Do You Remember Learning Anything in School?

Some people go through their lives not realizing the fact that there is something unusual about how their brains work. They simply assume that everyone else has the same ease or difficulty in processing certain types of information. Only in their adult lives, they begin to suspect that something is amiss. This has been happening to me too.

Yesterday, I took a tour of a middle school my daughter might attend next year. As I listened to their principal explain their teaching philosophy, I was wondering why I cared so little about which school she attends. In the school auditorium, suddenly, an answer popped into my head: “Because I’ve never learned anything from any teachers.” I had always assumed that everyone else found teachers to be rather useless. It has never occurred to me to ask. So, for the first time in my life, I asked someone, my wife. “Do you remember learning anything specific from any teacher in school?” She didn’t quite understand what I was asking. Her answer was “of course.” I explained to her that if I were to randomly pick a topic, what I remember is the book I learned it from. I remember many teachers, and loved some of them, but I cannot remember what they specifically taught me. My wife thought I was crazy for claiming this, but it’s true.

For me, teachers are indeed useful for subjects that require physical learning, like sports, cooking, music, painting, and sculpture. I do remember learning these subjects from specific teachers. But for academic subjects, I never paid attention to teachers in classrooms. I was always chatting with others around me or drawing cartoons in my notebook. School for me was where I socialized with my friends. It would have been perfect if school lasted only a few hours a day and consisted only of socializing. No teachers and classrooms. I could then spend those hours efficiently in socializing, and then go home to study.

You might assume that I don’t like learning. Quite the contrary. I love learning. I don’t watch much TV but when I do, I prefer to watch documentary films so that I can learn something. I can enjoy any jobs as long as I’m learning something. The jobs where I don’t learn anything are painful to me.

One of my favorite subjects is philosophy. I occasionally meet people who studied philosophy in college, but none of them continued their study after school. For most people, studying is something they do in school, and as soon as the school is over, studying also ends. Even if I excitedly try to talk to them about philosophy, they no longer remember what they studied in college.

I do not know how people can learn in a classroom environment. It seems impossible to me. It’s like trying to coordinate two engines in a single car; having two engines slows down the car unless both are spinning the wheels precisely at the same rate. The slower one will always drag the faster one down. If the point is to go from A to B as quickly as possible, you’d be better off having just one engine and let it perform its best on its own without having to coordinate the timing with another engine.

Likewise, teachers in classrooms are always either too fast or too slow. It’s actually not the teachers that I have a problem with; it’s the fact that their medium for teaching is talking, spoken language. For whatever reason, normal people have an easier time learning through listening to someone talk. I often get complaints that my emails are too long. If I talk to them face-to-face, they wouldn’t complain that I talk too much. But this “too long” is entirely subjective. If you were to keep track of the time you spend talking to someone, you would realize that it takes more time to communicate the same information with talking than it does with reading. 

Reading is a lot more efficient because: 1. You can read at your own pace (you cannot adjust the speed of someone’s speech). 2. You can skip the parts that you already know (it’s rude to tell someone to skip what they are talking about). 3. You can go back and re-read if you feel you didn’t quite understand it. 4. You can read it when it’s convenient for you, or when your mind is clear and more receptive to learning.

Writing is more efficient even for the writers. Once you write down an idea, you would never have to repeat it because you can just send the same thing to someone else, or share it on the web for the whole world to read. When I watch college lectures or TED conferences on the web, I often think: “But you’ve already written down what you are saying. Why are you wasting time talking about it again?” And, I look at the audience and think, “The person you are listening to has already published a book on this subject. Why don’t you read that instead of schlepping to a theater to see them talk?”

The vast majority of teachers are not saying anything new or original in classrooms. They are all repeating the same things over and over every year. If their students were willing to learn by reading, imagine the amount of time/labor we can save. And, we would all be able to learn from the best teachers in the world. I often hear people extol the virtues of “individualized” teaching, but that’s what reading is. 

Since most people learn better by listening to someone talk, leaving the students to study on their own by reading would be a disaster. I think normal people prefer listening because it’s more emotionally engaging. Unfortunately, the small minority of us who prefer reading have to waste a huge part of our lives conforming to the method the majority prefers. The worst part of this problem is that this world simply assumes that listening is a superior way to learn; so they don’t even recognize our struggles. It’s rather unfair. We have to develop a coping mechanism on our own to work around it.

When I think about my school experiences, the dominant feeling is how bored I was, just sitting around for hours every day, pretending to listen to my teachers. It was painful. Fortunately, my daughter doesn’t seem to have the same problem I had. She often talks about what she learned from her teachers in school. I can’t relate to that, so I can’t help but feel indifferent about which schools she goes to, or which teachers she gets. From my perspective, the real learning happens after school, without teachers, on our own. So, we might as well learn to learn on our own.