Schooling or Learning?

When I was going to school I often asked myself; what is it all for? Now that I am 62 years old I ask myself again; what was it all for? It is not an easy question to answer, for most of what I had so called 'learned', I had no use for in my life, and have forgotten. At school I was one of the students who enjoyed learning school work. So now I can not help but wonder, if I who enjoyed school work, have lost and not retained so much, what of the experience of those who disliked school work? I seem to remember they were the vast majority, and us nerds were the minority. The answers I believe are determined by the answer to a single question. Did they retain it and was it useful and influential in their lives? For most of them, the answer is most assuredly no. So again what was it all for?

Was it all for Nothing? I think much of it was for nothing. Of the things I learned at school that I think have been of importance to me, I believe I might have learned them better elsewhere. It seems that school was an elaborate baby sitting system with pretensions to useful instruction. What about the three Rs? When faced with this kind of criticism of schools, many will bring up reading, writing and arithmetic to justify schools. Maybe many students learned these at school but I did not. I learned to read before I went to school and improved my reading by much reading outside school. I could print also before I went to school. I did learn to write at school, if by write we mean the cursive script that enables letters to be joined together in a continuous flow. But considering the few letters I have written, that were not created on a computer, this seems pretty much a waste of time also. (No I did not learn computer at school.) Simple arithmetic, I had also mastered before I went to school although it was much elaborated at school.

I believe however that I might have learnt mathematics better elsewhere. I remember, I had been top of my class in mathematics for many years, right up to third or forth form in high school. In that year we got a maths teacher, who was a real bitch, and who continually humiliated me throughout the year. In that year I almost failed maths. I remember going through my paper and finding a problem she had failed to give me marks for. Marks that took me from failing to passing. When I showed her this, she stood me up in front of the class and ridiculed me and how untidy the paper was. After this experience I never again delighted in learning pure maths. Further this loss of interest actually prevented me getting into computers when I first tried to find employment. This instance I think shows how pivotal and destructive a teacher's influence can be.

What was the use of schools? When I discovered that my parents were not going to send me to university, I was not unduly disappointed, for I was already learning psychology out of books and had studied books on learning outside school. I saw no reason, why I could not just continue to learn by myself, and I did. But life interferes. What with work time and play time, I had little time to devote to learning. Still I continued to read and jot down thoughts and mark passages in books, thinking that I would some day do something with it. Now, of course, I am trying to see if I have indeed learned something. But I feel that I have been at a terrible disadvantage, in that, I have had hardly anyone to discuss my ideas with. I have tried to criticize my own ideas, but surely many others would be better critics of such ideas. I have come to the conclusion, that the true use of schools, is the community of scholars who can discuss, criticize, formalize and make known one's work.

John R. Platt (one of the great school reformers) made this abundantly clear, but I did not see it back when I started this. He said:

"The only thing that saves us is the fact that the good students learn many things outside the curriculum. I think that in many cases the reputations of the hard-driving schools, both the high schools and the collages, is not due to the courses or the staff at all, but is due to the quality of students they are able to get. If you have hot-shots, it makes little difference what you teach them - or whether you teach them at all; they will find out from each other (as the whole human race did!) how to be great contributors to society. The importance of this initial student selection factor has never been sorted out in assessing our schools. Many a school has good graduates not because its education is good but because its students were good when they came in and have not been much damaged."

Life at School.

Low Points. I do not want you to think, that I was bitter about school, or that I disliked it. On the contrary, I enjoyed school and was very successful in school. I did think some things at school were a drag, like having to play sport. I remember, some of us would perform some minor offence, so we would be put in detention during sport. Detention was actually enjoyable. Most of the time you could do your homework, or read a book, as long as it was one they approved of. Another thing I disliked actually happened because of my behavior. For a long time, I was able to go into the school library and read during my lunch hour. After a few years of this, they noticed me and made a rule that students could only go into the library for a short time during lunch, a quarter of an hour before lunch finished. I remember, I would stand in front of the principals office, where there was a clock, and wait to go to the library. This also got me into trouble, when it was noticed what I was doing. Now you may think these rules (as I did) made no sense, but in fact the aims of the school in doing this were admirable. They wanted us to socialize and engage in physical activity. But of course, students like myself, needed to be wooed to such things, and could not be forced.

