Go with a smile!

Monday, June 22, 2015

What school doesn't teach you

I haven’t been blogging much because it’s all replaced by quora. Yes, I’m writing anonymously on Quora at the moment. I don’t really want people digging through myself, but I’m pretty comfortable with people reading my stuff without knowing who I really am. Maybe I get more feedback from strangers. There are a few people who know my real life identity but a lot of water has passed under the bridge and I’ve been away for years and peoples’ lives grow apart.

I haven’t that much to say on this blog at the moment. I’m living in “Mexico” now, not Singapore. I’m starting to get not very interested in Singapore at the moment. But I’ve seen this article criticizing the Singapore education system and I think I should add on to it. It's not my first commentary on the education system of Singapore. It's good for certain things but not at others, so we should just sit back and take the large view of things instead of always being dazzled by our high PISA results.

I should probably count the ways in which real life is not like Singapore’s education system.

1. In real life, there is no true authority figure like the teacher in the classroom.

2. In school, you just do as you’re told. In fact, in many ways, school is the perfect benevolent dictatorship, which is why Singapore is probably so amenable to it, and which is why high schools in Singapore are so prominent in Singapore public life in a way that is not true in the United States.

3. In school, vying for honours is a zero sum game. In real life, you can always have win-win situations, or lose-lose situations. However, the prisoner’s dilemma is also possible in school, where you can persuade all your classmates to study less hard, and the teacher will grade everybody less harshly as a result.

4. School emphasizes the precise learning of many facts that do not have much to do with each other. Unfortunately a lot of these “facts” are forgotten very soon after the exam is over. In contrast, in order to accomplish a certain practical task in real life, you have to learn skills, not merely facts. These skills are very closely related to each other, and very often enhance each other. So in real life, not only do you have to learn, and not only do you have to learn how to learn, you also have to make an active choice about what to learn.

5. A design task would involve asking very different questions from a test taker. One of my favourite examples is how I discovered that the process of writing a place is so different from studying for a literature exam. When you are writing about literature, you will analyse the theme of the work, the characters, the literary devices like symbolism. It is a very structured analysis. But when you are writing a play, the most important task is something that literature hardly ever focuses on: designing a plot. That always comes first. It is related to everything else, but I was a little startled to see how the irrelevant stuff took precedence. Like people were totally forgetting that they were supposed to write a story.
6. In school, everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is in a way quite structured. In another way, as I have mentioned above, it is not that structured – textbooks are a loose collection of facts. It is possible to score 100 for a test. In real life, a task can never be divorced from its larger context, and therefore you have to ask questions about the larger situation. You can design a device which is great from an engineering perspective, and it will still be a business disaster.

7. In school, your work is individualistic. In real life, you have to find real collaborators, and do the politically messy work of getting people on your side to help you.

8. Related to the previous point, in school, you don’t have to do the political work of making your work more appealing than it is. Negotiating for better grades with your teacher is generally frowned upon. You don’t get to sleep with your teachers in a way that maybe a few people will end up sleeping their way to the top. School truly downplays the importance of schmoozing. School gives you the impression that the world will always recognize a certain form of merit, and that’s definitely not true in the real world.

9. School places undue emphasis on academic results. You are supposed to concentrate 80% on academic results, and disregard most of the other things in life. In the real world, the equation is probably inversed: being good at academic stuff only counts for 20% in many cases. The rest involves making contact with other people, seeking out opportunities, making sales pitches. It’s not that school does not teach people skills. There is nothing more valuable than going to school every day and spending hours with other people your age, when it comes to teaching you social skills. But even that experience is not nearly good enough, and downplays the importance of social skills in real life situations. Thankfully, for many males, national service will be a wakeup call.

10. School emphasizes the importance of academic knowledge, and might even convey the impression that academic knowledge is even superior to real life knowledge. Personally I don’t think so. I also do not think that academic knowledge is more intellectually challenging than trying to figure out real life. There are people who turn away from real life situations in order to live the scholarly life, maybe I’m biased as an engineer, but there’s no reason why it has to be this way, and it’s a shame that people think of going into fields that are not lucrative, and they may not serve mankind well. What is true of intellectually challenging tasks in the real world, is that the knowledge that you need will cut across a lot of different academic disciplines. Peter Drucker talked about management science as the ultimate liberal arts discipline. So the pity is if school introduces and reinforces a view of life where you have a lot of knowledge, but they are all stored in mutually exclusive silos. Then there is this artificial divide between the sciences and the arts that I don’t like very much, but is reinforced in school. I’ve had a tough time of crossing that line.

The issue, of course, is that a lot of the way that schools are run comes about because that’s the easiest way to run a school. And it may not always be to the benefit of its students. The student has a dilemma. On one hand, going to school is supposed to only form a portion of what it means to grow into adulthood. Some may disagree with me, but it’s not actually supposed to take over your life. On the other hand, schools are also the gatekeepers to a premium higher education. Every year, a small but not negligible number of students – including myself – attend some of the top schools in the US. In fact, maybe I didn’t appreciate this, and maybe I’m one of the extremely lucky ones to stumble upon a very good situation, I was only told to do the best that I can do for the “A” levels, and that good things would result from me doing very well. I did not fully realize until much later that those “good things” would include me going to Snowy Hill.

But as well as thing turned out, I wish that I had gotten started on all the other aspects of my education – how to stay out of trouble with your boss, how to live a good life, how to be happy – during my school years instead of learning them much later, when I was already an adult.


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