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Don't teach people how to reach the top of a hill

30 PhilGoetz 04 March 2014 09:38PM

When is it faster to rediscover something on your own than to learn it from someone who already knows it?

Sometimes it's faster to re-derive a proof or algorithm than to look it up. Keith Lynch re-invented the fast Fourier transform because he was too lazy to walk all the way to the library to get a book on it, although that's an extreme example. But if you have a complicated proof already laid out before you, and you are not Marc Drexler, it's generally faster to read it than to derive a new one. Yet I found a knowledge-intensive task where it would have been much faster to tell someone nothing at all than to tell them how to do it.

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Drawing Less Wrong: An Introduction

33 Raemon 13 November 2011 10:39PM

This post begins a mini-sequence that discusses how to draw, reports on an experiment about teaching people how to draw, and examines how rationality and good drawing practices are related. (As it turns out, a fair amount)

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Teaching Introspection

23 Swimmer963 01 August 2011 01:10AM

As Yvain pointed out in his recent post The Limits of Introspection, humans are not naturally good at inferring our cognitive processes. We resort to guessing with plausible-sounding stories about ourselves, and we aren’t very accurate.

I was reminded of this recently while teaching a swimming lesson. (You'll understand later why this reminded me.) A recurring problem that I’ve noticed with both children and adults is that it isn’t obvious to them what their bodies are doing. Feet go in strange directions, hands fail to lift above the water, and they literally can’t describe what it feels like. It’s pretty much impossible for a novice swimmer to watch the instructor demonstrate front crawl and then imitate it perfectly–muscular control isn’t that perfect. That’s why there are swimming instructors: because it’s very, very hard to learn swimming (or dance, or soccer, or a martial art) by reading a book, even if that book has illustrated diagrams. Two friends reading the book together and watching each other’s attempts in the pool would probably do better, but that’s still a case, metaphorically, of the blind leading the blind. Most sports have instructors and coaches who are, relatively speaking, experts. (I competed at the regional level in swimming for something like five years and trained five to seven times a week the whole time, which pretty much qualifies me to teach eight-year-olds. An Olympic coach would need a much higher level of mastery.)

The most basic thing a coach provides that the two friends practicing together don’t have is relevant feedback. I watch a young swimmer demonstrating her front crawl, and I can immediately chunk my observations into “what’s done properly” and “what’s done wrong” and translate the latter category into “things to change.” And the easiest way to learn perfect front crawl isn’t to do it over and over again with tiny changes, but to practice exaggerated and simplified “drills” that teach particular fragments of muscle memory. Faced with a given stroke problem, I can look over a list of about eight different front crawl drills to find the one best suited for fixing it. To place some objective measure on the improvements, I can time my swimmers or count their strokes per length The coaches of more elite swimmers have even fancier tools in their hands: videotaping, fins and hand paddles, and the flume, basically a wind tunnel in the water. (I wish I had one of these in my basement!) All to provide better feedback: even Olympic-level swimmers don’t automatically know what their bodies are doing wrong or what needs to be fixed. (I’m assuming this is true of sports other than swimming, too.)

Granted, human muscles do start out under some voluntary control. A baby learns how to walk with no instruction, only the feedback of trial and error. (And of seeing adults walk? I seem to remember reading that some feral children crawl on hands and knees, and seem to prefer this method to walking.) But even apparently involuntary skills can be learned, with the help of creative technology. With biofeedback, people can control their blood pressure and anxiety levels and apparently various other processes . The parallel should be obvious here. Introspection, like physical coordination, is only imperfectly under conscious control…but there is some control. That’s what consciousness is: self-awareness. Most people are aware that they have emotions, and that they make decisions because of their emotions, i.e. “I didn’t mean it, I just did it because I was angry!” Likewise, most people are aware of their likes and dislikes. It’s only a small leap to recognize that these kinds of preferences are malleable facts about the state of the brain, not immutable facts about the outside world. People do succeed in wrestling with their uncooperative minds, fighting akrasia and making deliberate and reasoned decisions.

Nevertheless, most people aren’t even at the same level, metaphorically speaking, as a non-swimmer trying to learn from diagrams in a book. The literature on cognitive biases and Alicorn's sequence on luminosity are a start on the ‘book of introspection’ and some of the Less Wrong groups that meet in person are trying to help each other master these skills. The various schools of meditation are arguably about teaching introspection, and clinical psychology could be seen the same way. Is it possible to go further? Olympic coaches have probably maxed out how fast an unmodified human can swim; your technique can't be any better than perfect; but I would like to think that we haven’t even scratched the limits of how well a completely unmodified human brain can understand itself. As far as I know, most traditions of meditation are just that: traditions, often ancient, that don’t accommodate recent discoveries about the brain and about thought processes. And psychology is limited by the focus on fixing ‘problems’ and returning patients to ‘normal.’ (And if you are ‘normal’, you don’t need a psychologist!) But everyone is affected equally by our apparently-innate inability to notice what our brains are really up to, and normal isn't a very ambitious standard. 