High Points. For the most part school was enjoyable.

    Music. One of the most enjoyable classes at school was our music class, which looking back on it, was unusual in that it did many things. We could learn to play an instrument and we learnt about how instruments worked. We learnt about the great composers and how they lived their lives. We learnt musical theory and we learnt to sing. Most important we were exposed to many different types of music, not just rock or pop. Also once a year the school would put on a musical play (usually Gilbert and Sutherland) so students and teachers would take part. Preparation and rehearsal for this was all part of our music class.

    Maths. Looking back now I see that the school I went to was quite good and even innovative. I remember one year they abandoned streaming and put the good learners and bad learners together. The idea being if you put good learning and bad learning together some of the good learning might rub off. Sounds alright but of course we did not talk in class and outside we did not mix. One teacher, a maths teacher, must have decided to try to take this a little further and he proposed an experiment. Because of the previous streaming, he knew who were the good maths students and who were poor ones. We also had desks that seated two students. So he proposed that one of the poor students would sit with one the better students. Furthermore both students were allowed to discuss problems as long as they did it quietly.

    In those days I was considered one of the better students in maths, so I was paired with a kid who was having difficulties keeping up or understanding anything at all. I do not know how the experiment worked as a whole, but surprisingly this incident proved most gratifying for me. It was rewarding helping this kid who was used to failing but now had a chance. Ultimately he attained one of the better passes in the class. My own learning and understanding of maths also increased to a marked degree toward top marks probably because I had to teach and so internalize the concepts. It may partly have been the kid I was put next to, for he was clearly interested and wanted to learn. I may not have talked to him, if he had not asked me questions or if there were personality conflicts. I subsequently learnt that he went on to become an engineer.

    Counting Squares. My favorite time of the year was after the exams were over. We still had to go to class, but sometimes the teachers let us chose our own work, or they would provide glimpses of the more advanced learning which we would not normally encounter for some time, or they would give us puzzles to solve.  This worked as an incentive because I remember one year a teacher gave us this particular puzzle to solve. It was a way of demonstrating a mathematical idea, far in advance of our current work. This puzzle consisted of a ten by ten square grid. We had to find out how many squares could be traced following the lines that were there.

    All the other kids rushed in and started counting squares, but I could assess that the puzzle had real mathematical scope. I pondered the question appearing to do nothing. This took a long while. Obviously if one side was ten squares and the other side was ten squares the total number of small squares was 10 x 10 = 100, 100 squares. This helped but was far short of the total answer. The whole big grid was one square for a start. Consider the next smallest square it was possible to draw. This was nine squares across and nine squares down. One, two, three, four were traced. The pattern was dawning on me. So then I drew the next smallest size of square 8 across and 8 down. There were 9. Was there an underlying relation? Yes. It was 1 x 1 + 2 x 2 + 3 x 3 a simple relationship of squares. Realizing all I had to do was fill in the numbers up to ten, I started to multiply each number by itself. To finalize the answers only had to be placed one beneath the other ready to add up.

    At this point the teacher stopped us and asked if any one could give the answer. Many students gave answers but they were clearly wrong. Their answers were far too small. I could see that even though I did not have an answer. When no more hands popped up with answers the teacher asked again if anyone had an answer. The boy sitting next to me put his hand up. But when asked, he said John has the answer. He been watching what I was doing. The teacher asked if I had an answer. I replied that I thought that I had worked out how to solve the problem, but that I had not completed calculating the answer. The teacher then asked me to come out to the black board and show the class. I went out to the black board and wrote down the numbers 1+4+9+16+25+36+49+64+81+100=385.

    The solving of a problem that nobody else can, can produce great elation. This nurtured a sudden love for mathematics in me. It was like an oceanic wave sweeping over me. Thus a clarity about maths seemed to fill every space in my mind. My entire life experience was clarified and reinterpreted. I felt as one with the universe. This I believe was my first (what Maslow calls) a peak experience.

