Schoolin’ and Learnin’

What you are taught in school isn’t what you are in school to learn.

As a student in public schools, I was often confronted with subjects that were (at best) uninteresting to me and (at worst) massively useless wastes of time.  No amount of engineers and physicists’ testimony will persuade me that calculus is useful to more than 5% of the population.  So why in the world is it taught?

Because what is being taught isn’t what is meant to be learned.

This is an esoteric concept and one that can be difficult to convey, but the sooner I grasped it, the more productive I was.  My grades skyrocketed and so did my happiness.  And the sooner we, as a society grasp it, the better and happier and more productive we will be.

What is taught in schools is not supposed to be what matters; what is learned is what matters.

You go to history class.  You are told about this country, who had this general, who fought in this war, over this resource.  Cool, great.  There will be a test on Friday.  If you do poorly on the test, you fail the semester.  So you spend the week studying the country and the general and the war and the resource.  Friday comes, you take the test.

What were you taught, and what did you learn?  What you were taught were facts and details and context about the country and the general and the war and the resource.

What you learned was how to study.

What you learned were self-reliance, initiative, and preparation.

Learning about the country and the general and the war and the resource, that was all a means to an end.  That end is how to study.  That end is how to learn.  THAT is what you are meant to learn in school.  The general and the war and all that?  That’s trivia.  That’s minutiae.  That doesn’t matter.  That’s unimportant, at least compared to the critical value of learning how to study.

Studying is an art, not a science.  There is science in understanding habit formation and brain retention and neurotransmitters and all that, but how a person gathers, processes, retains, and recalls information is surprisingly individualized and personal.  Teachers can definitely help, but it ultimately falls to the student to learn how to learn in a way that works for them.  And if a student leaves school not knowing how to learn, no amount of data and facts and memorization will help them in the long run.  Quite the opposite, they will likely be set up for failure, mistaking observations for facts, opinion for truth, and data for reality.

At conventions, I’ve given several lectures about learning languages (specifically Japanese).  This has troubled some people because my Japanese is barely functional (and that’s being generous).  So how can I possibly have the gall to lecture on a language I can barely speak?

Because I have learned how to learn it.  Because I’ve made all the common (and uncommon) mistakes and figured out why they didn’t work and I’ve found what does work: don’t learn the language.

When people set out to learn a language, what do they often do?  They get a dictionary.  They get a grammar book.  They study semantics and sentence structure and grammar and all of that.  Yeah, remember how you loved that part of school?  Yeah, of course you don’t.  Nobody, even English majors, love the nuances of sentence trees and the morphology of linguistics.  So why would you try to learn the subtle details of a language you don’t even know a dozen words in?

Instead, learn IN the language.  Like cross-stitch?  Get some books on cross-stitch…in Japanese.  Like cars?  Get some Japanese car magazines.  Will your vocabulary be skewed?  Absolutely!  Will your progress be stilted?  Sure will!  But you will progress and you will have fun.  Because you will have grasped that a language is a means to an end (in this case, conveying information about cross-stich or cars or whatever).  In time, you can worry about broadening your vocabulary.  In time, you can correct your grammar or improve your literacy or anything else.  But do that because you want to, not like you’ve got to tackle it first.  Yeah, you might sound like a moron but you’ll sound like a moron…in Japanese.  Far cry better than sounding like a moron who can’t even speak Japanese.

Once you grasp the goal, rather than the process to get to that goal, pedantic things can become much more enjoyable and their purpose becomes much clearer.  Exercise is torture, until you understand its role in strengthening your body.  Calculus is pointless and boring, until you understand it’s reinforcing your logic and systemic thinking.

School is about learning to learn.  Everything else is secondary.  If you fail to learn how YOU learn – or if your teachers fail to instruct you in how to do so – then school didn’t serve its purpose.  People think school is supposed to teach you reading, writing, etc.  And it is.  And those are very, very important.  But that’s what you are supposed to be taught.  What you are there to learn is so much more important.

Published by Robert V Aldrich

Author. Speaker. Cancer Researcher. Martial Artist. Illustrator. Cat dad. Nerd.

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