How often do people actually use what they learn from school out in the real world?
If you feel like memorising dates of the French Revolution or the atomic number for argon is never going to be of any practical use, trust your intuition. You’re not wrong, and you’re not alone. In one survey only 48% of secondary students believed what they learned in class would help them outside of school. In an age when you can look up any fact on the internet within seconds, memorising textbooks is essentially pointless.
So, what do you really learn in school? Most students’ biggest takeaways are subconscious lessons like obedience, an achievement-oriented mindset, and a fear of failure. As you might have guessed, these translate to real life just as poorly as memorising useless facts.
Environmental cues subconsciously shape how we behave. If someone is part of a supportive and positive community and has the freedom to act as they want, they tend to behave in a more sociable, helpful way. Conversely, if someone is kept in a restrictive environment where they feel distrust toward the people around them, they’ll behave in a more selfish and destructive way.
You would think that schools would be designed around principles that promote a positive and helpful learning atmosphere. Instead, schools have more in common with army barracks and prisons. Students are told where to go, when they may speak, how they must spend their time, and sometimes what to wear or how to present themselves. They should sit quietly and do as they are told and only question authority in certain situations.
These lessons are rarely spoken out loud, but students learn them all the same. If they speak out too much or if they don’t do as they’re told, they get in trouble. If they follow the rules, though, they get good grades and good reports. Those lessons stick even after their school career is over — which makes them all the more important to talk about.
The real lessons taught in schools
With all these subconscious environmental cues in the classroom, what are students actually learning while in school?
Students are obliged to follow the instructions of teachers in terms of what they study, how they learn, and most importantly, how they behave. Prefer to study a practical subject like car mechanics instead of an academic subject like geography? Too bad. The school sets the rules and the students must follow them.
In recent years, education researchers have started to understand that people learn in different ways. Some students learn best from discussing concepts in a group, while others prefer visual information or a hands-on approach. It isn’t clear to what extent favouring or avoiding these styles has on a student’s ability to learn in the classroom. We do know that ignoring them creates long-lasting problems. Two thirds of post-education adults echoed this sentiment in a survey, stating that a focus on practical knowledge and improving individual skills is more valuable than standardised curriculums and teaching methods.
People are frustrated that school isn’t teaching them what they need. Instead, they walk away carrying damaging subconscious lessons like obedience. One thing is abundantly clear: sitting passively in a chair and copying information a teacher writes on the board is not the best way to teach everyone. It’s good for instilling obedience, but not necessarily for morale or passing along knowledge
Following someone else’s schedule
Students are told when and where their lessons are and must attend them on time. They have practically no opportunity to design their own schedule.
Following someone else’s arbitrary schedule causes a variety of problems. One of the most prevalent is chronic sleep deprivation. Studies show that teenagers need more sleep than adults — around 9 to 9.5 hours compared to 8 hours for adults. Schools with early start times make getting enough sleep almost impossible. When students are tired it’s harder for them to concentrate, harder to retain information, and their overall mood is worse.
Thinking longer-term, it’s troubling that students never learn the skill of setting their own schedule. When students go to university or enter the working world, they’ll often have to decide for themselves how best to use their time. Juggling commitments like work, maintaining a home, family, friends, and hobbies is one of the biggest challenges adults face. With the existing school system students never have an opportunity to practice this skill.
Before a young person learns to balance competing demands on their time, it’s common to fail to achieve this balance several times. By prescribing how students should spend every minute of their time, we are robbing them of the satisfaction of forming good scheduling habits — to say nothing of the learning that comes from bad habits.
Achievement mindset and fear of failure
Students today face a never-ending stream of tests, assessments, and exams. Many are scared of failure and feel shame if they do not do well academically. This stems from what is called an achievement mindset — the idea that your worth is based on ticking off a series of achievements, like getting good grades, winning prizes, and getting into a good university. If you don’t accomplish these things, the achievement mindset says you are a failure.
