"Efficiency" in learning

Is it controversial to say that learning should be efficient?

On the one hand, efficiency means learning as quickly as possible with as little wasted effort as possible. Surely this is a universal good—is there anyone who wants to learn as slowly as possible, or with as much wasted effort as possible? Usually we just want to get on and do stuff.

On the other hand, the word 'efficiency' has mechanical quality that can be unsettling. People are not machines. Schools are not factories. Learning is not conveyor belt delivery.

The problem here is abstraction: all these words and metaphors—efficiency, waste, machine, factory, learning—are abstractions that can either be off-putting or appealing, depending on your interpretation. 

Here are two images. Both arguably convey 'efficiency', but do they evoke the same feelings?

Girl in textile factory

Soccer band training

When we say learning to write should be efficient we mean that, in an ideal world, all students should be able to learn how to express themselves across all main text types by following a known series of steps and investing a known amount of effort.

That's not to say everyone should be a professional writer.

That's not to say all writers should be as good as each other, or learn at the same speed, or feel the same way about writing, or write the same way about the same things.

It just means that we should be able to say to any student with basic literacy, "If you do these activities with moderate effort for 100 hours, we guarantee you'll know the essentials of the four major text types. And if you practice the same skills for another 100 hours, we know you'll be reasonably fluent."

If we can do that, then we get to live in a society where everyone knows how to write and we can all focus on content (and style, if we want to be craft nerds).

This is why we take a relatively narrow and mechanical focus: we want to develop a set of foundational skills as efficiently as possible.

Optics demonstration from Secret Knowledge book

This page is from a book by the artist David Hockney, called Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.

Hockney's theory is that the explosion of realism in art from the 1400s onwards was driven by experimentation with lenses and optics as scaffolding devices for artists.

The point is not that realism is the goal in art, but all real-world, situated craft practice uses templates, scaffolds, and tools in order to learn, innovate, and create expressive effects.

And writing is a craft.