What they don’t teach in school

“Education, education and education…”


You don’t need a Prime Minister to tell you that education makes a difference. Many skills are acquired through schooling, and yet there is a crucial life skill (at least one!) that school does not teach, in fact it actively (by which I don’t mean deliberately, necessarily) discourages it. Even though this skill is the wellspring of many triumphs and, when neglected, the cause of much misery.

Margarita Steinberg

I’ve lost my note of who said this:

“We spend the first five years of a child’s life encouraging them to walk and talk, and the following ten telling them to sit down and shut up.”


Our accepted system of education is predicated on making the kids sit down and gulp down. Grown-ups have, with the best intentions no doubt, jotted down an extensive list of topics that a young member of society ought to familiarise themselves with, and insist that the young ones devote themselves to it.


Other Doors: The Sience of love


This approach has an unfortunate side-effect in that it discourages self-determination. My son’s years in school (a decent school, nothing out of the ordinary) have taught him instead what he’d rather avoid – sitting in boring lessons listening to a set of dates from the 16th century, which he has no cause to consider interesting – which in his world means it isn’t. He has learnt to switch off from the world around him, a world busy doing he-doesn’t-understand-what for who-knows-what-reason. He has learnt to absent himself from a world forcing information on him without taking the trouble to explain what it is for. Where would self-determination fit in?


The path of least resistance

I spotted the book “The path of least resistance” by Robert Fritz at a friend’s house a couple of years ago. His take that information arriving unattached to a tangible goal is meaningless and gets filtered out by the brain automatically unleashed an onslaught of childhood memories. Even though I was always a “curious sponge” who was fascinated by everything and anything, I could vividly recall switching off from being stuffed with information “about nothing”. What must it be like for boys, who seem to be blessed with a much stronger mechanism for rejecting the uninteresting! And unfortunately the standard method of making up a problem as a way of making the information more relevant doesn’t seem to help much.


My son demonstrates this point for me over and over: he receives the answer to a question that he hasn’t been asking himself with utter disdain. I have to get either patient or clever: either wait for him to get onto that question, and then be willing to help him reach the answer, or else set up for the question to arise, and then get fascinated with him and become his companion on the journey of unearthing the answer. No pre-set answers for him, how boring! (I agree.)


Fritz describes the internal situation resulting from an insistent incoming flow of undesired information: you have lots of ‘tools’ (skills, data) which you know how to use, but have no use for. Which means they are filed under ‘junk’.


The unfortunate result of this abundance of ‘junk’ is that you end up unaccustomed to tackling goals that don’t come with a handy ready-made tool/method attached. You’re not in the habit of finding – or even inventing – tools and skills to meet a desired goal. When you encounter such a goal, you’re likely to feel powerless, stressed, perhaps even enraged, and distinctly tempted to stick your head in the sand: “we haven’t been taught how to do that.”


If you repeat that cycle enough times, any new, unfamiliar goal will seem unpleasant. You may feel inclined to turn your intellectual prowess towards explaining why the goal is pointless and should be left alone. And from there it’s not much of a stretch to denying any interest, any impulse outside of those that have a button attached to them.


Can you recognise a modern teenager in that description?


This sense of being ill-equipped only gets exacerbated when people start going “So who do you want to become when you grow up? What do you want to get into?” Common response, expressed in action: “What I want is to dive headlong into the sand to bury my head, with headphone insulation set on loud, please!”


This direction for the development of young brains may suit computer game providers, but pleases the eye of a mother not at all. Those same game companies probably seek out employees from among those who have managed to escape the zombie syndrome. Because the poor creatures are not capable of much, are they? Well, they are Ok at carrying out instructions…


What is education?

As a teenager I asked my Granddad, “What does the word ‘education’ mean?” He traced its etymology back to ancient Greek ‘ to educe’, a word that still exists in modern English. It means to bring out, to develop. Granddad summed up that education must mean a process of developing the mind. I now extend that to teaching thinking skills, and especially approaches for exploring untested ground and tackling unfamiliar goals.