Regardless of what your teachers and professors say, that’s an extremely unhealthy way to see life. Failure is not only inevitable — there is literally no one alive who hasn’t failed at something — it’s also an important learning tool, perhaps the most valuable one there is. Whether it’s in business, family life, or picking up a new hobby, trying and failing is how you gain experience and grow as a person.
Failure is a key part of a life well-led. If students are afraid to fail, they won’t push themselves to try new things. They’ll only stick with the familiar things they know they can do well. This achievement mindset is a recipe for an unhappy, unfulfilled life.
Lack of agency
All of the above issues have a similar root: students lack agency over their learning. They aren’t allowed to decide what they want to study, how to arrange their time, or which learning styles suit them best. They are taught to follow orders and not to question what they are told.
As a society, we generally agree that people shouldn’t be forced into situations against their will. In many schools, however, if a student wants to do something as simple as use the bathroom they have to ask permission. This is highly infantilising and disrespectful of students’ needs as individuals. Adults report restrictions on autonomy are one of their greatest sources of dissatisfaction. Why would that be any different for young adults or teenagers?
An essential skill for adult life is learning to create and negotiate boundaries. What kinds of treatment are acceptable to you? How can you assert your needs politely but firmly? How do you balance your needs with the needs of others if they are in conflict? There is arguably no more important skill to develop for a satisfying, compassionate life. And yet, as schools currently exist, they undermine these very principles to force students into a one-size-fits-all model.
The next time you find yourself wondering what the point of school is — whether you’ll ever need the information you’re being taught in class — know that you’re right to be sceptical. The lessons school is teaching you just might be the opposite of the lessons you need to live a fulfilled life.
Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.
She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.
When I tell people I went to Cambridge, the reaction normally goes something like this:
“Wow, you must be like a super genius or something!”
Comments like these, while a boost to the ego, always make me wince inwardly. I don’t think very highly of Cambridge, nor of any decision that is predicated on prestige. I would much rather people compliment me on my courage and resilience than on a fading piece of yellowish paper from a fading institution.
Living the middle-class dream
I enrolled in Cambridge because that’s what I was supposed to do. “Go to the most prestigious university possible,” my parents said. “Associate with the right crowd, impress the right people, then surf through life on a wave of success.”
What I didn’t realise at the time was how this encouraged me to look for validation outside of myself. It didn’t matter what I learned or how I improved as a person, only that I followed the tried and tested path from educational achievement to career prosperity. I needed the right degree certificate and the right connections. That, apparently, would lead to happiness and fulfilment.
I was actually a total misfit during my first year at Cambridge. Most of my peers engaged in a mix of studying and socialising (read: drinking). I ignored the latter and focused on doing everything my professors asked of me. I joined clubs and filled my out-of-class hours with extra-curricular activities. It was a brutal schedule, and the strain of keeping it led to more than a few sleepless nights. But because my attendance and grades earned praise, I continued thinking I was doing the right thing for my future.
The wake-up call
It wasn’t until my second year that I started to see the trap I had fallen into. Cambridge puts students on a treadmill of achievement which leads precisely nowhere. I wasn’t supposed to gain knowledge or improve myself, not really. My job was to please professors and pass exams – no matter the cost to my well-being.
I soon discovered that there were easier ways to achieve those ends without suffering the drawbacks that come with sitting in the library for 10 hours a day. It was a simple matter to read articles about assigned materials instead of crawling through dense source texts. The outcome was basically the same — good enough marks to get by and to gain the approval I craved. The only difference was that I gained very little in terms of knowledge. Nobody cared about that fact, however. Not my teachers, not my family, and certainly not Cambridge.
As I was questioning the purpose and value of my education, a wake-up call came in the most cliché way possible: I met a girl. She was captivating and pretty. There was no question I wanted to pursue her. Rejection seemed likely, as I wasn’t very experienced with relationships, but I went for it all the same. To my surprise, my efforts were successful.
