I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.
- Mark Twain
Let me explain by telling you how a typical day in school looks like.
“Let’s now proceed to how this bacterium will look like under a microscope, and try to identify the anatomy”, said my lecturer in a monotone. My lecturer was speaking word by word according to the slides we got before class. Couldn’t I just read the slides instead of listening to a dull voice?
It’s only been 10 minutes, but I can’t wait for class to be over. Why do I need to learn about this when I’m never going to use it in my career, anyway? The moment my exams are over, I know that this piece of information is obsolete. Academia is rich in complex jargons and knowledge that I’ll never use. I signed up for medical school to be a doctor, but do doctors need to know how to label bacteria? This knowledge could be useful for researchers and microbiologists, but I signed up to treat humans, not germs!
Instead of learning something useful, I wasted my time, learning something for the sake of regurgitating in exams. Not only is the knowledge useless, but the methods of learning are boring too! I don’t blame my peers for Airdropping memes whenever class gets dry.
And the best part? The moment I get out of that lecture hall, I’ve forgotten 80% of the lecture's content. They shove facts and concepts down our throats at record time, with no time given to digest the information. How the hell do you turn food into nutrients when we can’t digest it?
Ah shit, here we go again—time for me to hit the library and learn it all over again on my own.
The problems with schools
I’ve been experiencing this for at least 15 years now. I’ve tried everything to make the most of my time in class: I sat in the front seat, I sat behind; I took notes; I asked questions. It did work, but not as well as when I learned on my own. The truth is, school is slow, ineffective, and sucks the joy out of life.
Classes moving online has further proved this notion for me. I studied less as online classes are optional. I skipped everything bar the mandatory ones, spent more time studying on my own, but am doing as well on exams. The best part? I replace the time I would spend in class with reading, writing, and connecting with my friends and family.
Standard teaching methods, such as lectures, are not efficient. According to Edgar Dale and the Cone of Experience, listening to lectures and reading information leads to knowledge retention rates as low as 5%.
My short-term solution to this problem is to skip classes whenever I can and use that time to study on my own instead. This allows me to learn at my pace and intensity and have the flexibility to study when I am at my best. However, this solution is for me alone. A better approach would be to shake up the system.
The environment and methods of formal education each limit our potential. If we learn in an environment that works with how our brain learns and not against it, we won’t struggle with resistance.
Studies on successful people have shown that success is not the result of strong willpower and the ability to overcome resistance. Instead, success results from environments that avoid resistance in the first place. Losing weight is easier when you don’t have access to junk food. Working out is easier when the gym is right around the corner. Learning is easier when you learn according to how your brain works.
Instead of struggling, successful people deflect resistance, like judo champions. The right mindset is not enough; you need a proper workflow too.
What schools should do
Schools should apply retrieval practice in classrooms. Retrieval practice is a learning technique where you regularly test yourself while learning. This differs from “passive” learning, where you passively consume information by listening to lectures and re-reading. Reading a text about World War 2 is passive. Answering the question: “What triggered World War 2?” is retrieval practice.
Retrieval practice leverages the testing effect, which states that you remember things better when you retrieve the information from memory. By testing ourselves, we put our brain through the wringer, trying to recall information. We often think that we learn better when we find it easy, but research says otherwise. The more effort you put into learning, the more you remember.
One way schools can apply this is to prioritise testing when teaching. While schools are already doing this through tests and exams, they are not doing it enough. Most of the time, testing is for grading students instead of teaching them. However, the best way to learn is to test yourself. Testing is learning, as it immediately shows you what you know and what you don’t.
Instead of learning via lectures for one hour, make time for quizzing. As students go through the class, deliberately pause halfway and ask students to recall what they learned. You can use flashcards, mini-quizzes, or simply ask them to jot down the fundamental ideas from memory.
Besides that, materials and resources made by teachers should also have these questions by default so students can assess what they know and what they don’t know. Past exam questions should be accessible for students to practice.
Schools can also implement spaced repetition, which is the practice of repeating your reviews of a topic with increasing intervals between each review session. The spacing effect explains this, a phenomenon where we can better recall information and concepts if we learn them in multiple spread-out sessions.
In 1885, the psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered the Forgetting Curve. According to this curve, your memory decays over time when you don’t review it. When we learn something new, we’ll forget half of it by the next day or week unless we review what we learned.
However, it is possible to disrupt this forgetting. All we have to do is repeat our review of the information. Ebbinghaus discovered that with each repetition, the forgetting curve flattens, and the rate of memory loss decreases. Do this enough times, and you can commit anything to memory.
Schools usually teach a topic once, then move on to another topic. To leverage the spacing effect, teach once, review multiple times.
The easiest way to learn is simply spending a lot of time doing what you want to become good at. If you want to learn how to write, write articles instead of reading books on writing. If you want to learn how to play the piano, play a song instead of learning music theory. If you want to pass a test, practice solving the problems that are likely to come up.
Most of us find direct learning uncomfortable and frustrating, so we often settle with reading or listening, hoping it will make us better at the real thing.
Direct learning helps with transfer, the phenomenon where you learn something in one context (the classroom) and be able to use it in another context (real life). However, formal education does not facilitate transfer.
The psychologist Robert Haskell pointed out how severe the lack of transfer is in learning. He said, “We expect that there will be transfer of learning, for example, from a high school course in introductory psychology to a college-level introduction to psychology course. It has been known for years, however, that students who enter college having taken a high school psychology course do no better than students who didn’t take psychology in high school. Some students who have taken a psychology course in high school do even worse in the college course.”
Most formal learning is indirect. We beat around the bush, practising example solutions instead of solving real-life problems. More often than not, students who do well in exams cannot solve problems in real life. What they learn in class does not transfer into real life.
Schools should be direct and teach by doing. Students should spend time in class doing the thing they want to get better at. If this isn’t possible, use an artificial environment for practice. Pilots can practice with flight simulators. Medical students can practice with simulated patients.
Sir William Osler once said, “Medicine is learned by the bedside and not in the classroom. Let not your conceptions of disease come from words heard in the lecture room or read from the book. See, and then reason and control. But see first.” This quote doesn’t just apply to medicine but to anything that we are learning.
Schools suck. But will it change anytime soon? Until schools start using methods that actually work, I’d say probably not.
P.S. Big thanks to everyone who took their time to read my piece and give some feedback: Pathik Vyas, Gayatri Taley, Amanda Natividad, Kyle Weber, Ivan Gonzalez, Megan Goering Mellin, Beda Binder, Gad Allon, Chris Wong, and Gwyn Wansbrough. Also to the mentors for helping me come up with the idea for the article: Adam Tank, Charlie Bleecker, and Julia Saxena.
P.P.S: This video is exactly how I feel about school
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