I’m reading Seth Godin’s Linchpin right now. Today I came across a section of the book where Godin discusses the increasing impotence of public education. His basic point is that the only thing public school does well is to teach children how to be good at going to public school. They don’t teach children how to solve problems, they simply teach them how to give the correct answer for that day’s lesson. Maybe this is why so many people leave school and find themselves in careers that have little or nothing to do with their education–pretty much the only job you can get based on a knowledge of obscure dates in history is, well, teaching history. Not that that’s a bad thing (I’m a history geek myself), but if what we learn in school has so little relevance to real life, why does public education remain the same?
Godin says that the public school model used to have relevance, but that its primary usefulness was found in an age where the majority of people expected to find a job right out of school, a job that they would likely do for the rest of their lives.
So how does our educational system prepare students for the fast and fluid world of Twitter and YouTube, a world shaped by men and women whose achievements have little to do with education and everything to do with ingenuity? Well, it doesn’t. Not by a long shot. Education is supposed to equip students with the tools that are indispensable for interacting with their world: how many schools, public or private, would you put into that category? Every student wonders at some point why they have to go to school–they don’t see the point in learning about a bunch of dead people. Every math class at every level is interrupted regularly with the question: “When am I actually going to use this?” I remember hearing the lectures that followed about all the careers that require math skills and assurances that geometry and algebra were infinitely relevant topics.
The only time I ever use math is to balance my checkbook.
Occasionally I have to deal with percentages and fractions, but I have a calculator for that. I’m sure you remember the teachers who prohibited calculator use because according to them, you weren’t actually learning the concepts. Of course, all of the students are thinking, “Who actually does this stuff without a calculator?” The answer that adults know (but don’t say) is that no one does–accountants and mathematicians don’t shun calculators, the same way that veteran authors don’t turn off spell check when they are typing, just to prove that they know how to spell. The only thing I learned in all of those math classes was to do what the teacher wanted so that I wouldn’t get into trouble or–God forbid–have to take the class again the following year.
Of course, all this being said, there are good teachers and good schools. But the best teachers and the best schools help students learn how to propel themselves forward. They know that teaching children the history of tools has a very limited value if they don’t teach them how to actually use those tools.
The best test question I’ve ever come across was in a class my wife took in college. It was a Roman history class (some of you just had your eyes glaze over) and had only one real question: “Congratulations! You have been made Caesar. What do you do now?”
That was it. What made that a great question is that it took all those things that had been taught during the semester–things that on their own would be useless in real life–and it forced the students to actually solve problems with them. To really answer that question you had to understand grain production and distribution, and how emperors minted coins to spread messages (yes, imperial coinage was the original Twitter), how to keep an army happy and the aristocracy content, how to prevent uprisings and legislate wisely, all within a two thousand year old context. In other words, the question taught students how to use otherwise irrelevant tools to solve problems.
It would have been easier on the students to just ask them something like, “Discuss how Roman emperors used coins to spread their messages.” Anyone can memorize the anser to that. Instead, this professor asked his students, “What does your coin say?” Most teachers merely ask for memorization; this prof required application. So you didn’t just learn about ancient grain distribution, you learned how to use it to solve a problem.
Teachers like that make students move themselves forward. Questions like that provide a framework for dealing with real problems. That test went beyond Caesar: it taught the students how to use information to solve problems. That is knowledge you can use.
So what was the most important part of your education? Though there are great teachers out there, and though I love that Caesar question (I was a little bit jealous that my wife got to answer it, and not me), I bet it wasn’t something you learned in the classroom. If I had to guess, I would say that the thing that really propelled your education forward happened at home, or with friends, or in a movie theater, or on the computer, or while reading. Something caught your interest and you wanted to know more. The most important part of our education is learning how to move ourselves forward, learning how to educate ourselves. Most schools only teach you how to learn their curriculum.
I acquired the most important part of my education when I was four or five. That was when I started to love reading. And that love of reading has propelled me forward in a way that no class has ever done. In fact, looking back, the value of my classes consisted in the quality of the books I was turned on to. My college level english classes were valuable not because I learned how to dissect Southern literature, but because I discovered Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Wolfe. My european history class from high school was immensely enjoyable, but relatively unimportant in the long run, except that it made me want to learn more about Winston Churchill. Which in turn led me to read William Manchester’s The Last Lion biographies, which prompted me to read Churchill’s speeches, which taught me more about cadence and rhythm and vocabulary and the importance of knowing and loving the English language than any class ever could.
If I am successful in life it will be because I love to read, not because I was forced to read certain things in school. Learning to love reading was my most crucial lesson, it was the only test that really mattered. What was yours? Have you found something that makes you want to keep moving forward, that makes you want to learn more and solve problems? Chances are, you’re not going to find it in a class, or from a teacher. The Roman history test was a great way to tie together everything my wife had learned in a semester, but the more crucial lesson occurred years earlier at home, when she realized she loved history.
As far as I can tell, Seth Godin’s right–our model of schooling is becoming more irrelevant every day. It’s up to you to keep yourself relevant, to keep yourself fresh. Once you’re out of school, no one is going to educate you. You’ve got to do it yourself. Unfortunately, that seems to be the one things schools cannot teach.