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I dislike school. This may be surprising given that, despite culminating my upper-education with a Bachelor’s degree a year ago, I have not been outside the classroom for more than a summer at any point in my life.
Schools, especially those in the formal educational system, are extraordinarily imperfect tools at best. The vast majority of growth and learning comes from personal discovery, not the one-size-fits-all prescription of a curriculum. Still, there is a lot to be gained from school. It is just a matter of knowing how to make school work for you. The following are things I learned when I took a year away from my university and worked as a teacher. When I came back I was a better student and learned more.
(above: me teaching a private lesson in Beijing back in 2007)
This TED Talk about the difference between how boys and girls learn (and why boys are struggling in school) had me thinking about the subject recently, so here are the things that helped me get more from the classroom:
1. Engage the Teacher
Want to know a secret? Teachers often get just as bored as students. Complacency runs abound in the classroom, almost as if us students believe our very presence will allow us to learn through osmosis. If you talk, show an interest and engage the teacher not only will the class be more interesting for both of you, but you will learn more.
For my current experiment to learn French in a month I attend 4 hours of class a day and talk incessantly. Pulling the class into an amusing discussion is far more interesting than following a script. Of course, I am careful to make sure that the teacher is still able to progress through the lesson unimpeded.
2. Know how to Use the Book
I love books. Even textbooks. Unfortunately they are often misused in the classroom… and this applies doubly for taking notes. When you are in the classroom the teacher’s wisdom is the most precious resource at your disposal. I’ll never look up a word or rule first in a language class – I’ll ask the teacher to explain it (and check my understanding later). This exposes intricacies in the material a book simply cannot convey.
Often I see students scribbling away furiously as the teacher talks. These are often the very same students that cannot seem to comprehend the material (even though they may memorize it). The information passes from ears to hands with little metacognition in between.
The bottom line is that a textbook is great for preview and review, but the classroom is a place for human interaction.
3. Contradict Things… Sometimes
Once, when teaching a Chinese class (like the one above), I contradicted something that the book said. I then spent the next week attempting to reconcile the damage of the existence of two conflicting “absolute authorities.” Culturally, China places a much greater emphasis on memorization (it is why they kick our butts at math and science), but it sacrifices the element of challenging what is accepted. If Chinese students are too eager to believe in a single truth, though, western students are far too ready to dismiss whatever they don’t feel like learning. The best students walk this line – demanding that the material be justified where appropriate, but accepting that certain things must simply be… learned.
4.The Material is Fun
No matter how sadistic some teachers may seem, I do not believe anybody ever entered into a teaching field thinking “this is so boring – if only I could torture others with it!” In other words, there is something interesting about everything that can be learned. It is a shared responsibility of student and teacher to figure out how to find those interesting nuggets in the material.
Ironically, foreign languages were my “hell subject” back in my formal education days. It was not until I realized that language and culture are intertwined that they became interesting. Now I spend a good chunk of my free time learning new languages not because I want to know how to say “milk” in Arabic, but because I want to be able to travel to Morocco and Egypt and make some sense of the world around me.
5. Be a Self Teacher
Here’s another secret: this blog is an experiment in self teaching. The research I do for the weekly posts leads me on some very interesting paths of discovery. Since graduating from my university I’ve slowly been filling in the holes in my understanding of classical literature, history and other topics. Here are some books worth checking out if you’re interested in teaching yourself and rounding out your education:
- The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had
- The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance
Do you have any questions? I'd love to try to help you with your quest to learn more. Leave a comment below, or contact me directly.