Personal growth from an unlikely source
The relationship itself, such that it was, wasn’t my wake-up call. It was a single conversation we had about the manner in which I pursued her. She described me as… suave. My immediate internal reaction was complete disbelief. Suave? I wasn’t suave, I was new to all of this. How could I, the studious bookworm with excellent grades and no social life, be suave?
Like anyone my age, I turned to the internet for answers. Obviously I had done something right. I wanted to know exactly what that was, whether it was part of my personality, and what I could do to nurture it. I stumbled upon pick-up artistry (PUA) and read all about seduction systems I could use to intentionally become more successful with women.
Of course, looking back on this now, I consider it a dysfunctional way of thinking. But at the time, it gave me a framework for how I could behave in order to manipulate women into liking me. Through learning this consciously, I was later able to see in therapy how I had been unconsciously using similar techniques for years to win the approval of my professors, parents, and other authority figures. I realised thatI had been searching for validation from others for all this time. In reality, trying to control what someone else thinks of you is inevitably a losing game.
It wasn’t the pick up artistry itself that inspired change. It was the act of striking out on my own and being willing to think for myself, even at the risk of failing. This was in sharp contrast to Cambridge telling me to ignore self-knowledge and work to gain the approval of others. Good grades please professors. It didn’t matter what I learned in the process, if anything at all. My strange pursuit of pick-up artistry offered insight into myself as well as tangible value to my life.
The worthlessness of prestige in real life
I continued this shift away from achievement-hunting as I finished my studies at Cambridge. I turned my attention inward, sought intrinsic validation for my pursuits and ideas and became more confident as a result.
I also faced the cold reality of the limitations of my education. Having a prestigious university’s name stamped on my degree didn’t mean I was more capable than other people. I still faced challenges and failures just like my peers, and I couldn’t overcome them by simply name-dropping my alma mater. I’ll be blunt: this was one of the hardest things I have ever had to realise. That statement alone shows you how entitled I felt at the time to a good job.
In the cases where mentioning Cambridge did open doors for me, I quickly learned that those doors were not worth stepping through. Someone who values a name over ability is not someone with an intelligent values system, nor are they someone you want to work with.
My takeaway from Cambridge is simple: prestige is a worthless currency. It’s little more than an illusion. Enabled by the youthful naivety of its students and the economic ignorance of their school teachers, the university is guilty of milking this illusion for its own financial benefit. It banks on former successes to create this bizarre name-worship situation, sacrificing the personal growth of its students in the process.
Yes, Newton developed his three laws of motion while at Trinity College, Cambridge. Watson and Crick also defined the double-helix structure of DNA at Cambridge. Such achievements cannot be imparted onto other Cambridge students, however. Those people worked and fought and failed before earning their place in history, and we must do the same.
The value of acquiring real-life knowledge
If you take nothing else away from this article, let it be the value of self-directed learning. There is real and lasting value in learning for practical purposes, and in ditching the impulse to earn praise from people around you. Instead, look for ideas that are right for your unique character. Expand your horizons until you find your interests, then hone in and specialise. Get to know your own temperament through self-analysis and you will discover the true value of learning.
I don’t regret my time at Cambridge. If I had known then what I know now, I would have probably started a business at age 18 instead of going to university; there’s no faster way to learn and grow. However, my time in mainstream education is what gave me the inspiration to start this business and the confidence to speak frankly about the constraints of a life built around prestige and the approval of others. Prestige may be desirable, but you don’t need to rely on institutions for validation. As Y-Combinator’s Paul Graham said: “Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious.”
Geoff Walters is a six-time entrepreneur and founder of Universal Owl. He has been fascinated by the subject of personal development for ten years, and enjoys passing lessons from his own life experience to younger people.
Areas of interest include wealth creation, nutrition, chess, classical music, psychology, communication and languages.