Why We Learn

The three foundations

Last week, I explored perspectives on education and argued that the subjects we learn in school are less important than how we are taught to use knowledge. Put differently, tactics are subservient to strategy. Math, biology, reading, writing, engineering: these are tools. Where we fall short, from public elementaries to private universities, is delivering guidance in how to use those tools.

I want to take my own shot at outlining the goals of education.

There are three disciplines that are foundational to preparing people for success, regardless of field. Every student (and adult) should be able to demonstrate competence in these disciplines. The first two are invention and connection.

Invention is putting new things into the world. This is writing a song. This is crafting an argument. This is testing a theorem. This is building a website. This is telling a story. This is fixing broken appliances. This is discovering a different approach. This is risking failure. This is speaking up. This is generating alternative perspectives. This is improvisation. This is helping people find their way. We invent by making new things, whether concrete or digital or emotional, and putting them into the world. This is something students should be doing, in some way, every day.

Connection is nourishing relationships with the people around us – present, past, and future. This is developing a historical perspective. This is living in new places. This is listening to each others’ stories. This is inspiring others to take action. This is learning the names of our neighbors. This is sharing our answers with the class. This is having uncomfortable conversations. This is challenging authority. This is switching places. This is giving free gifts. This is saying buenos días, おはようございます, صباح الخير. Connection places us in the world, in our time. It binds us to the people around us, before us, and after us. It gives us a reason to make good art, and a context for the change we seek.

There’s a third discipline, but I don’t have a good name for it. Let me know if you have a suggestion. For now, I’ll call it health. Of the three disciplines, this is the one perhaps most underinvested and underappreciated within our education system. Our health is the bedrock of everything we do. If we are not fit, we cannot serve. And yet, we rely on a patchwork of outdated instruction, barely funded instructors, and variably-informed parenting; when this fails, the impact is catastrophic at both a personal and societal level.

Health is cultivating a strong body and a peaceful mind. This is learning how to feed ourselves. This is playing outside. This is lifting more tomorrow than we can today. This is dealing with loss. This is fostering mindfulness. This is handling criticism. This is appreciating failure. This is an unprompted act of kindness every day. As we get older, this is understanding sex and consent. This is planning how we spend and save. This is loving ourselves, who we are and who we’re becoming.

I did well in school because I was a good test-taker and rule follower. I’d like for my children to not have to follow in my footsteps.

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