    Physics & Algebra. I was to have another very similar peak experience before I left school. It was much later when I was in forth or fifth form. Our text book for physics was mostly experiments to be done in class, but in the back were a number of related problems to be solved. Students were supposed to gradually work their way through the problems, and I did. Once you understood the physics involved the problems were easy to do, or so I thought, till I got to one particular question. I puzzled over it for many days, till finally, I put up my hand in class and asked the teacher how to do it. The teacher came over and sat down with me and looked at the problem. He tried for a long while but he finally had to admit he did not know how to solve the problem. He said he would ask the other teachers who had used this book before. But it turned out that nobody knew how to solve it. Although the teacher said not to worry, it occurred to me that someone who had written the book had thrown down a clever challenge. Our teachers advice was to skipp this particular question, completely forget about it and get on with the rest of the problems.

    As far as I was concerned this was like a red rag to a bull. Now I just had to solve this problem. More days went by and I began to spend all my spare time trying to solve the problem. That year or just previously we had been introduced to a new subject called algebra which had seemed to have no practical use and was thoroughly boring. So while in an algebra class I was mulling over this physics problem in my mind. Because I was in the algebra class I suppose it occurred to me that maybe I could see what was happening in the problem better if I substituted x and y for the variables in the problem. I had a physics class that day and I could hardly wait to try out my new idea. When I got to the physics class I paid no attention to the teacher. Instead I was totally obsessed by the problem. I made the substitution. It still did not make a lot of sense but I could feel I was on the right track. I simplified the whole problem to numbers and letters and wrote it out as an equation, and there it was, a simple algebraic transformation suddenly made the problem solvable.

    I could feel the wave of euphoria coming even as I put my hand up, telling the teacher I had solved the problem. Soon I was out at the black board explaining to the rest of the class. I had solved it, while other students had not been able to. The teachers had been stumped, but I had done it. Not only that, but the patterns in my mind began to flow and change and crystallize into something vast and new. Algebra was not only useful but it might be used to unlock the most complex of problems. Not only that but all the strange things the teachers were teaching us might be able to do such profound things. What a rush. It's like one moment you were almost dead and the next you are totally alive. As if you have unlocked the secrets of the universe. Not everyone experiences these euphoric moments, but those who do I believe have an advantage in that they are much more likely to come to love learning.

    More Physics & Algebra. One last high point is worth a mention. After my great success combining physics with algebra, I was always on the lookout for another chance to do it again. This chance came quite some time after but while I was in the same form. The teacher was in the process of solving a problem on the board dealing with mass and acceleration. Suddenly I saw that there was an easier way to do it, because if you used an algebraic transformation a considerable amount of the problem cancelled itself out. I put up my hand and explained that I thought I had an easier way to solve the problem. The teacher invited me out to the board to explain which I did. I did the transformation and then solved the problem easily. The teacher thanked me and I returned to my seat. But this time there was no peak experience. Sure I felt good and well pleased with myself but no massive change in my mind and no feeling of being one with the universe.

    In hindsight my peak experiences and triumphs were rather trivial and narcissistic but where this can be fostered in children it surely is a shortcut to learning and self esteem. Although Maslow did not mention anything about people having peak experiences at school it, seems an ideal time to foster such things if at all possible. Surely this kind of experience, which is always some kind of learning experience, should be one of the great positive benefits of all learning.

The Turning Point. Another math class provided a very different experience. Some weeks previously our class was doing some work on the relation between arcs and segments of spheres. I suddenly realized it would be possible to calculate the surface area of the earth. I already understood the exercises we were supposed to be doing at that time, so I decided to work out the surface area of the world. As I was working the teacher came up behind me looked over my shoulder and realized I was not doing the current exercises he had set. He asked me what I was doing, and I started to explain the problem I was working on. He told me I was not there to learn such things, and that I was there only to learn the exercises he had set. Even though I pointed out that what I was doing was maths, he insisted that I was there to do only what he told me to do. It went very quiet in the room. Everybody was looking at me and the teacher. I closed what I was doing conceding to start one of the problems on the board. The atmosphere in the room was strange but I knew I had won a moral victory.

