Education is best without any structure but yours

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Learning. My learning style is to open a book and learn stuff, but only when I want to and only about what I want to learn. That had guided my level of academic mediocrity throughout high school and university.

I guess if what you want to use university for is to answer your questions rather than being guided as to what questions they want you to be asking yourself, then that is the path to acedemic mediocrity. Einstein was seen as mediocre in university and had an office job issuing patents to make ends meet before he offered the world his special and general relativity theories. The same was true for Newton, seen as a mediocre math student in Oxford before the Bubonic plague kept him at home thinking obsessively about optics, gravity, and calculus.

The polite thing to say about me is that I am – ahem – not smart in the same way, but the sameness is just in how other assessors saw us. Frankly, when Covid hit, which is a firecracker next to the dynamite that was the Bubonic Plague, I was gaining weight and struggling to stay motivated and engaged with life. No scientific or math breakthroughs for me. Any assessor who thought me as mediocre back in uni would have had their every observation confirmed during Covid.

I did coach, administer and mark several math contests over the past two decades. That’s something, and it is something better than mediocre. I am now leading math clubs, along with Computer Science clubs as my school’s only full-time computer science teacher. Again, not many people would volunteer for any of that. So yes, I may appear mediocre in some circles, but when the rubber hits the road, I gravitate to what is challenging, and rise to the challenge, while urging my students to do the same.

But what about academic achievement? I had to make up for what I didn’t learn on my own, due to my following my own curiosity in any academic programme rather than follow the curriculum. I never surrendered my natural curiosity to forces from academe, regardless of the carrot of higher academic honors being dangled in front of me. In our culture, it seems that learning, even from grade school, boils down to that kind of a tradeoff. I never get a sense that there was ever room for compromise.

Most people give up their special set of questions to pursue what they are told, and it seems they end up comfortable, but losing their natural curiosity, believing that learning is hard, learning is not natural unless you have a pre-digested curriculum with pre-digested questions to answer. These are questions you are not necessarily asking; questions you are not necessarily curious about.

I was always confused as a child as to why I did so poorly in school. I would ask my counsellor why he thought it was. He said he didn’t know. So, it was unknown to science or something? These days, it seems quite simple. My will to learn was never really tamed or never really broken to conform to other’s expectations. Pursuing learning for its own pleasure was one of the few pleasures I seemed to be able to have in my teens, and the nice thing about this pleasure is that it is perennial. So, as a result, I always favoured the self-indulgence of asking my own questions, doing my own reading, and finding things out for myself.

The energy I devoted to that meant I had less energy for the course material at hand. But on some deep level I also didn’t find the idea of giving up my freedom to learn in exchange for a high mark to be that worthwhile a tradeoff. It seemed that the way the education system was set up was to make you feel less competent to do basic things in life, which ought not to be rocket science. Making easy things seem hard is not the mark of a good educational system.

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