Efficiency as a basic educational principle

Larry Sanger

It occurred to me that there is a simple pedagogical principle that explains the appeal of very early learning, homeschooling, and certain (not all) traditional methods of education, as well as why certain other methods of education strike me as a waste of time.

I hereby dub the following the principle of individual efficiency:

Seize every opportunity to help the individual student to learn efficiently–which occurs when the student is interested in something not yet learned but is capable of learning it, and especially when learning it makes it easier to learn more later.

In other words, when an individual student is capable of learning efficiently, seize the opportunity.  If students spend too much idle time when they could be learning, if they are learning only a little, if they are not interested in what is being taught, if they have already learned it, or if they will not understand it, then they aren’t learning efficiently.  When a certain approach ceases to conduce to efficient learning, try something else.

Why insert the word “individual” here?  Because “efficiency” in education has entailed, historically, the “industrial model” of education.  It might be an efficient use of resources for the state to pay teachers teach 35 students the same thing at once, but this is decidedly not the most efficient way for the individual student to learn.  More on this below.

So far, the principle is unremarkable.  But see how I apply the principle to a variety of educational issues.

1. Very early learning, by certain methods, is efficient learning. Under-fives, and even babies, are capable of learning much more than most people give them credit for.  Just for example, they are capable of learning to read.  Maybe more importantly, the use of books above all–but also flashcards, powerpoint presentations, videos, and iPad apps–can efficiently teach very young children vocabulary and basic concepts and skills that historically were not introduced until some years later.  A lot of old dogmas about “developmental appropriateness” are going by the wayside as parents discover ways to teach their tiny tots much earlier, but in a fun, engaging way.  Just bear in mind, I do not think that pressuring small children to learn is efficient.  That makes them lose interest–which is inefficient–and not just in the “pressured” subject, but in all learning.  Indeed, it is usually best to avoid pressure, whenever possible, regardless of age, which leads me to the next point…

2. Homeschooling’s main advantage is its higher potential for efficiency. In a homeschool (not a radical unschooling situation), parents can choose exactly the right books and other materials to match the student, both her interests and her capacities.  (I am by no means saying that most homeschoolers actually do this, though.  Just that they are free to.)  Endless sifting for exactly the right educational materials and methods is extremely important if you want to keep your student’s attention and interest, and to keep challenging her.  Done right, a homeschool involves constantly challenging the student, with no unnecessary review.  (But beneficial review, yes.)  Teaching my five-year-old homeschool student, I have developed a sense for what learning “feels like”: it seems challenging indeed, but not so difficult as to be boring or impossible; and it lasts for a limited length of time, about the length of my son’s attention span.  We rarely spend too much time on a subject, but when we study, we tend to  learn efficiently.  In my own schooling, in good public schools, learning was rarely so efficient.  As a result, my son is far better educated than I was at age five.

3. Unschooling, or at least “radical” unschooling, is often inefficient. Unschooling in its purest form entails allowing the child to choose both the subjects and the methods of study–and even whether to study at all.  The parent does, of course, support and foster the child’s pursuits.  It would be wonderful if it always worked.  Unschooling does hold some appeal to me, because I think it is extremely important that students enjoy learning–efficient learning can’t happen if it isn’t motivated learning.  Insofar as unschooling emphasizes listening to the student and getting heavy student input, I’m a fan.  But unschooling in its purer forms permits students to avoid learning subjects when they, and their future learning, could benefit hugely.  However much fun it might be for the student, however well it might prepare them for a particular trade, this is inefficient as a method of getting a liberal education.

4. Memorizing some facts is efficient. The reason students should memorize, for example, basic arithmetic facts is efficiency.  While I agree that they should be fully exposed to mathematical concepts and multiple methods of attack (understanding math is paramount), memorization of math facts is important because it makes it much easier to do higher math and science later.  Use of calculators in elementary math is sometimes defended on grounds that adults use calculators, too, and learning how to use them is efficient.  That may be, but it is far faster, and more efficient, to be able to do basic arithmetic without a calculator.  This is only an example.  Another example, which I’m going to choose just to annoy people, is history dates.  Consider this list of important dates in history, which looks pretty good to me.  If you’re a well-educated person, you should know some such list of dates.  Such dates are the backbone needed to contextualize the historical order and length of other historical events.  If you don’t have quite a few of those dates under your belt, you can’t really make much sense of other dates that you might come across in reading history–which means you won’t learn history properly, and you won’t want to learn history because it will be a puzzle.  So it is necessary to commit a fair number of dates to memory simply to make later history more comprehensible and interesting.

