is a large task. (Being in sync with everyone else about your status judgments is important.) People underestimate how much work goes into it. People spend years learning about status instead of learning to think for themselves. Being a second-hander and social climber takes extensive effort. And that effort isn’t very useful for anything else. So people who have invested that effort are generally reluctant to throw their work away and start at zero to try to figure out an alternative, rational life. People are also reluctant to switch strategies because our society is has many enforcement mechanisms for social hierarchies, which make rational life strategies much harder to succeed at.
Adults Voluntarily Being Taught
Many adults are damaged from receiving unwanted, involuntary teaching, so they have a hole in their ability to learn – they’re bad at guiding learning rather than just doing what a teacher wants. Another way to see it is they’re bad at being their own teacher; they’re used to having someone else be the teacher. Some adults nevertheless want to learn things and therefore seek out teachers. Also, even a person capable of self-directing successful learning could still want help.
Broadly, adult education doesn’t work very well because people do lots of the same things seen in K-12 schools and universities. Our society doesn’t know how to approach education rationally.
It’s hard to find good teachers, advisors, or helpers who can help with a learning process directed primarily by the learner. And that’s not what most adults seeking teachers are looking for, anyway.
Many people who would like to learn as adults are discouraged by the ineffectiveness of adult teaching. Why sign up for something that isn’t able to demonstrate good, measurable results despite dealing with many measurable issues? Some try to learn on their own but failure is common. And many who fail rationalize their situation and fool themselves into thinking they succeeded (if they didn’t, they’d hate themselves and their life).
Adults also don’t want to be children or students. They remember being powerless, bored, and, perhaps worst of all, low social status. One of the major goals of most children is to “grow up” in order to stop being viewed and treated like (low status) children. For many people and their social groups, the stigma against childlike traits lasts a lifetime.
And adults don’t want to look foolish, stupid, or ignorant. That’s partly to avoid looking like a child and partly because those things are viewed negatively in their own right. This is a matter of social status hierarchies and the opinions of others. And status judgments are commonly internalized – people learn what their peers think and how to judge that way, then they look at the world that way themselves. So people’s self-respect tends to depend on many of the same judgments that their peers would make.
Debate is a type of two-way communication that frequently has high stakes for social status. Consequently, it’s mostly engaged in by low social status people who don’t have much reputation to lose.
Debates between high status persons are generally in very controlled circumstances which make it hard for anyone to decisively lose (though people sometimes do decisively lose). Stage debates are typically like taking turns giving mini-speeches. Debates between high status persons are typically a type of show being put on that isn’t actually about changing each other’s mind or learning (the debaters hope their audience, not the person they are debating, may learn or change their mind). Debates are given time limits, have limited interaction between debaters (not much grilling each other and responding to questions and criticism), and aren’t organized to reach conclusions or to create agreement between the debaters. They’re publicity stunts.
The situation is somewhat less bad for informal debates where people have little to lose, but those are still rarely organized effectively. Sometimes learning happens anyway, but not often because the approach to debate makes it far too easy for biased people to avoid reaching conclusions. A clearer, more organized and more comprehensive debate would make it harder for biases to hide and to control outcomes. Paths Forward and impasse chains could help.
Many collaborative discussions are partially debates. Debate often gets mixed in even when people are allies. People share suggestions and also criticisms. They don’t agree on everything so they end up debating some points. However, due to the problems with debate, some people go way out of their way to avoid debate when collaborating. Some people broadly avoid saying anything negative or critical, and try to ignore, hide or avoid any problems or conflicts. Their strategy is to focus on areas of agreement where productive interaction is easiest and most realistic. To avoid conflict and hurt feelings, they usually do this strategy without saying what they’re doing. Sometimes people are asked whether they are doing this sort of strategy and, as the logic of the strategy dictates, they will often lie that they aren’t doing the strategy in order to avoid conflict.
Two-Way Communication Brainstorm
Brainstorming problems for me (the learner) that two-way communication can help with:
- Getting stuck
- Not knowing what to do
- Answering a question I don’t know the answer to
- I could be confused and not realize it
- I could have misconceptions I don’t identify
- I could misread something
- I could misremember something
- I could make a logical error
- I could be biased
- I could look at issues just from one perspective
- I could look at issues from a few perspectives but fail to consider an important one
- I want to socially network with others
- In discussions, others might express questions and confusions that I had too but didn’t realize I had. Information involved in their learning could be useful for me and vice versa
Brainstorming dangers of two-way communication for me (the learner):
- Other people can be wrong, dumb, confused, confusing
- People ramble, waste time, go on tangents
- Coordinating schedules, topics and activity choices with others is hard
- People can be mean
- People may lower their opinion of my social status and may spread information about this
- I may focus on the social status of others instead of on learning
- I may feel bad about being wrong and feel negatively towards the person who provided me with information (shooting the messenger who isn’t the cause of the bad news)
- I can’t hide my mistakes
- Once I tell others, I can’t take things back or unsay them. (I might be able to with a small, private group, which is a middle ground approach between public discussion and no two-way communication.)
