“Why do we need to learn this?”

It’s the question that all school children ask at some point. Some ask it aloud, demanding an answer from their teachers, parents or peers. Other ask it quietly to themselves. However very few come up with satisfactory answers to the classic inquiry that all students face as they try to make sense of what they are being forced to learn for the first quarter of their lives.

This is a classic sore spot for many teachers. The problem is that teachers often don’t have much more say over the curriculum than their students do, yet they are expected to defend the curriculum all the same. How could a teacher respond to this question with, “because that’s what the state mandates” or “because that’s what I’m paid to teach you” without entirely ruining class morale?

Instead teachers are expected to offer unsatisfactory responses ranging from the dogmatically self-proving to the barely credible. I think it’s time that we take a hard look at this universal question and the unsatisfactory answers it receives.

Self-proving answers

These are the answers that take the tone:

  • You’ll need this in a future academic class
  • A standardized test you will measure you on your mastery of this
  • You’ll need these skills in college

Clearly, these answers are unsatisfactory. If there were a true usefulness for a given set of learning, there should be a better answer than “you should learn this because that’s how we designed things.”

For illustration, this type of answer would be ridiculous for a clearly useful type of learning. If a student asked, “why are we learning how to read?” it’s hard to imagine a teacher responding with “because you need to be able to read on the SAT.”

Minimum set of learning

Barring the self-proving answers, we are left with a few related responses to this question, all concerned with a theoretical “minimum set of learning” needed to be considered “educated” and ready for adult life:

  • You need to learn this to be a good citizen in society and a contribute to the health of our democracy.

No matter how you slice it, this reduces to brainwashing. You may protest that this is “good brainwashing” or that this brainwashing is necessary for our society to function. However, neither of these claims hold up to scrutiny. Firstly, there are a whole host of negative things that schools brainwash into students, so who is to say which is good and which is bad brainwashing? Secondly, societies and democracies have functioned much better than ours currently is without all this “necessary” brainwashing.

  • You need to learn some basic skills and facts before we let you out into the world totally ignorant.

There are many basic skills and facts that are clearly necessary for functioning adult life that school does not teach. To name a few, how to manage romantic and platonic relationships, your career, personal finances, wellness, and spirituality. Because of this lacking in our educational system, there is not a single adult who knows how to date, have friends, manage their career, personal finances, wellness or spirituality. It’s a miracle that society hasn’t collapsed entirely!

Clearly, this is not the case. When there is something to be learned that school does not teach, people simply learn it. Of course, some people are better than others at this process of learning without school. This is a hint towards the true purpose of school, which we will discuss further down.

  • You might one day go into a field where this learning would prove helpful.

Again, this learning is far too preemptive to be efficient. Not only will this learning be useless for a vast majority of students, but for those that it is useful for, it will very likely have been forgotten by the time it’s needed, because the students never saw it as useful in the first place.

  • It’s not about proving things about geometry. It’s about learning how to make logical arguments.

This answer is not totally unfounded. Clearly there’s much to be gained from a deep understand of geometric proofs, well beyond its usefulness in mathematics. Thus, it’s not about the “this” that you need to learn, but about what skills you develop in the course of learning “this.”

However, if a student is asking the question, “why do we need to learn this?” the chances are that they aren’t even close to a deep understanding of this subject, and are in fact actively resisting it. Newsflash: If we’re looking to develop a student’s ability to make logical arguments, there are better ways than forcing them to prove things about triangles.

If doctors acted like teachers

Stealing an illustration from Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Postman and Weingartner, let’s imagine if doctors acted like teachers. Their responses to this question would sound something like:

  • “It seemed like, on average, my patients needed penicillin, so that’s what I gave to the them all and some lived and some died.”
  • “I tried my best but he was a bad patient.”
  • “I cured my patient. It’s a shame they died.” (“I taught my class, but it’s a shame they didn’t learn.”)
  • “They didn’t need the operation now but they might one day, so it’s good they have gotten it out of the way now.”
  • “My patient probably needed a different operation, but I prefer performing heart transplants.”

Clearly, these statements would not be acceptable things for doctors to say, so why do we allow teachers (or the educational system, to be precise) to say them to our students every day?

When is a child educated?

This leaves us with the question: what is the minimum set of things kids need to learn? However, that’s not quite the right question because it frames learning as a set of facts that children need to acquire. While that’s the model of education that traditional schooling upholds, real education more closely resembles developing a set of beliefs, attitudes, practices and mental models.

So here’s the right question: when is a child considered “educated?” What are minimum set of outcomes we are looking for in an educated person?

“You can’t teach people everything they need to know. The best you can do is position them where they can find what they need to know when they need to know it.” — Seymour Papert

Based on this principle, I’ve come up with a few outcomes. However, I apologize in advance if they seem strangely specific and arbitrary. It will become clearer.