5. Reading many carefully-chosen, well-written books is an efficient way to learn. Why is book-reading so efficient?  A well-written book, when chosen to match the student’s interest and comprehension level, is designed to teach information in as efficient and attractive a way as possible.  That, after all, is why we say certain books are well-written.  Videos can achieve the same thing, but most videos cannot teach vocabulary and language skills as well as books.  While it is not so popular for educationists to come out against books, they talk up a lot of other methods that do not require book-reading, and–well, there’s only so much time.  My approach is different.  Our homeschool is completely “book-centered.”  We have six bookcases filled to overflowing (we need another one now) with children’s books, both nonfiction and fiction.  I am absolutely convinced that my son is reading and learning far above grade level not because he has a high IQ but simply because I’ve read a zillion books to him, explaining everything in them that I thought he might not understand.  I truly believe that, of the various general methods of learning, this is the most efficient way to gain knowledge.  It even makes certain “skills development” unnecessary.  Because we have read so much, we have not needed to study vocabulary, spelling, or even basic grammar as separate subjects (see below).

6. Incorporating illustrative multimedia to supplement reading is efficient. Book-reading is great, but you can make it even better by having an iPad on hand to instantly look up pictures, videos, maps, and encyclopedia articles to help clarify what it is difficult for you to explain in words.  Sometimes a picture or video is absolutely invaluable in explaining some subject.  I find this to be especially true in geography, and to a slightly lesser extent history and science.  For science reading, I frequently do “mini-experiments” with whatever is on hand, using videos viewed on the iPad as a fallback.

7. Learning the texts of Western civilization is efficient. The more of the ancient Greek and Roman classics that students learn, the better they will be able to understand why our society thinks, judges, and works the way it does.  This goes just as well for the most important works of literature, philosophy, religion, and art throughout the ages.  Studying these texts is efficient because someone with a great foundation in the liberal arts finds it much easier to read and learn from all sorts of other texts.  I suppose the same would also go for students of other great, ancient civilizations like China and India, but I don’t have any experience with that.  Anyway, it is profoundly inefficient to expect students to be able to think or say anything interesting, or to learn much, about the big policy questions that are frequently the subject of “bull sessions,” without prior exposure to “the best that has been thought and said” about history, philosophy, or political theory.  The same can be said for the discussion of classic literature taken out of context.  A student who is mostly ignorant of history and other classics simply can’t appreciate, or say much that is not banal or simply incorrect, about a work of classic literature.  This is why reading of the classics has declined: if you do it halfway, these books are just going to seem confusing and boring.  If you go at it whole hog, you’ll actually enjoy them and learn a lot from reading them.

8. Grounded in enough reading, it is much more efficient to write a lot than to do “language arts” workbooks. Elementary school students spend hours and hours doing workbook exercises about grammar, vocabulary, and spelling.  Some such work is, I agree, beneficial.  But a lot of such work is unnecessary busywork if one has read and written a lot.  The best way to get to an 800 verbal score on the GRE is not by studying vocabulary as a subject but by reading a lot of books and being introduced to vocabulary in context, and then looking up words that are puzzling.  If, through reading, one is extremely familiar and comfortable with correct English, reproducing it in written form is much easier, and some of the time spent on grammar, vocabulary, and spelling becomes unimportant.  Far more efficient is to do a lot of writing daily, to get copious feedback from a very literate person, and to revise.  All that said, I am inclined to think that students should go through a full, systematic course of grammar a few times in their academic careers, and some supplementary work on spelling and vocabulary is a good idea.  It’s also important to teach children how to use and appreciate reference books as they write.  If a student enjoys browsing style guides, you’ve done something right.