- Understanding other people is sometimes harder than understanding the topic
- Being around people is a major distraction because I have to actively pay attention to social status
- Being around others makes me hide weakness and error
- I may put others down for their weaknesses and errors rather than learn. I may do this indirectly and/or passively-aggressively, which can be time consuming. It may involve a major effort to beat others to the punch and maneuver, in competition with others, to get credit without blame (status gain without status loss)
- Human beings are more complicated than the topic i’m trying to learn, so, overall, talking with them makes the situation much worse regarding complexity. Involving even one other person significantly increases the complexity involved in the learning project
- I can’t go at my own pace and follow my own leads but also stay in sync with others. We have to change our learning some in order to coordinate
- Trying to get a larger share of the social credit for successes can eat up tons of effort
- Nature is easier to deal with than people. It’s a fixed target. The laws of physics or economics don’t change while I’m learning them. People are moving targets; they often change. What worked for me in the past may stop working. This is especially dangerous when people do anything adversarial, as they often do. Human adversaries present the worst problems: problems that use creativity to thwart my solutions. (It’s similar to how competitive video games are broadly harder than single player games. Winning at chess or Starcraft means not just learning a good strategy but also keeping up with my opponents’ new ideas on an ongoing basis)
- With adversarial people, the harder they try, the more effort it takes to defend myself or beat them, and I may lose. If I participate in two-way communication, people may be adversarial. Broadly speaking, being adversarial is very common human behavior, so I should expect to run into it commonly unless I have a powerful way to avoid or prevent it
What are the main failure modes with and without two-way communication?
When learning with two-way communication, some possible causes of failure are:
- I act according to social status hierarchy games/rules/dynamics. E.g. I hate criticism or being wrong, or I form ideas to please others rather than to get the topic right.
- I and/or others are adversarial, mean, and/or hostile.
- I talk with people who are bad at learning and have dumb ideas. Discussion is confusing and unproductive.
- Everyone in the group is passive, sometimes even more passive than they’d be alone because they expect others to lead or they have social reasons not to lead.
- People think they know more than they do. None of us know the answers, but instead of trying to figure out answers, people try to share and teach their misconceptions as satisfactory knowledge.
When learning without two-way communication, some possible causes of failure are:
- Not doing much. Inadequate self-direction, initiative, motor, self-guidance, self-leading.
- Getting stuff wrong and failing to detect the error.
- Detecting errors but being unable to solve them.
- Making a mistake that other people could have pointed out, then building on it for years. The stuff you build on a mistake may be mostly worthless.
Error detection, error correction and initiative are huge values. Two-way communication can straightforwardly help regarding error detection and correction. External initiative can help but can also cause trouble. It’s problematic for people not to guide themselves.
Two-way communication brings major problems, such as social dynamics. Quality is a common complaint about two-way discussion but that’s partly due to bias – people overestimate the quality of their own ideas and underestimate the quality of other people’s ideas. Many quality complaints are actually about lack of communication (they understand their own ideas much better than anyone else’s, which is why their own ideas seem superior). Communication is a hard, mutual issue – both sides could do it better.
Getting help with non-shared errors (errors some other people don’t make) works best when interacting with diverse people, not a few friends similar to yourself. Small, private study groups remove a lot of the benefit of two-way communication.
Bottom line: Public two-way communication can help people, particularly with errors that under 95% of people in our society make. You should expect that you make some errors like that, rather than only making errors that approximately everybody makes. But two-way communication has risks: it introduces social dynamics, a lot of complexity, and additional things that could go wrong.
Don’t people hate finding out about errors on their own and often avoid doing things that would lead to that insight? How do we manage that? Some people are more willing to point out errors than others. Sometimes they’re only willing to point out errors about others, not themselves. But having other people point out errors won’t fix disliking finding out about the errors.
Is dislike of errors/criticism mostly about social dynamics (including internalized social dynamics) or is there a separate, major cause?
How can the social dynamics issues be managed? One of the obstacles to managing the social dynamics issues is that people don’t consciously know much about what social dynamics behaviors they do or why, nor about how to put social status issues into words. People mostly deal with social status through intuitions which they feel strongly about but resist rationally analyzing.