Education: Beyond Mere Schooling is Learning for Life


The School of Athens, by Raphael, 16th century CE.

Education: that which reveals to the wise,
and conceals from the stupid,
the vast limits of their knowledge.
— Twain

Every truth has four corners:
as a teacher I give you one corner,
and it is for you to find the other three.
— Confucius

Another Page on Education?! Why?

Good question. Well, I believe that any reasonably perceptive mind - say that of a less-conditioned child - can see that humanity now faces fundamentally new and larger problems. Effectively, those problems all require shifts in perspective and thinking, e.g. from seeing ourselves as little atoms of ego-driven consumers in a zero-sum game, to belonging to a web of inter-dependent life/systems seeking to thrive together on the only habitable planet we have.

I also believe Socrates was mostly correct in his conclusion that virtue arises from knowledge, and evil from ignorance. Einstein had it right too: Our thinking has created problems which cannot be solved by that same level of thinking. Thus the question broadly becomes, How do we raise our level of thinking? What kind of education would that take?

Most discussions of education aren't yet so meta; it's far more common to confuse schooling with education, and education with job-preparation. Learning thus becomes a mere means to an unconscious and foolhardy end: perpetuating a system without a viable or meaningful future. Astute students sense the vapidity of the system from an early age; could more see it sooner if better presented?

So there are at least two major themes I want to explore here:

  1. New ways of education, which includes but transcends new tools and technologies (those being over-hyped).
  2. Learning for mastery as a lifetime source of happiness and meaning.

New Ways of Education

In our time, what is at issue is the very nature of humankind, the image we have of our limits and possibilities. History is not yet done with its exploration of the limits of what it means to be human.

— C. Wright Mills

In most parts of the world, formal education involves a government school system of age-segregated classes following a fixed timetable and common curriculum. You, and/or most people you know, are products of such schooling. Why and how did such a system come to dominate the (early) learning process so widely? What needs to change and why?

To put it more bluntly, how do we start with almost every child exhibiting eager curiosity, and end with a majority of adults not enjoying their work and not discovering their talents and strengths? Here are the most convincing and articulate answers I've found so far:

  • John Taylor Gatto was an award-winning schoolteacher who quit to become an education activist and writer, and I've yet to read anyone more passionate and articulate on the topic. Start with his essay, The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher. A short video of his work is in the TV series Classrooms of the Heart. If his words strike a chord, you'll want to read his magnum opus, The Underground History of American Education.
  • Sir Ken Robinson became well known globally with his 2006 TED talk on how schools kill creativity, calling for new approaches to education that recognizes multiple intelligences and talents. His second TED talk four years later calls for a learning revolution, starting by challenging what we take for granted in education: its linearity; its limited definition of talent and intelligence; its conformity and parallels with fast-food; and its disregard for students' passions. In short, we need to move from an industrial/linear model to an agricultural/organic model, personalizing education for diverse human beings.

Learning for Mastery

There are many paths up the mountain; the view at the top is the same.

— Martial arts proverb

Finding what you enjoy, and can excel at, is a reliable path to a life of engagement and meaning, and with the Internet further freeing human knowledge, there's the potential for more people than ever to walk that path. What used to require a rare confluence of coincidences for serious learning and mastery - an able pupil, a willing and wise teacher, usable resources - is now more accessible, but not yet widespread.

Science too has just begun to systematically research what mastery requires, but much remains to be understood. K. Anders Ericsson (whose work Malcolm Gladwell used in his book Outliers) is the psychologist who quantified the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice associated with world-class performance across diverse fields (music, chess, sports, medicine). But what drives someone to take up such a path, or how to find one's calling, are just two of many open questions.

Here, I'll compile, summarize, and synthesize resources that I find useful in trekking up my particular mountains, that may aid you too.

  • Mastery by George Leonard, predated Ericsson and instead of broad quantitative science, offers the distilled wisdom from a life-long student and teacher. This little book moves quickly, from defining mastery as a process and commitment, to listing common traps and pitfalls, to describing the structure and tools of continuous practice and growth. The author's practice of several highly challenging skills, comfort with Western and Eastern perspectives, and candid humility makes for a classic.
  • The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle presents his years of meta-learning in 52 useful tips of how to build skill. Coyle drew his content from visiting and closely observing world-renowned specialty schools in music, sports, and competitive pursuits. There's more immediately applicable knowledge about practicing here than any other book/paper I've yet read - assuming you've already picked a domain you're committed to.