9. Ed tech’s main appeal is its efficiency.  When inefficient, it sucks. Educational technology–I think of websites like WatchKnowLearn, Reading Bear, and educational apps on the iPad–can greatly increase the efficiency of learning.  At its best, ed tech increases student interest and attention span while delivering information or skills practice in a way that fosters understanding and memory.  It doesn’t always work that way, though.  Some educational software and Web tools and communities are decidedly less efficient than more traditional methods.  We avoid it in our homeschool.  Sometimes, though–as with the “Presidents vs. Aliens” app–I’ll let my son have a little “inefficient” fun if it means he’s going to know presidential facts backwards and forwards.  Besides, sometimes having fun in this way makes something that otherwise might seem boring, like a thick volume about presidential history, suddenly more interesting.

10. The project method is inefficient. Now let me explain why I have it in for the project method.  I have loathed this method since it was inflicted upon me back in the 1970s and early 1980s.  It never fails to amazing me that teachers and education professors apparently can’t see–or worse, don’t care–that making models, playing dress up, putting on lame plays, and doing endless navel-gazing projects about themselves, and so forth, are an amazingly inefficient use of time.  It is true that students can learn a few things very well from such projects.  But in the same 20 hours that it takes to do some elaborate history project, a student could have read ten related or increasingly difficult books all on the same subject, written a serious report, and emerged a little expert.  True, he wouldn’t be able to point proudly to a model of the pyramids or a mud hut village.  But he would actually know something about ancient Egypt or African village life, something that he would remember.  Moreover, if the books are carefully chosen to fit the student and for quality, and the student can choose the report topic and gets enough help with it, the student can actually like the reading and writing, as much as if not more than yet-another-art-project.

11. Many textbooks are inefficient. Textbooks are written to satisfy textbook adoption committees which are devoted to requirements that often make textbooks deadly boring, especially in the earlier grades.  Going through a textbook might guarantee that you cover the “scope and sequence” of educational standards, but if students are bored, if they find some parts too easy and other parts insufficiently detailed, if textbooks insert unnecessary bias or instead render them so vanilla as to lack any personality, the result won’t inspire anyone.  As a result, students don’t learn what they should from textbooks, which is just to say that textbooks are inefficient.  We find that replacing one big textbook with many shorter books, chosen for maximum student interest due to excellent writing and accessibility, we learn far more than we would by studying a textbook. That said, I believe there are still some subjects, at some levels, that are best approached with a textbook–math is an example.

(Added later.) 12. Spaced repetition is efficient. The spaced repetition method, well known to psychologists but shockingly poorly known among actual educators, has the student review refresh information in memory, via active (quiz) review, just before it is forgotten. Free software (such as Supermemo, Mnemosyne, and Anki) makes such review easy. Most students can achieve a 95% recall rate for information put into such a system, as long as a daily review (which needn’t be very long or arduous) is done. The same cannot be said for worksheets, cramming for exams, or passive review of information.


I’m sure I could go on, but I think I’ve demonstrated that the principle of individual efficiency does pretty deeply explain my stands on various educational issues.  Well, at least I find that interesting; I seem to have put my finger on a system.

For the philosophers out there, if you want a further argument for the principle itself, I think it follows from a traditionalist goal for education, together with a basic principle of rationality.  Given that the goal of education is the development of academic knowledge and skills (to include a broad and deep comprehension of Western civilization and science a.k.a. liberal arts), the next big question in philosophy of education is how to describe the most rational means to this end.  The principle of individual efficiency is my stab at that.

I wonder–would progressive educators in their many contemporary forms disagree with the principle, or would they instead disagree that the principle supports my conclusions?  I’m guessing it would be the latter.  But I think it is ultimately the principle itself that they are bound to reject.  Ultimately, progressive education is not about individual efficiency in education at all.  Maybe I’ll say what I think it’s really about later.

Some people will inevitably read the title and first few paragraphs of this post, skim the rest, and come to a major misinterpretation.  Misinterpretation #1. Some might assume that I am defending the “factory model,” merely because the word “efficiency” is associated with that in the field of education.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I reject the factory model and instead embrace homeschooling precisely because the factory model is so inefficient.   Misinterpretation #2. Some might suppose that I am defending “tiger moms” who constantly pressure students to learn and achieve.  Well, no.  Efficiency is about quality, not quantity.  It requires some discipline, but not harsh discipline.  I think education is most efficient when the student is sincerely interested and motivated.  That requires plenty of breaks and plenty of student input.

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