"It's so they can learn how to learn"

Traditional school makes people memorize a bunch of stuff that they’ll never need again, and they typically forget most of it within a few years of graduating. The stuff you learn in college may be relevant, but that’s because you can choose your major. But the stuff they make you learn before that? It mostly gets forgotten. (Pop Quiz! What’s a covalent bond?)

When I point this out, people sometimes try to justify it by saying that all this memorization “teaches you how to learn”. Nonsense! Children are born knowing how to learn. How else do they manage to learn how to walk and talk? What traditional school teaches you is not “how to learn”, but rather “how to shut up and memorize a bunch of pointless facts and then forget about it later”. Does that sound like learning to you?

Think of somebody learning something. Think of Thomas Edison, for instance, learning how electricity works. Do you suppose that he crammed for a test, memorized a bunch of facts about electricity, and then forgot it all once the test was over? No! He learned on a much deeper level, and he retained that knowledge for the rest of his life. True learning comes when the student is actually interested in the subject and the subject has some relevance to their life. (And since people design their lives based on their interests, these two things go hand in hand!)

Even if you know in advance that, for instance, your kid is going to need to know how to read when they grow up (and I agree that they’re going to need that), there’s no point in pushing them into it. Wait till the kid is interested in learning, and then provide the help they need when they need it. Pushing them into it doesn’t speed up the process; it actually slows things down! It’s like starting a race early, but the tradeoff is that you have to wear 60-pound iron boots. Oh sure, if seems like an advantage to get a “head start”, but you’re actually going slower, overall, than if you had just started at the appropriate time and run around on your own two feet!

Besides, learning is happening all the time! The 8-year-old kid who “isn’t learning to read” is actually picking up words all around him; they’re inescapable! Plenty of Sudbury kids have gone from “illiterate” to “reading for fun” very quickly, likely because they were subconcsiously picking stuff up even when they weren’t “officially” learning anything. And as for those things that the kid actually never learns, those are very like the very things that he will never need. Like the quadratic equation, for instance. It’s great for engineers and mathematicians, but it’s pointless for the other 99% of the human race.

So don’t tell me that this assembly line system is “teaching people how to learn”. It’s teaching them how not to learn. And while I acknowledge that there are teachers in the traditional system who do good work, they mostly accomplish things by breaking the rules of traditionalism, not by following them.

Want your kid to learn how to learn? Just give them resources, and watch them soar.