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January 27th, 2021
Traditional education equips students with the tools to succeed, supposedly. Anyone who has been through the grinder of the industrial education system knows that this is vaguely accurate: there are a whole bunch of tools that we learn, but much of what such education attempts to impress upon students is quickly forgotten.
How is it that years later when someone finally comes across an issue where calculus or trigonometry is useful, almost everyone has to look it up instead of just apply the tools that were handed over by school? The issue is that such tools at the time of their apparent ‘learning’ lacked context.
We are story animals. We understand our life and the way things work through a network of stories that we invent, learn and share. A story is something constructed and pieced together. We build stories in our mind, and we start doing this at a very early age, using them to understand the world we live in but also just for fun. Kids alone at play will narrate the adventure of their toys aloud as they spontaneously generate adventure. This is practice in cause and effect. First this happens, and then the next part can happen.
All complex projects form a kind of adventure, a winding path toward fruition that ultimately sticks in our mind in the form of a story. The tools picked up and learned along the way during this adventure stick and persist in memory because of their placement in a story structure.
Some short time ago a tiny meme circulated in coding circles. It captures the idea of seniority or expertise. It’s simply when a senior developer looking at a problem can say “oh I’ve seen something like this before.” Expertise often boils down to a good amount of experience. (And no, the similarity between the words is not a coincidence, see Episode 63 The Etymology of Fear). The expert references their experience, that is, the narrative of their own life to quickly retrieve and unpack methods and strategies that can be reapplied in the present. This is so natural that we don’t even see the presence of the story, memory simply hyperlinks into it. This is the exact same mental machinery at work that dictates why the Netflix movie we recently watched is so much more memorable than any of the facts in the flashcard deck that we laboriously try to push into our minds: one has narrative, the other does not.
Narrative forms a kind of memory retrieval structure, and often important concepts are imbedded in it’s structure, like the idea cause and effect. And this is how school fails, the tools we are supposedly given have no narrative, like the flashcard deck the tools have as much context as a pile of stuff dropped off for goodwill.
However, when tools are acquired within the context of a story, they stick. A project that requires a student to find and learn specific tools in order to bring that project to fruition automatically embeds those tools in a context and a story where they are essential. The story of how the project got done simply doesn’t make any sense without the tools and methods discovered.
The narrative aspect of a project allows a person to later recall embedded tools by projecting the relevant part of the narrative up for the mind’s eye to reference.