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what form should school take?

When I think about the times in school when I ‘learned something’ I have to compare it to the other learning experiences since school- for example an intensive Arabic course I did and a year long intensive aikido course. I can safely argue that you really do learn during an intensive course. Whatever your age. And school is not intense. You whiffle along, a bit here and a bit there. No wonder I learnt more French in my first two years with a demonic French teacher than the subsequent three years with someone more relaxed. Making classes ‘relevant’ and interesting rather than intense just waters it down further. The model for learning a sport is simple- do it a hell of lot, do it with people who are better than you, watch videos of people better than you, read their biographies, emulate them. Why then is this simple model not applied to school or university?

The obvious answer is that school is not about learning it is about fitting in with a way of life which has evolved over centuries in our country, in most of the world. But at the heart of this answer is a lie. If school is not about learning why can’t we give it another name? Too many people are involved, implicated, paid for- it won’t happen.

So real learning happens elsewhere- on intensive courses, between self-appointed students and the mentors they seek out, at home using internet forums and resources supplemented by lots of individual effort.

The question is: when do you throw in the towel with the school and seek out real learning opportunities? Especially as school and of course university are, or can be, such fun things to do- even if, as I did, you use them for meeting people and not really ‘learning’.

Except you do learn- by being with so many people you learn something about being with so many people. It does all seem a drag and a waste of time though. I think its like this: being in prison will teach you many things, it may be a valuable experience, you may learn how to ‘get on’ with many different types – but it would be odd to argue that it was a good experience for all. Prison leaves you tarred with the brush of failure. The broad brush of being on the loser end of things. Not that an old crim can’t talk it up a storm, but most of them find, après prison, that they tend to get the shitty end of the stick.

School and university might be closer to a prison experience than we imagine. Unlike being offered crime opportunities when you leave, old classmates can at least help us get a decent job. So is school just an imperfect elevator into the over rated world of work?

It’s true, university serves a useful, though heavily criticised, role in sorting people. You went to Oxford- good- you can join our firm. Though, as an old Oxfordian will attest, the old boy network isn’t half as effective as its detractors imagine.

You go to a school and a university and you have a badge saying “I belong, I am normal”. Now do what you want to do?

Intensive well designed courses are the way forward for real learning- of anything- especially if supplemented with less intense encounters with mentor figures. If you have met several real life authors, writing a book seems a normal thing to do, even an easy thing. When Hoagy Carmichael, then an amateur pianist, saw Irving Berlin fumble while playing a song he was surprised that he could do just as well- and so he was inspired to become a professional.

I’ve been on several intensive well designed courses that taught me singing, battlefield first aid, language improvement. I’ve never regretted for a minute the time spent on such things. Memories of school ‘learning’ are far more mixed, my attitude to it ambivalent at best.

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