On learning and vibes

Experimental psychologist Adam Mastroianni wrote an interesting (if long) consideration of why we forget most of what we learn, and how “vibes” are more important than knowledge in that learning process.

That sounds a lot more woo-woo than it really is. An example he gives:

Here are things I don’t remember from high school:

– The phone number of my best friend, despite dialing it hundreds of times.

– How to play a high D on the trumpet, despite playing it for years.

– Almost everything I memorized for quizbowl competitions, despite carrying around freezer bags full of flash cards and testing myself on them over and over for months at a time.

Here are things I do remember from high school:

– How fun it was to call my best friend and talk for hours.

– How exciting it was to march onto the football field, trumpet in hand, and play a halftime show.

– How much I despised my school’s rival quizbowl team, how infuriating it was when their coach called us “reasonably intelligent,” and how I was so nervous before our championship match against them that I nearly threw up.

On vibes:

Knowledge is cheap and easily acquired. What you really need is curiosity, self-efficacy, perseverance, perspective, and hope. And those are vibes.

On what it takes to learn (and teach) through good vibes:

The students who ultimately succeed in learning R [the programming language] are not the ones who force themselves to memorize functions or do a bunch of coding drills. They’re the ones who accept they will feel stupid and that most of the rules will at first seem totally arbitrary, and who understand that they will gain great power if they just keep going. … I’ve found that the best way to transmit this vibe is to show them just how dumb I am.

On vibes as dark energy:

It is possible for teachers to send a vibe of “success in school depends on satisfying my whims.” Peers can give you the vibe of “this is all just a game before we go do whatever will pay us the most.” Buildings can say “it’s cool to cause the opioid crisis as long as you donate some money afterward.” Nobody ever has to state any of this explicitly, and usually nobody does. Vibes are like dark energy: invisible, but evident everywhere.


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