What does a cognitive bias feel like? I can’t look back on my actions and say “yeah, I’m pretty sure I said Tide was my favourite detergent because I was still thinking about oceans and moons.” Or at least, I can’t do that automatically. But if a scientist can predict that participants in an experiment will choose Tide when thinking about oceans and moons, then I can predict that about myself, too, and look back on all my decisions, trying to infer what factors were present at the time that could have primed my choice. It’s still a guess, but it’s an informed, useful one. And with practice, with an expert instructor to point out what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, maybe a given cognitive bias does feel like something recognizable. Maybe the hidden secrets of your thought processes would become transparent and obvious. The next problem is finding instructors who are sufficiently advanced, and teaching exercises to use. The repetitive and level-based nature of video games would make them ideal as “thinking drills" training "neural memory" instead of "muscle memory."

I don't know enough to guess at the specifics of what this kind of school might look like, but I would definitely take lessons in introspection if they were available…I can’t really see a downside. Finding out that my decisions were due more often to random factors unconnected to to the Great Story That Is My Life might be unflattering, but it's equally awful whether I know about it or not, and knowing gives me a chance to fix those decisions that might otherwise turn out damagingly irrational. Anyone, or any group of people, willing to take on the task of becoming expert instructors in this field would hugely help those of us who have trouble learning procedural skills from books. 

Teachable Rationality Skills

52 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 May 2011 09:57PM

Recent brainstorming sessions at SIAI (with participants including Anna, Carl, Jasen, Divia, Will, Amy Willey, and Andrew Critch) have started to produce lists of rationality skills that we could potentially try to teach (at Rationality Boot Camp, at Less Wrong meetups, or similar venues).  We've also been trying to break those skills down to the 5-second level (step 2) and come up with ideas for exercises that might teach them (step 3) although we haven't actually composed those exercises yet (step 4, where the actual work takes place).

The bulk of this post will mainly go into the comments, which I'll try to keep to the following format:  A top-level comment is a major or minor skill to teach; upvote this comment if you think this skill should get priority in teaching.  Sub-level comments describe 5-second subskills that go into this skill, and then third-level comments are ideas for exercises which could potentially train that 5-second skill.  If anyone actually went to the work of composing a specific exercise people could run through, that would go to the fourth-level of commenting, I guess.  For some major practicable arts with a known standard learning format like "Improv" or "Acting", I'll put the exercise at the top and guesses at which skills it might teach below.  (And any plain old replies can go at any level.)

I probably won't be able to get to all of what we brainstormed today, so here's a PNG of the Freemind map that I generated during our session.

The 5-Second Level

112 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 May 2011 04:51AM

To develop methods of teaching rationality skills, you need to learn to focus on mental events that occur in 5 seconds or less.  Most of what you want to teach is directly on this level; the rest consists of chaining together skills on this level.

As our first example, let's take the vital rationalist skill, "Be specific."

Even with people who've had moderate amounts of exposure to Less Wrong, a fair amount of my helping them think effectively often consists of my saying, "Can you give me a specific example of that?" or "Can you be more concrete?"

A couple of formative childhood readings that taught me to be specific:

"What is meant by the word red?"
"It's a color."
"What's a color?"
"Why, it's a quality things have."
"What's a quality?"
"Say, what are you trying to do, anyway?"

You have pushed him into the clouds.  If, on the other hand, we habitually go down the abstraction ladder to lower levels of abstraction when we are asked the meaning of a word, we are less likely to get lost in verbal mazes; we will tend to "have our feet on the ground" and know what we are talking about.  This habit displays itself in an answer such as this:

"What is meant by the word red?"
"Well, the next time you see some cars stopped at an intersection, look at the traffic light facing them.  Also, you might go to the fire department and see how their trucks are painted."

-- S. I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action


"Beware, demon!" he intoned hollowly.  "I am not without defenses."
"Oh yeah?  Name three."

-- Robert Asprin, Another Fine Myth

And now, no sooner does someone tell me that they want to "facilitate communications between managers and employees" than I say, "Can you give me a concrete example of how you would do that?"  Hayakawa taught me to distinguish the concrete and the abstract; and from that small passage in Asprin, I picked up the dreadful personal habit of calling people's bluffs, often using the specific phrase, "Name three."

But the real subject of today's lesson is how to see skills like this on the 5-second level.  And now that we have a specific example in hand, we can proceed to try to zoom in on the level of cognitive events that happen in 5 seconds or less.

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Being a teacher

51 Swimmer963 14 March 2011 08:03PM

A few weeks ago, while giving unofficial swimming lessons to an acquaintance about my age, I had an insight. It was that before you can teach something, you have to realize it’s hard.

