musing about education and learning useful things

This is one more of those vulnerable posts, where I share something close to my heart. There is every risk that some of you will disagree violently, flame me, stop reading my blog. There is every risk that some of you will think less of me because of the things I say. I think of this blog as a community, a place where I know many of the regular readers personally, a place where I can share things like this without fear. For those of you I know less well, and for those of you I do not know, please bear with me.

I loved school. I loved the thought of going to school, of spending time there, being with friends there, working, playing. I loved everything about school. Being at school was something I really looked forward to. It was a wonderful time, and I was privileged enough to be able to spend nearly 15 years in one Jesuit institution, from primary school through to university: St Xavier’s Collegiate School, Calcutta.

It was one of those places that truly deserved being called an institution. There was something about it that was destined to transcend time; it was a living piece of history by the time I got there, at which point it was barely a hundred years old. A wonderful location, a wonderful set of building and grounds, and wonderful staff. We were privileged to have some really great teachers. [It was with some sadness that I learnt of the death of Thomas “Tommy” Vianna a few weeks ago, he was one of those greats. [Tommy Vianna, Requiescat In Pace].

During my time there, as with many others, I had some purple patches, there were times when I was first in class, times when I played well for class and school teams, times when I excelled at something or the other. Of course I remember them well. But there were many times where I did not excel, sometimes because I hadn’t worked at all; sometimes despite my working really hard; and sometimes because I just wasn’t drawn or attracted to whatever it was I was being asked to do.

I remember talking to my maths teacher when I was about fifteen, a time when my sole interest was to become a maths professor, aspiring to do all the things that someone in high school in the early seventies would want to do: grow a beard and long hair; walk around in jeans and t-shirts reading books like Godel, Escher, Bach (which hadn’t actually been published then); learn to play guitar; do something meaningful in the theory of numbers in the footsteps of Ramanujan; and of course solve Fermat’s Last Theorem. Not just solve it, but solve it elegantly, elegantly enough to fit into the margins of a book on Diophantine equations. Maybe smoke a pipe. Have some pastis. Lovingly restore a 16th century book.That sort of thing.

My “hippie maths professor” reverie was rudely interrupted by said maths teacher, who pointed out where he was living, what he was earning, how hard things were. He was adamant that I should go nowhere near teaching; instead, I was to spend time making money; money that I could then plough back into education at a later stage.

And I guess I listened to him. Which is why, when I retire, I will build a school. For sure. It’s something I think about every day. There is something about the sheer inclusiveness that a good education brings; I detest the thinking behind The Bell Curve, I believe with all my heart that everyone has potential; of course social, economic and environmental factors affect every individual’s ability to develop and reach and extend that potential, but not in the way bell-curvers think.

That belief in the power of education is the reason why I got involved in School Of Everything; there is something very fulfilling about the premise behind SoE; I’m also very excited about the possibility that we can create a mechanism to unlock trapped potential amongst people who are otherwise unable to participate, usually because of generation or gender.

That belief in the power of education is the reason why I joined BT; I have this deep-seated belief that ubiquitous, affordable connectivity is an absolute must-have as we strive to improve health, education and welfare worldwide, as we strive to make the world a better place, as we strive to become better stewards of what we have. As we strive to change ourselves.

So I spend a lot of time thinking about education, about what it really means. Not dictionary definitions, not semantic arguments. What does “education” mean to me?

It’s not about “committing to memory and vomiting to paper”.

It’s not about learning to sit tests. It’s not even about learning to pass tests.

These things are useful, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient for us to be able to be anything, do anything.

So what is it about?

I think it’s about these things:

  • learning how to learn, which involves a lot of watching and listening
  • learning how to love, which involves even more watching and listening
  • learning how to lose, which involves quite a lot of watching and listening
  • learning how to be with yourself, which also involves a lot of watching and listening
  • learning how to be with other people, which also involves ….watching and listening
  • learning how to solve problems, which also involves ….. watching and listening
  • remembering what you’ve seen and heard, and being able to assimilate it
  • learning how to express yourself in word and deed, how to take the things you’ve learnt and do something with them

The more specialised the things you watch and listen to, the more you’re acquiring a particular skill. Sometimes there’s more watching, sometimes there’s more listening. Whenever I had to concentrate to see or hear or express something, I really felt for people who couldn’t, people who didn’t have the full use of their sensory equipment, people who didn’t find it easy to deal with their feelings. I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for people who are autistic, more specifically people with Asperger’s, because there’s a part of me that feels I belong there.

Just musing. What does “education” mean to you?

Incidentally, this post was triggered by my reading today’s Randall Munroe special:

At the back of my mind was all the recent kerfuffle caused by the publication of Don Tapscott’s recent book, a subject I shall revert to later.

Incidentally, if any of you prefer to take the discussion offline, DM me via

15 thoughts on “musing about education and learning useful things”

  1. JP,
    Whilst I agree with list you have provided I believe there should be others added to address providing an environment where people can try things and fail (or indeed succeed). Education must be about allowing people to explore ideas of their own, explore ideas of others and to extend themselves with the knowledge that they will be safe if things don’t go right. There are different learning styles and some learn by listening and watching, but others definitely need by doing and responding to the feedback gathered as part of the process.

