Inputs vs. Outputs……(oh ya and understanding too)

A theory of brain usage from a guidance counselor’s perspective 

Learning spaces are always a balance between students taking “in” information and students transferring information already “in” outwards through some action.  A standard example would be a student listening to his teacher (input) and a student writing a creative essay (output).  In general schools tend to allow more time for inputs than outputs, even if we include testing as an output.  In other words the majority of students’ time in school is spent receiving (inputs) as opposed to creating (outputs).  There are also high level outputs and low level outputs.  A spelling test would be a low level output; asking a student to write their own book would be a high level output.  Inputs also exist on a continuum.  For example, memorizing the spelling of words is on the low end and comprehending the features that constitute what a book is would be at the high end.  Additionally inputs and outputs work in a cyclical fashion with inputs leading to outputs, and outputs leading to new inputs.  Sometimes in the cycle understanding or it’s sharper and more mysterious brother “insight” appears.  If either of the two occurs the quality of inputs and outputs will increase.

What is everyone doing with all this knowledge?

One can easily imagine a not too distant future where all students will have access to high quality, individualized inputs, but what then.  What does a student do with this information, how do they apply it to progress society when they have never practiced using their mind towards the goal of outputs.  In fact without outputs society would not evolve, but still schools prepare and train students mostly through inputs.  Most students spend 18, 22, and some upwards of 25 years of their life taking “in” information.  One can break life into school years (inputs) and post school years (output).  It is harder to split a typical student’s day into inputs and outputs, because most of the day is spent in school or doing homework, which is a review of the day’s inputs.  The only potentially output heavy focused time (3-5pm) is usually during extracurricular activities (sports, clubs) or for a highly self-motivated student through free time (playing guitar, drawing, creative writing).  Lets say the average school day is 6 hours, a student spends 2 hours doing their homework, and 2 hours in extracurricular or outwardly focused free time– that would equal 8 hours of inputs and only 2 hours of outputs.

How can any student make sense of all the inputs they are bombarded with, without allowing them the proper time to both understand and process the information and then applying it in a personally reflective and creative manner?  The answer is that they don’t.  Students end up just regurgitating the inputs creating very low level outputs (right answers to questions that have already been answered) as opposed to high level outputs (creative solutions to unsolved problems).

The majority of learning spaces emphasize inputs through curriculum, time allocation, and most importantly their culture.  This includes traditional schools (secondary and post-secondary), new innovative online universities (The Minerva Project), massive open online courses (EdX, Coursera, Udacity), and learning tools (Khan Academy, Kaplan).  The majority of the education market is saturated trying to provide the same cognitive experience.  Luckily output focused learning communities have begun to sprout from a grassroots level and are growing organically (Thiel Fellowship, and the Maker movement).

Innovation and creativity is being strangled by input heavy educational institutions, but if balance is restored outputs will flourish.  The mind seeks balance between inputs and outputs and I would argue that some of the angst of adolescence comes from a saturation of unapplied knowledge.  Let’s provide time, space and resources, and trust students to experiment and play with the information that we have so carefully chosen for them so that they can transfer it into constructive high end outputs that make our world a better place.