Endless preparation

In his book Made by Hand, Mark Frauenfelder quotes Peter Gray on what’s wrong with contemporary education. Gray says that school is about

always preparing for some future time when you will know enough to actually do something, instead of doing things now. And that’s such a tedious approach for anybody to take to life—always preparing.

Related post: “Just in case” versus “just in time”

9 thoughts on “Endless preparation

  1. There are of course plenty of ways you might classify learning strategies with. The one you implicitly refer to – however – is often called the just in caseapproach to learning: you learn a lot of “stuff” because one day it might become relevant for a real-life situation.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum there is the just in time learning strategy, which consists of focusing your efforts on learning how to be able to find the right piece of information when you need it.

    I personally disagree with the vision that there is something innately wrong or boring with the idea of learning just in case. After all, the biggest is your “capital of known things”, the largest is the amount of resources you can mobilise in your brain to solve any problem you might encounter. A lot of original problem-solving begins exactly by using notions from “external” domains for acting in a given – apparently unrelated – context.

    Part of the problem with the “just in case” learning in schools, is that many education providers insist in making pupils learn the wrong stuff. The bulk of many school curricula were designed when the Internet was yet to come, in a time in which information that is now accessible from a smartphone required half an hour of research at the local library. Back then, you wanted your pupils to learn that information because you knew that when that information would likely be needed, your pupils would equally likely not have the possibility to take a trip to the library.

    Symmetrically, schools often miss to include in their curricula the right stuff to learn. This is mostly a generational problem: in many domains educators know less than their pupils, and even if they do know things, there might be a lack of educational material available to them. Think for example to the Internet: teens would largely benefit from a more self-reflected use of it, and they should be helped – for example – to learn how to retrieve, filter, cross-check and validate the information they find online. Unluckily there are plenty of teachers who do not know the difference between the address bar of a browser and the search box of google. Ironically, they only learnt by the “just in case” method 20 or 30 years ago, and are now unable to update their competences in a “just in time” way…

    A second part of the problem with some of the contemporary education, is that some teachers fails to put the information they provide into perspective, or – in other terms – they fail to exemplify what the information they require students to learn is useful for. In a way it’s true that school (life?) is and probably should be an endless preparation: firstly because there is more relevant information “out there” than we can assimilate in a lifespan, and secondly because the context we live in is not fixed, but dynamic. The point should rather be to make that information immediately relevant for the context of the learner: this would make easier for pupils to learn but incidentally, this is also the difference between education and indoctrination.

  2. @mac: Your comment reminded me of a post I wrote a while back about “just in case” learning versus “just in time.” I updated the post with a link. The quote above might give the impression that I favor just-in-time learning more than I do. See my other post for a discussion of when each style of learning is appropriate.

  3. Manoel Galdino

    I would have a lot to say, but Mac said almost all I would say about the subject. I will add only one piece of information (or argument):
    School prepares you to be able to engage in long term projects during your life. In fact, self control and time preference is an important noncognitive skill in the job market and in life in general.
    See this interview with Heckman for more about this subject.

  4. @John: thanks for the link to the other post. Funny enough, when I was composing my original comment, I was considering to insert some examples, and I was precisely considering sport and programming… 😉

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