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The Reason You Aren't Learning Anything in School

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From the first steps into the kindergarten classroom to the turning of the tassels on graduation day, one mantra is repeated time and time again into the ears of students across the country. "If you take nothing else from school, at least you'll know how to learn."  This advice is usually accompanied by laughter from the students, as learning to learn seems to be the least of there worries.  As they head out into the workforce however, they'll quickly find that being able to adapt quickly and pick up new skills is an invaluable asset to an employer. They'll get older and wiser, and sooner or later realize that their most valuable skill truly is their ability to learn, which they picked up all those years ago back in grade school.  The only trouble is, are they really?

The short answer to this question is no.  The long answer? Probably not.  This is mostly due to the way our education system is set up, but is also partially due to the way our society looks at intelligence, wisdom and cleverness.  First, let's define these three words to show that they mean separate things.  Intelligence  is defined by dictionary.reference.com as "aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings etc." Wisdom is defined as "knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action."  And finally, cleverness is defined as "showing inventiveness or originality."  Of these three definitions, which best describes what a student should be trying to achieve?  While wisdom is a sense of right or wrong, I don't feel it is something that can be taught in schools.  Intelligence is what the school system is currently focused on, acquisition of facts and knowledge.  The idea that if you know enough "stuff" there will always come a time when you can use that "stuff" to your advantage.  And then there's cleverness.  Cleverness is creativity and originality.  Cleverness is what drives the Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerbergs of the future.  This focus on knowledge and facts over creativity and ingenuity is what is destroying the American school system.  I'm aware it is difficult to make the argument that the smartest kid is the most creative, not the most intelligent, and I'm aware that facts need to be taught to students so they can grasp the concepts of the world around them.  Despite this, there is a point where facts cannot help any longer.  There is a point where the fundamental ideas need to take precedent, and this is where we are failing. The biggest offenders of this are the math and science departments.  There is no creativity or discovery encouraged in these subjects, they're taught strictly and rigidly with little emphasis on flexibility.  Rather than teach fact after fact after fact, try teaching the fundamentals and letting the students explore.  If you're a student, try learning the fundamentals and exploring.  It's much easier to understand everything once you know the "why" rather than trying to answer 30 "what" questions. 

The prime example (pardon the math pun) of this was something I hated in elementary school.  Times tables.  If you were fortunate enough to avoid these terrible things, the basic idea was it was a table with the numbers 1-9 on each side, which would then show you what was created when the multiplied.  So if you follow the 3 line and the 4 line they intersect at 12 and so on.  These were not only the most irritatingly dull part of elementary school, they were also the most redundant.  Students spend months, even years sometimes learning that 2x2=4 or 6x9=54.  Rather than do that, just teach them what the multiplication sign means.  It's hard at first, but don't put it off till later, you do nothing but waste time when someone has to teach it over again.  It's not difficult to say 2x3 mean add 2+2+2.  It's hard to teach to 2nd graders, but maybe if we put the effort in they could learn the actual math behind it instead of just learning what the answers were to the problems.

My final example of this takes me back to my first year of Spanish class.  The instant we all entered the door we were told if we needed to use the restroom, we needed to ask to"Voy al bano."  That's what we were taught, and every time we needed to go to the bathroom we asked to "voy al bano."  But what if we needed to go to the office? Or clean the restroom? Or do anything that involved those words but wasn't specifically that sentence? We had no clue what the individual words meant, we just knew the phrase together meant go to the restroom.  Teaching the individual words first allows students to take those fundamentals and run with them, creating their own sentences and incorporating the knowledge into their everyday lives.

Learning the fundamentals as a student is the quickest and easiest way to learn the actual subject you're being taught.  So the next time you're told something in a class, ask why.  Because in that "why" you may learn how what you just were taught connects to everything else, opening up your mind to possibilities you never would have seen otherwise.



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