On the way back from Cross Village, Sonya and I had a discussion about education. With her recently acquired degree in elementary education and my interest in tirelessly debating everything, it was a pretty interesting conversation (at least for one of us). We talked about why people think kids today do not learn much in school and whether this opinion is true. We also covered the differences between learning things, learning how to locate things, and learning how to learn. I am sure she reached different conclusions than I did, but I would like to share the things I realized as part of this conversation.

The part of education that I would consider most useful in a general sense is something I would call research. An example of a research assignment would be to ask a student a question, such as what is the executive title in Canada’s national government. The student would then (1) locate and identify media sources with this information, (2) read and comprehend the media sources, and (3) effectively communicate the answer to the question. This format is really quite flexible; the question can be detailed and specific or very broad. The available media sources could be unlimited or just one chapter in a textbook. The answer could be communicated in the form of a single, written sentence, a large paper, an informal conversation, or a formal presentation. This research format could be expanded by adding a step (#2.5) of collaboration. The format would change from research to problem solving if the original question is replaced with a problem; the students would need to formulate questions that might help solve the problem.

Much of what I have done in my short professional career has followed this research model. This is how to learn; it encompasses literary arts, history, science, and advanced mathematics. (The rest of what I have done at work is the implementation of the answers I have discovered.)

I would argue that the retention of the discovered answer is generally quite unimportant. It is important for students to know how to learn. It is not important or students to know the leadership titles of foreign governments. Reading and comprehending information is critical, as is the ability to effectively share that information.

While talking with Sonya, I identified three nonessential skills that schools often focus on. The first is alphabetizing. It is useful to be able to alphabetizing quickly, and I am often surprised when I see people who have trouble with this. However, it is only marginally helpful to the research model described above, and it is unrelated to the critical skills. The next is mental arithmatic. I have the same opinion of this; it is nice to be good at, but it is unrelated to the learning process. (Incidentally, I have known at least one talented math major who was bad at arithmatic.) The third skill is spelling. I was reluctant to admit this, because I consider it important to spell correctly. (You don’t want me to find a spelling mistake on your resume!) However, spelling is unrelated to reading and comprehension. Modern spell checkers reduce the need for spelling ability, and I would like to draw a line distinguishing spelling errors from semantic errors.

While alphabetizing, mental arithmatic, and spelling are unrelated to the critical skills of research, they share similarities and certainly are not useless. For lack of a better explanation, being good at these things is simply being smart. Standard aptitude tests measure and emphasize these skills.

Using broad generalities and cruel, arbitrary judgments, it seems like people can be reduced to four groups:

  1. Good at learning (i.e. educated) and smart
  2. Good at learning (i.e. educated) and not smart
  3. Not good at learning (i.e. uneducated) but smart
  4. Not good at learning (i.e. uneducated) but not smart

Someone with college degree has evidence of their ability to learn. However, they may still rely on pocket calculators and spellcheckers and not be able to find words in the dictionary. Kindergarten teachers can easily tell you which of their students are smart even before the students really know how to learn.

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