I grew up and took the trouble to look up the meaning of the word ‘school’. Its original meaning, as in ‘a school of dolphins’, meant simply a group, a gathering. Modern definitions of the verb ‘to school’ cluster around disciplining, training, or ‘sending to school’. How come such a gap between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’?


A bit of history

My fascination with the topic of education led me to discover some less widely known details about the history of the development of its forms. Children of wealthy families had been receiving tuition in a number of subjects as far back as history can reach, whereas universal education in this part of the world came in on the wave of Industrial Revolution, and one specific trigger for it was the dearth of a literate workforce. As the British Empire expanded its operations and territories, the need for scribes, administrators and so forth, began to be felt acutely, and the new ‘education’ focused on training in the related disciplines – reading, writing and maths. The resulting education system fulfilled the task of generating a workforce of paper pushers perfectly well. Still does (substitute ‘button’ for ‘paper’ if you’d like).


Since then many a voice has spoken up about the need for the education system to move on from stamp-forming competent clerks towards honing imaginative, creative, enterprising individuals. University professors will bemoan to you the fact that they have to work hard to coax their newly arrived students out of a school-engendered “implementing” mind-set and into the more explorative attitude appropriate for further education. Fritz’ book is based on over a decade’s experience of drawing out that very explorative proactive engaged spirit, from among the stumped youth as well as the weary travellers of more advanced years.


Switch on your own “engine”

We all know some people who seem to have their “engine” on, and others whose engine seems to be coughing and spluttering, rusted or absent altogether, leaving them to just float along on the currents of life. It is tempting to conclude that Nature were simply more generous to some people than to others in endowing them with initiative. But I could not reconcile myself to the thought that my son were simply not capable of becoming the author of his life, the captain of his own ship.


In the meantime, he presented a picture-perfect example of the syndrome that Fritz describes. My son had no answer to the question “What do you want?”. None. Alongside the long list of things he wished to avoid was the void where the list of things he wished to create ought to have been.


His choice of activities highlighted this dearth of initiative. Left to his own devices he would slump on the sofa, switch on a screen and switch off. Where was the human being sailing boldly on the adventure of life? What bugged me was not just the recognition that I lacked a method for switching on his engine, but also the realisation that I didn’t know how to grasp my own steering wheel. So I drank in the story of Fritz’ exploits like I had been at sea dying of thirst.


Fritz, a composer by training and trade, had grown intrigued by the possible parallel between the creative process involved in the so-called ‘creative professions’ – arts, music etc, – and the creative process pertinent to other undertakings. Was there a similarity between how a composer wrote a ground-breaking piece of music and how an engineer dreamt up the world’s first ocean-going iron ship? In a word, how do pioneers of any ilk go about things?


Fritz came to believe that all creative endeavours start with a goal. A desired destination on the horizon, with no plotted course available to follow from here to there. A school-in-reverse situation, if you wish. Here we have a question, with no formula offered to apply to it. That’s where the brain gets buzzing! That’s the moment when the engine turns on!


My second revelation from the book came with Fritz’ assertion that knowing what you want is not some automatic function, not a reflex, but a skill that can develop or dwindle.   In his view, it took another level of skill again to be able to carry a notion through the gestation period, hone it into a specific brief, and then formulate into an action-ready plan.


So how do you know what you want? Is it possible to develop that skill deliberately? Fritz offers this test for uncovering your wishes: “If you could have it, would you take it?”


That simple? I took it for a test-drive: if my son were standing in front of me, full of plans and aspirations, would I take it? Hell yeah. Where do I sign?


So if it is that simple to know what you want, how come the creative process ever stalls? For a lot of people, there is an early-stage impediment: our sense of what is possible. To let the engine of adventure get going, we have to be willing to temporarily suspend our expectations. Crucially, what you want has nothing to do with what you believe possible. Fritz quotes the example of an elderly lady with a long-term illness who struggled to admit her wish for health, because her horizons were swamped with how impossible such a prospect seemed. And yet, whatever the prognosis offered by the medics, it was still her fondest wish. Naming her truth was a powerful step towards it.