A child is educated when they possess:

  1. The ability to recognize problems
  2. The habits of mind to continually be on the lookout for problems
  3. The ability to recognize problems as solvable through learning
  4. The ability to learn appropriately to deal with their problems
  5. The willingness to go about learning to aid problem solving

After a person demonstrates a possession of these five outcomes, I consider them “educated.” They are fit to go forth and live their lives in the world as productive humans. The key is that as long as they see learning as a problem solving tool, they’ve be taught all they they need to know. From here, there’s plenty more learning that they’ll have to and want to do, but it’ll be self-directed learning and beyond the scope of mandatory school as I define it.

How you go about accomplishing these five outcomes is very important, yet not specified here. There may be widely differing approaches to accomplishing these outcomes with varying success.

One thing is for sure: you cannot teach these precepts directly. Thus, the medium chosen to illustrate these concepts are paramount. Do you teach it through learning to read, doing math, making lego towers, coding games, or working in teams? These are questions left up to educators, parents, and students.

But what about X?!

But what about all the other valuable learning that we desperately want our students to know before venturing out into the world? Like:

  • how to read
  • how to write
  • how to do arithmetic
  • how to make change for a $20
  • how to make friends
  • how to cook
  • how to clean
  • how to “network”
  • how to write a resume
  • how to email
  • how to write a research paper
  • how to do research
  • how to use the scientific method
  • how to vote
  • understanding democracy
  • understanding history
  • understand philosophy
  • reading great literature
  • studying great art
  • striving to make the world a better place
  • a love for learning
  • a love for books

These, among many unlisted others, are all incredibly useful things that I desperately want for all children. Yet I’m advocating for an educational system which deliberately does not require any of these goals. In fact, I believe a system that does not require these things is the best and most reliable way to bring them about.

The classic approach to education is to get a bunch of experts together to create a long list of educational outcomes (like I did above), then to break down each of these objectives into grade-level standards, curriculum and tests. In this way, we can all rest assured that all of our children will be educated in all the ways that the experts require. One could, in theory, take my list above and go through the same chunking and testing that classic schooling does. However, that’s exactly the opposite of what I’m suggesting here and would miss my point entirely.

The problem with the old approach to learning is that it just doesn’t work. While you may end up with some students being able to pass tests on the required material, you won’t truly get the outcomes you seek.

In fact, this method often moves you further away from your goals, rather than closer to them. For example, it’s difficult to imagine a child developing a love for books through a school’s required reading list, much like it is hard to imagine a child developing a love for broccoli that’s shoved in her mouth. Sure, that kid would read that single book (or sparknote it) or eat that single piece of broccoli (or spit it into a napkin), but what about all the future books and broccoli that you’re turning this child off from?

If we truly want to impart the outcomes I listed above on children, the best way is to deliberately not require them.

So how do they learn them? I’m glad you asked. Here are the five steps:

  1. They recognize they they have a problem: “I don’t know how to read and thus I can’t play this video game.”
  2. They employ the habits of mind to continually be on the lookout for problems on the horizon: “I’m almost 18. Maybe I should figure out how voting works.”
  3. They recognize problems as being able to be aided with learning: “Maybe there are resources for dealing with the social issues I currently have with my friends.”
  4. They know how to learn appropriately to deal with the problems identified: “I’ll start by googling ‘US currency’”
  5. They have the willingness to go about this learning: “Maybe I’ll buy a few books on this topic. I’ve been looking for something to read anyways.”

Does this work for every outcome that we want students to learn? Kind of. It works for the outcomes that students themselves consider worth pursuing, based on their impression of the usefulness, ease and pleasurability of acquiring that particular education outcome. If you want to ensure that all students learn calculus or latin, you better make a compelling case for its usefulness or make it much easier and fun to learn. Otherwise, you may be disappointed. However, if you’re OK not merely teaching students the same set of facts that you were as a child and you want to create a student population that sees learning as a tool to solve their problems, there is no better way.

Teaching a man to fish

From here, the education problem has been “bootstrapped.” Once you teach someone to effectively serve as their own teacher or “learning manager”, they are officially educated.

If you fish for a man, he eats for a day.

If you teach a man to fish, he eats fish for his whole life. Or until the lake runs out of fish. Or he gets sick of fish.

If you guide a man along the path to teach himself to fish, he will eat until the lake runs of out fish or he is sick of fish or wants to preserve the fish ecosystem, at which point he will teach himself to hunt, forage for berries, buy and sell commodities or build iPhone apps, and then trade these other skills for all sorts of food.

Let’s stop teaching people how to fish. Or anything else for that matter. It’s more fun to figure it out for themselves anyway.