by Ben Page, Open School staff and co-founder
July 6, 2017
Do you remember a time when you or one of your classmates asked a teacher, “But why do we have to learn this?” I remember asking this question in many different classrooms and I don’t think I ever got a satisfactory answer. Teachers are trained to respond that learning inherently enriches us. The truth, however, is that in traditional classrooms, learning is only important in so far as it demonstrates compliance and proficiency in completing assignments as they are described. If everything we learned in traditional classrooms was supposed to be enriching, why can we remember so little of it?
If you ask a neuroscientist you may hear the expression, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” To put it another way: your brain learns as a result of deep sustained thinking over a long period of time. Imagine driving a car. When you first started, you had to think a lot about driving. After 10 years of practice, most of it has become automatic. Now think about the way classrooms function. We drill for two weeks, take the test, then move on the next thing. When we move on, we stop thinking about what we just learned, and the brain rewires for what it must learn next. In my opinion, this is an atrocious waste of time and human potential.
If everything we learned in traditional classrooms was so enriching, why can we remember so little of it?
When you know what you want to learn about and you have ample time to dedicate, that learning develops organically. This is easily demonstrated through biographies of prolific geniuses as well as through common everyday experience. The things we think about a lot are the things we learn. The point of education should not be to distract people from their passions; on the contrary, it should empower them to pursue their passions.
This brings me back to the question I first proposed: what is the point of learning? Personally, I think the point of learning, especially in childhood and early adult education, is to become neurologically capable of perceiving our passions and pursuing them without doubt or fear. Learning is a vehicle towards self-awareness, and education can be a framework that accelerates that motion. The Open School is one such framework.
When it comes to curricular learning, we should always question its usefulness. Not everyone will think about European history, or trigonometry, or painting after the class ends. I challenge you to find any classroom in the entire world with compulsory learning where there is not always at least one child bored out of his or her mind. And the sad thing about this is not that the child is failing to take advantage of the curriculum. The sad thing is that the child already has a gift that isn’t being developed.
I want to be crystal clear: I am not denigrating any particular academic pursuit. I believe that for every interest, there are people in the world who are passionate about it. Some love to learn foreign languages because they want to live a life of travel, or simply because they are fascinated by culture or linguistics; meanwhile, others will waste 2000 hours studying a language they are not interested in and will never use. There is no point in learning something that has no utility, because the brain will lose it. What is the point of learning something we will lose? Is that really enriching?
People sometimes think a school without a curriculum sounds crazy. They ask, “But what are they learning?” I could list the myriad academic subjects that students at The Open School engage in every day, but I think a better answer is that they are learning to learn. Their brains associate the process of learning with pleasure, not pain or anxiety. They follow their interests and delve deeply into their passions. They are undistracted by shallow learning that will inevitably evaporate. They are answering a new question, a much more important question, which is “What is the point of my learning?”