Time spent at school is mostly time wasted

I recently wrote about how modern education is completely detached from the things it is supposed to teach, and how it’s most visible for foreign languages. I don’t think foreign languages are taught less effectively than, say, chemistry or literature. It’s just much easier to verify the results in real life. You can be a straight A’s student throughout your entire career, but unless you can communicate effectively in the language you’ve studied, you can’t consider it a success.

I’ve experienced this myself, multiple times. Aside from Polish and English, I’ve studied German for four years, Spanish for three, and French and Korean for one year each, the last one while living in Korea. In all of these languages I can barely order a coffee and ask for directions (which I immediately regret not being able to understand the answer). At least I can be proud of myself that the grades I got in all these classes were great.

If that’s all I remember after 4 years, I’ve wasted a hell lot of time

Which makes me wonder, how much time have we collectively wasted in all other classes like math or history? How much of the population is able to calculate total interest on loan, or back up their opinions with arguments from philosophy? Even if we ask adults the exact same questions they used to memorize as a kid, they don’t usually do better than a 10 year old. Why spend so many years trying to memorize them in the first place?

Is it even possible to learn something faster and more effectively? When it comes to languages, I mostly learned them through songs. As long as the lyrics weren’t something I’d be ashamed of singing, I could learn the whole thing by heart almost instantly. I still remember a song in Finnish I learned some 18 years ago for no other reason than I liked it. I even vaguely remember what it was about.

Learning to sing in a language I don’t know is both fun and practical. I get an instant reward of being able to sing along with my favorite band, and then become genuinely curious what words and grammar they used, and how I can apply them in a different context. It’s no longer about memorizing a long list of irregular verbs, it’s about communicating in the same way as people I admire. And it works. I remember very little German from what they tried to teach me at school, but have no troubles recalling words from songs I loved at that time. Given that as a teenager I used to listen to pretty weird songs, the only things I can now talk about in German are pain, anxiety, heartbreak, loneliness, and despair. I don’t see myself doing this anytime soon, but at least I know I can repeat the same process and get the same results.

Does this mean everyone should learn languages through singing?

Of course not. That would be a disaster. My fiancé, for example, hates every kind of music that has any words in it (except, of course, the beautiful songs in various languages I sing at home all of the time). Making him sing German songs so that he can learn some German would be the surest way for him to lose any interest in it.

On the other hand, while I was busy analyzing lyrics of my favorite artists and looking for patterns, my partner learned English by watching one season of Friends right after another. I would be bored to death and give up after a few episodes, but it worked for him.

As you can guess, the English Artur learned while watching Friends is not quite the same English I learned from Iron Maiden songs. On any given day, if someone were to compare new words that we’ve learned, they would be entirely different. But that’s precisely the point. Each of us learned the exact thing we needed at that particular moment. Why memorize a whole long list of body parts or fruits, when all you want right now is to watch the next episode, or to sing Fear of the Dark?

From teacher’s perspective, this is a nightmare

Teachers need to prove their work has brought about some results or they would lose their jobs. How can you evaluate the progress of two different kids who just learned two different things that have nothing to do with school curriculum? How do you measure what they’ve learned? How will you understand where they are now and what’s the next step they need to take to get where they need to be? And what will you do if your class consists not of two kids, but of thirty?

But we’re not learning for teachers. We’re learning for ourselves.

When we’re free to do the things we’re passionate about, learning happens automatically as a side effect. It’s no longer a chore, it’s something you’re looking forward to because it enables you to do the thing X that you love. As my German vocabulary shows, kids might sometimes go weird places when they follow their passion, and skip the ones they might need later in life. Rather than pulling them back on track of the official curriculum and losing their interest entirely, teachers can learn to channel that passion productively and suggest new areas to explore next. Yes, even if it means that one group of people will continue to sing while another will still watch TV.

Otherwise we’ll keep wasting everyone’s best years by forcing them to memorize and instantly forget things they don’t care about at all.

3 responses to “Time spent at school is mostly time wasted”

  1. This is only tangentially related to your post but people who are good with languages also usually show various musical abilities, e.g., hearing pitch or learning to play an instrument.

  2. I usually don’t have much to say about education, but your article prompts me to share a few words.

    It is true that the biggest scourge is trying to make it easy for the system, not effective for the student. But way out of that pickle is to be more creative with assignments – a thing that popped into my mind recently is that we should make students write missing Wikipedia articles with help of the teacher.

    If everybody would learn more on their own and we would reserve teacher time for in-depth individual help and helping with creative assignmebts, we would all be more motivated. But that would require shifting the goal of education away from creating obedient masses and factory workers.

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