There is nothing new about the fact that kids are fed up with traditional school. We were, too, and now that we are grown-ups, we know that:
- We probably won’t use –or remember- at least 50% of what we study
- The “useful” 50% remaining has long been forgotten –at least 90% of it- and we only remember what we loved or truly hated out of the 10% left.
Why do we then force our kids to repeat an educational model whose absurdity we know too well? The answer is clearly that we want our kids to win at Trivial, as no other explanation is possible.
The syllabus at schools includes diverse topics ranging from which
crops are grown in this or that region, to the tributaries of this and that river, and the chemical formulation and uses of potassium sulphate. If we didn’t learn all that to guess correctly all questions, why did we? To not appear as a blank slate in case someone would randomly ask which countries are crossed by the Orinoco river? The foundation of our education is therefore to prepare ourselves to answer potential questions that someone might ask us one day…or not.
However, when we finally go out into the real world, we find out we should have been able to:
- Find the information we needed. Were we able to do that? Nope.
- Network with people from different backgrounds, ages and characteristics. Did we learn this? Nope.
- Speak publicly without experiencing a terrible fear…or at least some sweating. Did we dare? Nope.
- Speak English/a second language – fluently. Could we? Nope.
- Manage our personal economy. Did we even hear anything about this? Nope.
- Make our own decisions, being able to reason and argument them. Oh please – we didn’t do this either.
What we were taught was instead to repeat, just like a parrot would do, things we forgot once the exam had passed. Memorizing without assimilating or understanding. Repeat, repeat, repeat. If you don’t get it, you must have not repeated it enough.
In my personal experience this reflects in my memories of the many afternoons spent trying to memorize the capitals of the nations in Asia. Saying them out loud again, and again without success. Well, except for Georgia-capital-Tbilisi, which my 10-year-old brain found extremely funny because of an absurd association with my brother’s name (George). Finding a connection between that information and the world familiar to me made it possible to successfully store it –forever.
The scientific term for this is “constructivism”. We find information, we analyze it with our tools and we subsequently form subjective opinions regarding that information, helping us to process and remember it. To know how we got to learn what we learnt becomes more important than what we learnt.
Nonetheless, our school system uses “cognitive learning”, which consists –in a nutshell- in finding information, putting it into a shelf and digging it out of our brain when necessary. Yes, like computers do – no thought to be put in it, just storage.
This model would make sense in a society with difficult access to information, where the only way to know something is to have memorized it previously in the event that the nearest book containing the information is in a remote library 400 km away.
The other model in which our education has been largely based is “behaviorism” –or how to teach a puppy not to pee on the rug. Whenever this happens, the puppy is reprimanded and eventually the puppy stops peeing on the rug out of fear. In its equivalent to education, whenever the student answers incorrectly, gets a bad grade and eventually, starts studies out of fear.
To sum up: the actual educational system treats our kids (and us in the past) as if they are little more than animals living in the XVIII century. Funny.
To set an example, let’s say we are in a class where we are taught to cook a pie. The recipe is written on the blackboard and the students get going.
- The behaviorist teacher would blame the student on his/her inability to put enough flour in the pie.
- The cognitivist teacher would not even try the pie, he would just make the students repeat the recipe out loud, to see if they know it by heart, commas included.
- The constructivist teacher would however let the student cook their pies, and afterwards tell in his/her own words, the complete process, describing the problems and the reasoning behind the solutions to these problems.
There is yet one more learning theory: “connectivism”. The most modern theory and supposedly adaptive to our current digital era. In the pie example, each student would be a member of an information network. Other members are the teacher, a cookbook, a Youtube tutorial, and so on. Here, the most important is for the student to learn to identify which kind of information can be taken out of each of the network’s members, as well as their validity.
To relate this theory in the example, we can say the student will have to consider that maybe the other students will find more creative approaches than the teacher, who on the other hand probably knows more. But the teacher might just know the theory and has never cooked a pie before. However, the student’s mom has made a lot of pies, but can’t really explain precisely how much a “pinch of salt” is, or how much time she means when she says “until it’s golden”. Each member and source of information has advantages and disadvantages, and it is up to the student to identify them and fill in the gaps with the right sources.
The constructivist and connectivist theories have been put to practice for some years now in educational experiments of all kinds. All gathered data shows that learning is more efficient, as the student requires less effort to achieve better results.
But then, why do institutions, parents and teachers still resist to change?
What do we want to raise our kids to do in the future? Win at Trivial?