Sunday, 5 October 2014

What is an Education?

In conversations with friends and colleagues, something that often comes to head is "What is an education? What does it mean? What should it entail? What is its worth?"

I like to think about it using this analogy that I wrote a while ago:

Imagine that John makes his sandwiches every morning before going to school/work. He prepares them well, using the method he has been taught: cut the bread, spread on some butter and then jam or peanut butter, or whatever he fancies. Then he packs it into a lunch box and puts it in his bag and heads off to school/work. At tea time he gets hungry and would really like to eat the sandwiches but he doesn't. His reasoning is that the sandwiches are already with him - in his backpack, on his back. He doesn't need to eat them since they are already moving around with him. Every day he continues in this way until he has a backpack full of sandwiches. As you can imagine, after a while some of them start to rot, so what does he do? Naturally he throws them away like anyone would. But what does he do next?
He makes more sandwiches every day and continues to add them to his burgeoning backpack.

Can you see where this is going? To me, this is exactly what people do with the education they receive - they collect and collect and collect, stuffing their bags full of textbooks which they simply memorize. They stuff their minds full of dull, plain facts. Eventually the 'education' (the memories) get rotten and they throw them out so that they have more space to stuff in more memorized 'sandwiches'. Just think about this, how much of everything you learnt in high school can you still remember (assuming you are not currently in high school!) Do you think you could still pass that maths test, or that lengthy biology test?

To me an education is simply creativity; using the knowledge and information acquired to create new knowledge - to actually grapple with information and actively process it to the extent that you create something new (which ironically ends up in textbooks). That's where new discoveries and theories come from, it takes someone to say "Hey what if?....." or "Hey, I think this theory would make more sense if..." Where would society end up if all we ever did was memorise textbooks verbatim? Would we be able to produce new textbooks? Short answer, no. We would simply replicate them, and that is where dogma comes in. Dogma is the enemy of education.

 Einstein summed it up nicely, in my opinion, when he said "Imagination is more important than knowledge," and when he spoke of using your brain: "Don't waste your brain's resources on memorising information, facts can be looked up in a book anytime. Rather use the resources in your head  to think, analyse and create."

Let's think carefully about what we consider an education. I have personally seen a scenario in which an intern accountant, who had stellar results from high school and university, failed to solve a hilariously simple issue because all he could do was throw memorised information, rules and formulas at it when all it required was a dash of critical thinking. That was a prime example of dogma.

In closing, I shall leave you with another of Einstein's pearls of wisdom:

"Education is what remains when you have forgotten everything you learned at school."

As always, I love to engage in discussion, so if you have any comments/ideas please feel free to share them below!

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