Should the learning process imitate real life?

19 Jul

On the face of it, this may seem like a silly question! Of course it should. What is the point in learning if not to apply it in actual real life!?

However, this is in stark contrast to the collective wisdom of current educational systems. (And I’ll just pre-emptively say, I’m not about to try and rip them to shreds or anything – I have been busy enjoying my education for most of my life up until now, and greatly thankful for the priveledge to do so! 🙂 )

But now I am on another side of the fence. I have become newly appreciative of some previously un-pondered aspects of life. And one of the biggest challenges I have been facing is this notion of academic achievement not neccessarily translating into “transferable life skills”. In fact, I find it almost frightening how anti-correlated the two can appear!

Sometimes it seems the very person who has struggled to understand the conceptual explanation of something, that seems to find solving real problems the easiest… as if somehow their very struggling has taught them the skills they needed to face struggles in the workplace.

There must be something, somewhere along the line, where the education system is not providing what might be called a vocational focus.¹ Possible explanations is that there is partly an elitist focus on the joy of learning – which I would happily subscribe to! – and partly an undue emphasis on theory as opposed to practice.

This theoretical element seems to be the result of a chain of reasoning.

  1. Learning is cumulative – this seems generally accepted.
  2. So, we start from a firm foundation
  3. Allow a building up of knowledge:
    • strengthening the foundations for the next stage of learning.
    • adding a whole bunch of new stuff.
    • [I markedly noticed this at varying stages throughout my education, where I would classify a whole year into either “strengthening the foundations” or “adding new stuff”. That is clearly a broad statement, however there was definitely an overarching ‘working ethos’ to the year, defined by which of these categories the year fell into.]
  4. Use a controlled environment – take other factors out of the equation, to allow focus on one particular learning-objective at a time.
  5. This controlled environment by definition excludes all the real-life stuff normally surrounding a skill, thereby meaning that learning does not “imitate real life”.

An obvious example of this is the way ‘subjects’ are divided into stovepipes during school. I’m sure there was a stage as a kid where I thought “I’m going to be a scientist. I don’t really need to be able to write stories, so why study English?” (I suppose it was the ‘purist’ mentality that *did* keep me studying English (and an amazing teacher 😉 ! and I’m certainly glad now that I did!)

Similarly, learning a foreign language is always “a subject”. However, those who are most likely to use a foreign language will do so by living in the country where that language is spoken. We don’t ever “go to speak German” at any point in our lives. But, just sometimes, we may have to speak German in order to actually live our lives. So the “learning” is occuring completely back-to-front from the real-life application!

It is from here that my original question seems to strike at the very root of educational methods. Despite a very successful building-work achievement, we come back to the real world and find that sometimes it appears no more than an unreachable castle in the sky.

It is certainly true that learning something informally gives you a poorer understanding of what you have learnt. I’d struggle to write an essay on almost anything I’ve learned in the past year. I just can’t seem to separate out any ideas into an explainable whole-ness.

But isn’t this reality! Concepts *aren’t* separated out from each other in neat wee piles timestamped throughout our day. It is much more like some complex network of interlocking parts. We can’t clearly see any individual part, nor do we appreciate the nature of the relationships between parts.

So how do we deal with the concept-cloud of reality?

Hmmmm…. dunno if I have any answers to this one (yet!).

*starts again on this whole learning business 😉 *

¹[Unboastful disclaimer: yep, there’s tons of things I’m just rubbish at! I’m not meaning to make some “the system has failed me” sympathy speech… just meaning to highlight some possible areas of improvement!]


Posted by on Thursday, July 19, 2007 in philosophy


Tags: , ,

2 responses to “Should the learning process imitate real life?

  1. Nex

    Friday, July 20, 2007 at 1:45 pm

    Thought you might like to know that your post inspired one of my own:

  2. rach

    Friday, July 20, 2007 at 8:14 pm

    Thanks, nex!

    Scary post…. far too scarily real for those of us trying to forget the nightmares! 😉


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