  2. JP, I’m not sure why this needed any health warning, it all seems pretty uncontroversial to me. Groupthink maybe?

    If you like School of Everything then I think you’ll also like You may already know it’s creator Graham Glass, but if you don’t then his blog account of building edu2.0 is a great parable of why software is no longer a capital intensive industry (and hence why VC backed software is shriveling up and dying).

    I too loved that XKCD – other direct hit from Randall. The question that I have as I watch my own kids grow and learn is what will make them decide to spend a weekend on PERL (or whatever’s more relevant at the time)? As you point out the key to real education is developing an inquisitive mind – something that seems to be at odds with the sausage machine education system that appears to have become the norm.

  3. Phil, couldn’t agree with you more. I was trying to concentrate more on the “what” rather than the “how”, but by mentioning the “watching and listening” as often as I did I may have detracted from the list of “whats”. So absolutely I agree with you, do something, observe, learn from feedback loops.

    I remember in Chemistry class we used to be given “poisonous” fine white powders to analyse; the catch was that the process of analysis involved potatoes. You had to scoop a hole in a potato, drop some of the powder in, then work out what the powder was by observing what happened.

    But we were kids. So, despite all warnings about poison, we touched the powders, tasted them and went “salt”, “chalk”, “sugar”. A different learning by doing rather than just observing.

  4. Chris, hope you had a good party and you’re reading this tomorrow morning. We have to encourage our children to develop inquisite minds, yes, but that’s not easy to do. The only way I’ve had any success so far is to compliment them regularly for their questions rather than answers.

  5. Yes, but.

    If you don’t force in some rote learning early on, it becomes far harder to get it in later – even if the resistance is lower.

    I mean multiplication tables, basic grammer, etc. As I suspect no one here would disagree I guess the argument becomes where the boundary sits.

    And of course a good teacher (the only really important bit in education) can make anything intertesting.

  6. DE,

    IMHO, rote learning may not be all that “rote” afterall.

    I was never good at rote learning, frankly, and when I tried, I failed miserably. But what I could remember with one hour of “understanding” took some of my classmates 3 to 4 hours of rote learning.

    This lead my mom to keep reminding me during my school days, that I should spend one hour of concentrated understanding rather than 4 hours of rote learning.

    My way of reading, which I still pursue today, was more akin to forming connections, almost like a story-line with whatever else existed in my brain and this process was fail-safe for me. Even today, I do end up connecting every bit of information I read up to my central understanding of the world.

    Even, for multiplication tables, I remember as a kid, trying to conjure up some imaginary story of numbers, a method I later came to understand does form the basics of “mnemonics”.

    I do wish as a kid, I had a “guide” to open up the secrets of learning without rote learning, which I happened to practise out of instinct, but over a long time and some painful agonizing that I can’t learn by rote. I do wish that my teachers didn’t stress too much on rote learning, without exploring other mechanisms that come from understanding.

    I am sure each kid, when learning by “rote” uses one or the other mechanism which involves atleast partial understanding, though they might not be aware of the same.

  7. It sounds as if you used the Greek “Topos” method, which uses imagined objects in a house to create a connection (and from where we get the word ‘topic’)

    I think I learned to read like this, whch is why my spelling is so bad!

    The rote learning method – if you call it that – is a good way of absorbing information that may not be easy to “understand”. Like grammer, handwriting etc. Wash, rinse, repeat.

    And I can’t help thinking that those who are quick to understand are not really the urgent targets of early education.

  8. DE, I think the key thing is to learn *how* to learn by rote. In my generation we had times tables and poetry and some prose. Some of us were mad enough to try and memorise the periodic table so that we only had to learn industrial processes.

    I wouldn’t have taken kindly to memorising sin cos tan tables or log tables.

    If you take the periodic table example, my incentive to learn it by rote was simple: i then didn’t have to learn a whole bunch of equations.

    Learning by rote is a good thing to learn, but children learn better when the incentives are right. Too often learning by rote was forced on kids, “because I tell you to”.

    And the output of learning by rote should be understanding, even if it takes time. Not vomiting to paper.


  9. Sure. Rote learning was certainly abused as a lazy method to get average teachers to push learning onto large classes. Indeed, the taste of discipline mattered more to some.

    But baby / bath water.

    At school, I ignored hand writing skills and spelling and just focused on the meaning of words. And in an age of word processing, I got lucky.

    But you only need to see the number or adults that can’t construct a percentage to realise that short cuts don’t always pay off.

  10. I would tend to collapse the list into something in the lines of:
    education is about [learning?] the desire to grow [in all dimensions] — we can grow all the time and we grow in multiple dimensions [skills, competencies, personal and collective knowledge, relationships…] and this is triggered by desire, and the best teachers teach us that desire!

    Education is cultivating relationships [mother and child, teacher and pupil, coach and team]

    And finally, the most useful thing to know is probably language, I mean the subtleties of a language and its literature because it leads you to all the questions that will make you learn more.

    This was my twopence for Christmas!

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