I’ve dreamt the same dream at least twice now. In the dream, I am back in high school and it is the end of the year. Finals are coming up. I realize I have neglected to go to one of my classes for the entire year. I don’t even remember what time of day it meets, but I realize I am responsible for a year’s worth of information for the upcoming test, and I wake up wondering how I’m ever going to pull off a passing grade.
I am sure we could psychoanalyze this scholastic nightmare in a number of ways, but today I want to hone in on an aspect of public school education that, clearly, still haunts me: school didn’t teach me to learn; it taught me to memorize information and regurgitate it on tests.
I always wanted to love learning. After all, Sesame Street and LeVar Burton told me to. But it really wasn’t until I was half-way through college that I realized academic achievement wasn’t the goal; LEARNING, i.e. cultivating my mind, my outlook, my worldview, was. Ironically, this epiphany hit me after a professor told me–ever so kindly–that my essay was so bad he refused to read it. Pushing past a curious mixture of laughter and despair, I stayed up to the wee hours of the morning re-reading my text and forcing my neurons to reroute.
The strangest part of this experience was that I found myself able to focus better on my work. I wanted to get it right. The drive came from a curiosity, a desire to know. Unfortunately, however, very few of our schools structure their curriculum around students’ curiosity. They structure it around a government-regulated, grade-based curriculum that covers only what can be tested empirically. This article by Jordan bates on the Creativity Post, The Inadequacy of Mass Education & the Case for Autodidacticism, (it’s a mouthful but a very good read…trust me!), beautifully breaks down the need for more emphasis on learning to learn. Here is an excerpt:
“…This state of affairs all but forces schools to emphasize only those things which can be quantified—objectively measured, empirically verified. It is notoriously difficult to devise fair assessments of critical thinking, creativity, imagination, curiosity, and the like, so we don’t, mostly (at least not until college), which in turn indicates to students that those things are not vital. This is a tragic miscommunication, considering that those qualities are indispensable to both an innovation-driven economy and (arguably) a fulfilling life.”
Bates goes on to advocate for teachers to encourage an attitude of autodidacticism and set the expectation that students can and should learn to teach themselves. Students will be infinitely better prepared to address the complex problems of the world if they learn to actively pursue their own questions. Amen!