Wednesday, June 12, 2024

The Only Course of Study Worth Pursuing

The problem I have with machine learning (what technologists have arrogantly labeled artificial intelligence, or AI) is that much of what it's attempting to do for me is take over processes like writing, researching, and making art, things that I choose to do for pl
easure. As at least one wag on the internet has joked, I need AI that will do my laundry, windows and floors, so that I'll be freed up to write, research, and make art.

Machines are brilliant tools for doing mind-numbing, time-sucking projects like crunching large data sets or calculating with massive numbers. I'm going to assert that's what most of us want from machines. We want them to, without complaint or procrastination, handle the tedium and repetition so that we can get on with the stuff that makes us come alive. Educators worry about how their students are using AI in their school work. I would say that the very fact that mere machines can do the work they are assigning to kids, is more a critique of standard schooling than the kids, who are, after all, just using machines to do what they do best -- mind-numbing, time-sucking work.

Machines are designed to do our bidding, but human beings have evolved to their own bidding, their own thinking, their own learning.

Neuroscientist Patrick House writes, "Human infants have major learning advantages over robots as they age because they do not have to learn how to learn efficiently but come, in a sense, preprogrammed with all the rules needed to grow from a single cell into a denuded, smartly learning primate. You could call your lifetime of experience your age -- or you could call it your age plus three billion years." 

Theoretical physicist and philosopher Carlo Rovelli writes, "Scientific thinking makes good use of logical and mathematical rigidity." The same could be said about AI. "(B)ut this is only one of the two legs upon which its success has been built. The other is the creative liberty taken with conceptual structure, and this grows through analogy and recombination . . . An electromagnetic field is not a field of wheat; Einstein's slowing-down of time is not the one that we experience when bored; there is nobody pushing and pulling where Newton's forces act. But the analogies are manifest. Making an analogy involves taking an aspect of a concept and using it in another context, preserving something of its original meaning while letting something else go, in such a way that the resulting combination produces new and effective meaning. This is how the best science works . . . I think that this is also how the best art works. Science and art are about the continual reorganization of our conceptual space, of what we call meaning. What happens when we react to a work of art is not happening in the art object itself . . . it lies in the complexity of our brain, in the kaleidoscopic network of analogical relationships with which our neurons weave what we call meaning. We are involved, engaged . . ."

If educators really want children to "do their own work" we have to stop assigning them crap that mere machines can do, and probably do better at that. What our minds have evolved for over three billion years is to derive joy from creating "new and effective meaning," be that through art, science, or whatever. This is what play is all about. This is why children never tire of playing in varied and beautiful environments. Play is the urge to make connections, to discover, and to invent. Play is how we give ourselves purpose and life meaning. 

I was recently a speaker at a large education conference in Kazakhstan. The theme was AI. One morning I breakfasted with a fellow presenter who is a professor at a major US university. We began sharing stories about our respective undergraduate experiences and connected over how we had done our research in actual libraries with old-fashioned card catalogs. Today, research for most people is a sterile Google search, but this physical process of hunting for information in library stacks was a full-body experience. Just thinking about it, evokes the smell and sound of this kind of research. Sometimes the book you were looking for had been checked out, so you did the next best thing, which was to scan the shelves looking for something similar, something that you could connect to your pursuit. Often, after reading the specific article you'd sought out in a periodical, you would flip through the rest of the magazine, randomly accessing information that you didn't even know you wanted or needed. More often than not, this process, one completely divorced from the sort of mathematical and logical rigidity of machines, transformed my thinking about the topic I'd chosen to explore, sending me down avenues that at least felt like I was exploring something new under the sun. My heart would beat a little faster in these moments of creative liberty, of analogy, of recombination, as I created new and effective meaning.

The papers that resulted from this process might not have always received the highest grades. Of course, because I had done the research and constructed my own analogies, the work was nevertheless deeply and personally meaningful. A bad mark simply meant that the person doing the grading didn't get what I did. Even Einstein or Newton had their doubters at first.

Obviously, preschoolers aren't writing papers, but they are, as they play in varied and beautiful environments, researching in the real world, involved and engaged with their full bodies that house brains with three billion years of experience. They are engaged in the only course of study worth pursuing: the process of making the world personally meaningful. 

The rest I gladly leave to the machines.


I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast . . . In this episode, Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years and I discuss how schools tend to kill curiosity and how play-centered learning in preschool is the anecdote for all children. As Denisha says, "Play serves diversity because there is no one way to be or learn . . . Play is the embodiment of learning and development coming together." To listen to our full conversation, click here for Teacher Tom's Podcast, or find us wherever you like to download podcasts.

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