Formal Education is an Invading Army 2.0


Between 700-900 AD, the Vikings made military incursions and wound up creating settlements in Great Britain. In their longboats they brought instruments of war, but they also brought their religion, language and knowledge of the sea. We use common words, like “knife, hell or kid,” but we have more complex words like “overwhelm” (which literally means “over the helm” for a way to sink or capsize a Viking longboat). Sometimes we even use the word berserk, (which is a article of clothing made from a bear’s fur as the word means “bear shirt” and was thought to make the wearer invincible in battle) and we now use that word to describe a person who is insanely belligerent and ready to destroy whatever is necessary.  Perhaps you can see the connection.We even get the names of our days of the week “Wednesday, Thursday, Friday” and possibly “Tuesday” from the Viking culture. (See this Wikipedia entry for more words:

These are words we know and use all of the time because they were brought into English via war and raiding parties. The memory of the wars, death occupation and destruction is long gone, but the words and concepts lay enshrined in our everyday language and carry with them not only their current meanings but their histories, like ancient fossils, with them.

So what does this have to do with education? I usually start my classes in the semester by getting them to look at how formal, K12 education has permeated their thinking about learning.  They all believe that school is a place to learn, but most of them say that the important things they know how to do or really value about themselves was not something that they learned as content, concepts or skills in a formal classroom setting.

I believe for most of us, formal education has made it’s incursion into our pasts. It has sorted us, told us what to value and not value about ourselves and often made us exchange things we value, believe or are curious about for the things that teachers and tests wanted us to believe or care about. While not all of those things we have gotten from our formal educations are bad, many of the things we have learned run contrary to what we know in our working lives to be true.

Learning Contradiction One:

For example, when we learn about how to cook a family recipe, we are in a meaningful context, connected to the content and interested in the product.  We stand in the kitchen with Grandma and ask her questions about how she does something or what spices in what amount. She answers those questions, but also tells us stories about how the recipe came to be or times in the past that she has made it and because we are connected to her and our family, we are also connected to what she is teaching us.  When the activity is complete, we have a delicious meal that is probably eaten with loved ones and reminds us about happy times in our own past.

In a school setting we are in a somewhat random group of people, learning information which may connect to us or not, but connecting it to us is not the point of school. We are expected to answer questions on tests or assignments, creating products that we don’t care about after the activity is completed and when the class is over, we probably will never need to interact with that teacher or other students again. This sets us up to NOT have many needs satisfied in this experience, consequently it is more difficult to retain and recall information learned in this way.

Because of what schools are or what we expect them to be, they need to employ tactics that place value on how well a person retains the seemingly random stream of information and skills coming at them in school. They invade like the Norsemen of old and that pillage and plunder, taking goods and people for their own and leaving the rest.

Learning Contradiction Two:

Schools place a lot of value on assignments and tests.  While we think of these things as part of learning, what often happens is that we learn to value the result.  How did you do on the test? or What did you get on that assignment? means how many points did you earn from the correct answers you were able to put on the page. In fact, we expect “good students” to get As because they are able to get all the answers right, all of the time. If we truly believed that learning was advanced by collecting as many right answers as quickly as possible, we should teach students to cheat as efficiently as possible.

We all have probably made mistakes. We have learned from our mistakes. Often we learn more from our mistakes or “wrong answers” than we do from our “right answers.” The invading army still is inside our heads telling us that we need to get correct answers, even though we know through experience that we learn better if we are allowed to make mistakes.  The invader is not focused on our goals or our happiness, but on its own goals and happiness.


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