You can lead a student to class but you can’t make them learn

Horse water drink
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Borrowing from the old proverb about forcing horses to drink, I think that all too frequently – this is exactly what we’re trying to do in education.

As soon as you think about it like this, I think it’s pretty obvious that force feeding knowledge to uninterested students isn’t a path to success.

I’ll confess, as a parent – I’ve frequently gotten frustrated with some of my son’s teachers. This year, I’ve been volunteering with TEALS to teach Computer Science in a high school and I have gained some empathy with teachers. It’s hard to teach – much less inspire – students who have absolutely no interest in being there.

When kids are younger, I think they will “learn” out of obedience. Some (a minority, I’m guessing) become genuinely interested in subjects and learn because they are curious. I think the rest reach the point of “I’m bored and I don’t care” at different ages. (Personally, I hit this point in college.) Could we transition from our current “drink from this firehouse until you’re 18” model to more of a “work for awhile, then learn for awhile” model?

It’s odd that we spend of so much money, time, and effort on compulsory education until students are 18 (when most of them have no appreciation or interest in what they are being taught), but once you’re an adult and have “been out in the world” and have a better feel for what you’d like and need to learn, it’s a bit of an uphill climb to obtain education at that time.

In general, I’m not an advocate of government spending. In this case, we’re already spending a lot of money and I think it’s worth asking if we could “spend smarter”. I’m also not suggesting this would be easy. Making changes to the idea of “high school” – an institution that’s so embedded into our culture – would be a huge shift and unintended consequences are a very real risk. But – the more I think about it, I can’t help but feel “this is broken”.