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Go to school but learn yourself

Schools fail at the one thing they should do really well – cultivating our ability to learn.

Ondrej Markus
Ondrej Markus
5 min read
Go to school but learn yourself

Schools fail at the one thing they should do well – cultivating our ability to learn. Nearly all curiosity and enthusiasm for learning we have as 4-year-olds is gone by the time we finish high-school. (1)

Schools don't understand how learning works

Learning is more like kindling a fire than filling a glass.

Leaning is like kindling a fire, not pouring water into a glass.
Learning is like kinding a fire, not pouring water into a glass.

Students need inspiration 🔥 more than knowledge 💧.

Inspiration fuels curiosity. And learning happens as a by-product of chasing your curiosity. It's when you want to understand something so badly you can't help yourself but find the answer. Solving fascinating problems is the essence of learning.

In the past, when the purpose of schools was to produce factory workers who shouldn't think too much but obey orders, the water approach, however stupid, did its job.

But now, when we need to protect and nurture student's curiosity to survive in this fast-changing world, we should start to treat their education like a frickin' bonfire.

Schools shouldn't extinguish the fire but splash gasoline on the flames.

Put gasoline in the flames to make it burn brighter.
School should be the one to make the fire burn brighter.

However, the approach of most schools is still water-like. If you're anything like me, you remember next to nothing from your school days. What sticks are counting, writing, reading, and a few random facts you could google in 3 seconds if you really needed them, and that's it.

The problem is, the less we care about the knowledge forced on us, the quicker it fades. When the motivation to learn is to pass tomorrow's test, the brain happily frees the space the day after. The knowledge leaks away.

Knowledge we don't care about leaks away.
Remembering what you don't care about is a waste of time.

And we do this over and over and over again for 15+ years. We connect the act of learning with remembering facts we don't care about, which builds up resentment towards learning in the future.

This system might work for some people, but it certainly didn't work for me. In high school, I've spent hundreds of hours out of school because I couldn't stand the waste of time in classes. So I decided to teach myself.

My high-school fiasco

When I was 15, I went to one of the best IT schools in the country to become a programmer. But once we had the first programming classes in the second (second!) year, I realized I actually don't enjoy programming at all.

Too bad because at that point, I was trapped there. Switching schools would cost me a year or two. Plus, I would have to know what I want to do instead, which I didn't. This meant that I would be forced to learn what I didn't like for another 2 years.

In a properly teenage manner, I thought: "FUCK THIS. If they won't teach me the things I am interested in, I will do it myself." So the day I was 18 and could start signing my absence sheet, I exploited the hell out of that. I used every opportunity to be out of school learning what I liked instead.

I enjoyed illustration and was thinking about going to an art school. So once or twice a week, I would spend a whole day hidden in the city library practicing my Photoshop skills.

I was lucky my class teacher was susceptible to obviously fake reasons of absence as long as I somehow managed not to fail my classes. I had braces on my teeth, so my favorite reason for missing a whole day of school was a dentist appointment. Even though her office was in the same street as the school, no one seemed to care about me spending 8 hours on that visit every week.

Of course, I couldn't be at a dentist two times a week, so I mixed in other types of doctors: skin, ears, eyes, allergy, cardio – I used everything. And after a while, I was seriously running out of the kinds of doctors I could go to.

Obviously, I wasn't actually going to any doctors, except for the braces check-in once a month that took 20 minutes. I was spending all this time in the library learning illustration. But it didn't go by without consequences.

In my graduation year, I had over 400 hours of absence, and I almost didn't make it to the final exams because of it. One teacher grilled me vigorously for my bad grades. And after 3 hard-core session of testing me on every detail of his course, he just barely let me do my graduation. It was the most anxious week of my life.

Was it worth it? Definitely. I learned to enjoy learning again. I ignored what others forced on me 💧 and followed my own curiosity 🔥.

Whatever you do, follow your curiosity

Could the same thing happen in classes in a different school, or just in my free time instead of almost failing my exams because of it? Probably yes. I'm just chronically bad at doing things I don't want to do. You might choose a different (and more reasonable) approach.

But whatever you do, follow your curiosity to keep alive your ability to learn. Explore what inspires you. Learning is the most enjoyable thing to do if you treat it like kindling a fire instead of filling a glass.

Take learning into your own hands, and don't depend on the school to do it for you. School isn't equipped to find and inspire your curiosity. That's something only you can do.


P.S. The same is true for college.


1 – How schools kill creativity: NASA once had scientists design a test to measure the creative potential of their engineers. It was a big success, so the scientists then used it for a study of how creativity develops as kids grow up. They tested 1600 children between the ages of 4 and 5, and 98% of them ranked as creative geniuses. Five years later, just 30% of these children scored the same. At 15, it was 12%, and by the time they finished school, only 2% of now young adults had their original creative drive.

Ondrej Markus

I write about life design.