Things I Despised About My Education

I discovered a very strange phenomenon: I could ask a question, which the students would answer immediately. But the next time I would ask the question – the same subject, and the same question, as far as I could tell – they couldn’t answer it at all!…

After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorised everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant…Everything was entirely memorised, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?” I’m going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water”, nothing happens – they don’t have anything under “Look at the water”!

- Richard Feynman

I’m not a teacher by profession, but I had the chance to volunteer recently. It reminded me why I hated school so much.

I was teaching Maths to 16-17 years olds. The material was so sterile and boring; it made me want to yawn. But when I do Maths on my own, it feels like playing, exploration!

One time, for example, we were finding the stationary points on a curve.

It was reduced to a recipe you had to remember. If you were good, you remembered the recipe & could recognize when you had to use it: ‘OK, it’s this type of question. For this type of question, I have to use this formula, and this formula… OK, great. Now let me put the numbers in. OK, got the answer. Next question.’

You remember the formulae, pass the exam, forget everything, but get the credentials you need to go on to university. That’s what I hated about school – it felt like such a waste of time, learning stuff that I was probably going to forget.

My education taught me to value getting the right answer. (It also taught me to value prestige, prizes, etc.) So I worked hard at memorizing things, and anytime I wasn’t sure I’d get the right answer the first time, I’d be scared to try, in case I failed or made myself look stupid.

But I later learned that to get anything of real value done, you’ve got to be prepared to do stuff badly the first time – purely because you’ll be doing so many things that are new to you, and failing is just a natural part of the learning process.

A book I read recently, ‘How Children Fail’, by John Holt, articulates the idiocy of this very well.

Kids in school seem to use a fairly consistent strategy…it is answer-centred rather than problem-centred…

The problem-centred person see s a problem as a statement about a situation, from which something has been left out. In other words, there is in this situation a relationship or consequence that has not been stated and that must be found…The answer to any problem, school problem, is in the problem, only momentarily hidden from view.

But most children in school are answer-centred rather than problem-centred. They see a problem as a kind of announcement that, far off in some mysterious Answerland, there is an answer, which they are supposed to go out and find. Some children begin right away to try to pry this answer out of the mind of the teacher…the problem is an answer-getting recipe, a set of hints or clues telling them what to do, like instructions for finding buried pirate treasure…

Practically everything we do in school tends to make children answer-centred…right answers pay off. Schools are a kind of temple of worship for ‘right answers’…

I was a huge tinkerer as a teenager & taught myself to play several musical instruments. I used to be obsessed with Gould’s rendering of the Goldberg Variations and wanted to learn the piano, so I could play those. So I taught myself the piano and the whole thing was fun - no external expectations or answers I had to get, no ‘doing things the right way’, just listening to myself and figuring out whether what I was playing sounded good or not.

In the last couple of years, I’ve been going through a process of un-education: removing all the bad habits that school somehow implanted in me:

  • Being afraid of failure or embarrassment
  • Going after prizes and prestigious awards
  • Avoiding stuff I didn’t know how to do
  • Trying to get answers before fully considering the problem
  • Being uncomfortable with not knowing

One of the signal qualities of children at play is their fearlessness. They’ll experiment. Falling over is fine.

Our system should be producing more adults with this same fearlessness, who go after what they really want from the start in rational, systematic ways. Right now, we tend to produce ‘answer-centred’ people who are terrified of doing things wrong.

Some of them eventually figure things out and become happier people. But I know so many who’ve just given up. They end up becoming the middle managers in big corporates.

We need to find a better way to teach children, one that doesn’t kill their innate sense of curiosity and play.

Update: some good discussion on HN here.

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