And so it was with my dreams of a son bravely creating his brave new world. Just empty dreams, right? Such turn-arounds don’t happen in the sad real world, surely? My tears were blurring the lines of Fritz’ book in front of me as I managed to admit that it was I who had been suffocating my dreams by telling myself that fairytales were for kids. What a contrast it must have been between the sound of my invocations for my son to embrace his dreams and the sight of my parking my own on the shelf sporting the “unrealistic” tag! Fritz says, dare to name your wishes and stand by them, regardless of how likely or otherwise their realisation seems today.


I will mention one other point from Fritz’ book that struck me: he believes the ‘quality’ of the first desired destination is of little consequence. It need not aim for world peace. It is fine for the first goal to be a leather jacket. Faith in oneself and the experience of successfully bringing about what had been just a dream opens up one’s horizons. “I want a leather jacket” moves on to “I want to finish school with good marks” naturally. “I want better relating in the family” or “I want to go to this university because they are better at teaching my chosen subject” or “I want to set up a group to make YouTube vlogs” are easier to recognise as ‘worthwhile’, but rely on those early experiences, so hold back on judging too quickly and dismissing immature aspirations. Evidence that you can bring about what you set out for is empowering!


It is beyond the scope of this article to transmit to you all the gems in Fritz’ book. I will say simply that he continues to offer unexpected insights, tips, and stories from people’s lives to equip you for the entire process of creating what isn’t yet.


Back to the future

My son has celebrated a couple more birthdays since the moment when I first came across Fritz’ book. My son’s ‘muscle tone’ for daring to stride forth towards his dreams has been coming along. He still gets stumped by a maths problem outside the scope of the formulas he has been taught. But he offers less resistance to my now-accustomed invitation to “consider the question as your own. Imagine that it is you steering your education, and the teachers are just contributing to your journey.”


Some of his strides forward are quite tangible, though:


  • He has been earning some pocket money busking with his diabolo for over a year now.
  • He has joined a drama class where he has made lots of new friends who were inspired by Kim’s suggestion to start up their own YouTube channel where they publish vlogs and mini-films.
  • Last March my son delivered a brief lecture on his experiences with an aspect of psychology at the TEDx conference at the University of Sussex.


I wish the me of a few years ago could see that list!


She would have struggled to believe her own future, too: lecturing at a conference, performing onstage, making new friends. Taking on the role of mentor and adviser, and not just to her own son. And getting to relish the rewards of that role, in applauding proudly the successes of friends whose eyes were filling up with tears of despair only a short while ago!


Making new pathways

I spent many years wishing for changes in my life. Scientists have been exploring what makes for successful, long-lasting changes. Fritz points out that life, like water, is inclined to follow the incline of a valley, to follow established channels, familiar grooves. Wishing for change is a good start, but it’s not enough.


Fritz goes further. He shows how you can form new channels, mark new grooves for life to flow along. How, rather than waiting for the reformation of the schooling system, you can top up its shortcomings by teaching your child to plot new pathways for themselves. When they stand tall as the pioneers of their lives, chances are they will invite you along to share the adventure. What an honour! I’m coming!


Inessa Cukrova

I like to ask questions and find answers. Constantly opening new and new doors. Select the correct key to the lock can be sometimes very difficult - but then Click - I understand everything! This is an amazing feeling ...

'What they don’t teach in school' has 1 comment

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    1st July 2015 @ 12:57 pm Maddie Broad

    I remember well the deep despondence of my mental maths assignments in primary school. My struggle lacked perspective and the problem grew into an overwhelming storm, as I grew more and more alienated from the subject of maths which I presumed I just wasn’t good at… I still find it hard to answer myself the question “what do you want”, but I’m getting better at it! and I still have my copy of Fritz’ book waiting for me to embark on that adventure!

    I love this article Margarita


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