More than that, it was as if the teacher had striped his mask away. We had all seen for a moment the naked truth about schools. The teacher never came near me again, nor did he mention this incident again. Indeed he acted very sheepish after this, not even looking in my direction for many days. He knew he had said the wrong thing. He had unintentionally cut through all the high sounding waffle and had exposed the reality of what he and I were there for. He felt he needed to show he was in control rather than allowing learning to take place. This might not seem like a high point, but it felt good, and as you might imagine, it changed my life. Never again would I see teachers as the high priests of knowledge. Now I perceived knowledge to be for the taking. I would get it by hook or by crook when those in authority were not looking.

Life after School.

Work. Even though I had done fairly well at school and matriculated, my parents did not expect me to go to university. It was decided that I would leave high school and get a job. Being interested in science and art, I applied for a job at Kodak working in computers. We were given a special type of intelligence test to see if we were suitable. The test consisted of two parts one concerned with mathematics, and the other with matching symbols. I did not get the job because I failed the maths section. But evidently they were impressed with my symbol matching, so they gave me a job as a trainee manager in the emulsion section.

Learning and psychology. About this time I became increasingly immersed in reading books on psychology and books on education, subjects that I had aroused my interest at school. All this combined to open up for me a lifelong interest in learning. Of particular interest were the books on psychology as well those on learning because at that time there was a great deal of popular literature coming out on both these subjects. I remember, I used to go to a counterculture bookshop that was just stacked with rows and rows of such books. Among the authors were Jonathan Kozol, Herbert Kohl, George Dennison, Ivan Illich, James Herndon, Jean Piaget, William Glasser, Carl Rogers, Thomas Gordon, and especially John Holt and Abraham Maslow who really impressed me. As I sifted through this material I began to write down my own thoughts about such. I began to fill huge notepads full of notes.

A depressing discovery. After I had be doing this for several years, the day came when I was talking about these ideas to my step cousin's wife, who was a teacher, and she suggested I should go with her one day to her school. She said she believed her school was quite progressive. The only thing, that I can still recall clearly about that day, was being in the teacher's lounge and listening to a teacher endlessly criticize the more progressive methods used there. What was worse, was that none of the other teachers were arguing back. Not even I argued back. Later I asked Carol (the girl who had taken me there) why that guy was working at the school if he disliked it so much. She explained that he and the school had no choice and that teachers were allocated to the school by the board of education (if I remember correctly). Anyway, although I continued to write notes for several years after that, I think the visit to the school had made me lose heart that anything could ever be done.

Life. Gradually work and life made more and more demands on me and I did less and less reading and writing. The big break came when I decided to leave Australia and go and live in Thailand. Curiously in Thailand I eventually ended up teaching. I must admit I was not very good at teaching, but the experience was useful in enabling me to see first hand, the problems teachers are faced with. For a long while nothing further happened. My notes and books were back in Australia and my life in Thailand was very full and did not include much to do with learning or psychology. It has only been the result of illness and inactivity that I started again to compile learning information.

New books. Realizing my knowledge was antiquated, I began to buy new books. I scoured bookshops, bought a few related books but the subject that interested me seemed to be out of vogue in this age.  I started to do searches on Amazon but the books I was finding seemed only peripherally concerned with learning methodology. Twenty something years had intervened and there was a hole in my knowledge. I needed to look elsewhere than the popular books. The only thing I could verify was that nothing much seemed to have happened to change schools from what I had known. One noticeable thing was that corporal punishment seemed to have mostly disappeared.

Alfie Kohn. One day, almost by accident, I picked up a book in a bookshop a book called "Punished by Rewards". This not only was in keeping with my previous knowledge on learning but expanded it considerably. Mr. Alfie Kohn it seemed had been carrying on a battle almost single handedly to popularize a huge change in how social psychologists were currently looking at motivation and lo and behold it had seemed to come down on the side of intrinsic motivation. Not only that, but Mr. Kohn had carefully documented all his references. A world of new knowledge opened up to me to stimulate me towards this website.

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