I don’t think I noticed this before, because I thought it was obvious. Of course someone who doesn’t know how to swim isn’t going to learn perfect front crawl just by looking at yours. If I was told to watch someone else swimming a brand-new stroke that I’d never seen before, I could imitate it pretty easily, because to me it’s a trivial skill. But to someone who has nothing to refer to, it’s hard.

“You’re like the fifth person who’s tried to teach me how to swim,” my acquaintance said as I led her into the shallow end holding a foam noodle. “People just tell me to move my arms and legs, and they didn’t seem to understand why I couldn’t do it.”

There are, needless to say, a lot of different ways to move your arms and legs. Some of them resemble swimming. A subset of those actually work to keep someone’s head at the surface, and an even smaller subset of those are effective enough that they have names, like front crawl. To me, this is obvious, because I’ve watched hundreds of children in my classes flail and struggle in their front crawl, or lift their head to breathe, or turn their toes inwards in whip kick, and make the same mistakes persistently even when I corrected them, both verbally and by literally grabbing their arms/legs and moving them. I know it’s hard.

I went through this flailing/struggling phase too and have no memory of it whatsoever, having been three at the time.  This is probably true of most good swimmers; the procedural memory is so embedded that it makes sense to say “move your arms and legs” because that's all you think about consciously; you forget how many other things you’re doing just to stay afloat. (Poor swimmers might have a different perspective, but they aren’t likely to use that perspective to try to teach other people how to swim.)

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Replaying History

6 gworley 08 May 2009 05:35AM

One of my favorite fiction genres is alternative history.  The basic idea of alternative history is to write a story set in an alternate universe where history played out differently.  Popular alternate histories include those where the Nazis win World War II, the USSR wins the Cold War, and the Confederate States of America win the American Civil War.  But most of the writing in this genre has a serious flaw:  the author starts out by saying "wouldn't it be cool to write a story where X had happened instead of Y" and then works backwards to concoct historical events that will lead to the desired outcome.  No matter how good the story is, the history is often bad because at every stage the author went looking for a reason for things to go his way.

Being unsatisfied with most alternate histories, I like to play a historical "what if" game.  Rather than asking the question at the conclusion, though (like "what if the Nazis had won the war"), I ask it at an earlier moment, ideally one where chance played an important role.  What if Napoleon had been convinced not to invade Russia?  What if the Continental Army had not successfully retreated from New York?  What if Viking settlements in Newfoundland had not collapsed?  These are as opposed to "What if Napoleon had never been defeated?", "What if the Colonies had lost the American Revolutionary War?", and "What if Vikings had developed a thriving civilization in the Americas?".  I find that replaying history in this way a fun use of my analytical skills, but more importantly a good test of my rationality.

One of the most difficult things in thinking of an alternative history is to stay focused on the facts and likely outcomes.  It's easy to say "I'd really like to see a world where X happened" and then silently or overtly bias your thinking until you find a way to achieve the desired outcome.  Learning to avoid this takes discipline, especially in a domain like alternate history where there's no way to check if your reasoning turned out to be correct.  But unlike imagining the future, making an alternate history does have the real history to measure up against, so it provides a good training ground for futurist who don't want to wait 20 or 30 years to get feedback on their thinking.

Given all this, I have two suggestions.  One, this indicates that a good way to teach history and rational thinking at the same time would be to present historical data up to a set point, ask students to reason out what they think will happen next in history, and then reveal what actually happened and use the feedback to calibrate and improve our historical reasoning (which will hopefully provide some benefit in other domains).  Second, a good way to build experience applying the skills of rationality is publicly present and critique alternate histories.

In that vein, if there appears to be sufficient interest, I'll start doing a periodic article here dedicated to the discussion of some particular alternative history.  The discussion will be in the comments:  people can propose outcomes, then others can revise and critique and propose other outcomes, continuing the cycle until we hit a brick wall (not enough information, question asks something that would not have changed history, etc.) or come to a consensus.

What do you all think of this idea?

Guessing the Teacher's Password

62 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 August 2007 03:40AM

Followup to:  Fake Explanations

When I was young, I read popular physics books such as Richard Feynman's QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.  I knew that light was waves, sound was waves, matter was waves.  I took pride in my scientific literacy, when I was nine years old.

When I was older, and I began to read the Feynman Lectures on Physics, I ran across a gem called "the wave equation".  I could follow the equation's derivation, but, looking back, I couldn't see its truth at a glance.  So I thought about the wave equation for three days, on and off, until I saw that it was embarrassingly obvious.  And when I finally understood, I realized that the whole time I had accepted the honest assurance of physicists that light was waves, sound was waves, matter was waves, I had not had the vaguest idea of what the word "wave" meant to a physicist.

There is an instinctive tendency to think that if a physicist says "light is made of waves", and the teacher says "What is light made of?", and the student says "Waves!", the student has made a true statement.  That's only fair, right?  We accept "waves" as a correct answer from the physicist; wouldn't it be unfair to reject it from the student?  Surely, the answer "Waves!" is either true or false, right? 

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