The most important thing school can teach you is…

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this story in Intelligent Life magazine, which asked seven thinkers and writers what they consider the most essential subject to learn in school.

Still very much an experiental learner
Still very much an experiental learner

Their answers: music, emotional intelligence, cultural literacy, history (backwards), basic geography, open-air dawdling, physics.

Of open-air dawdling, Deb Wilenski answered:

I have worked in the wild outdoors with young children and educators for more than ten years. I work in classrooms too, but there is no better place for dawdling than the woods. Free from the props and expectations of The Curriculum, children become explorers, philosophers, inventors, illustrators, poets, scientists, professionals of every kind.

If I were in charge of education, I would build open-air dawdling into the curriculum, giving every child time, slow time, to explore their own burning questions. The best subject is the one you can’t leave alone.

You need to why this shadow is here...
You need to why this shadow is here…

Here’s Jessica Lahey on cultural literacy:

Consequently, every subject depends on cultural literacy. The underlying warp of the class could be Latin, literature, writing or law, but the weft is all connection, linking new content to the strands of knowledge the students already possess. Words that are utterly forgettable in their dry state of denotation can be retained given connotation and a bit of context. Characters and plot lines that might otherwise slip through holes in attention become memorable when safely tethered by literary allusion.

Before we read Chapter 15 of “Great Expectations”, I tell the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s jealousy, murderous anger and subsequent exile prepare my students to meet Orlick, the morose journeyman with no liking for Pip. When they read “he would slouch out, like Cain or the Wandering Jew,” they have a nuanced understanding of Orlick, and see why Pip senses that he may become fuel for his ire.

I attended private school Grades 4-9, and am grateful I did, even as I also learned to loathe arbitrary rules, (aren’t they all?!), crummy boarding school food and sharing a bedroom with four strangers.

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland -- the world ready for me to explore!
Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland — the world ready for me to explore!

I still vividly recall our terrifying fifth grade teacher who had us use carbon paper to trace the maps of various countries so we would learn what they looked like and our eighth grade teacher — whose last name rhymed, appropriately enough, with the words gruff, tough and rough — who had us ploughing through The Scarlet Letter, a dictionary necessary for almost every single sentence.

What did I learn that’s most useful to me, decades later?

To question and challenge authority. It’s not a subject taught in any classroom, but it’s a crucial life skill, certainly for a woman, a feminist and, as a journalist, someone paid to ask questions

To trust my judgement. Even as a child, much to some teachers’ frustration, I knew what mattered most to me and fought for my principles.

To see the world as a place worth exploring, as often and widely as possible. Reading work from other cultures, traveling, listening to the stories of people who’d ventured out and come back, whetted my lifelong appetite for more of the same.

To understand that someone expecting excellence of me will bring out my best. I’m a high-octane girl and need a lot of intellectual stimulation and challenge. I’m much happier feeling scared of a difficult assignment from which I’ll learn and grow than bored silly by something mundane and simple.

To write quickly and confidently. Our private school had an annual essay contest, in which Grades 4, 5 and 6 would compete against one another, Grades 7 and 8, Grades 9, 10 and 11 and Grades 12 and 13, (this was Ontario, Canada.) I won the contest in Grade 8, giving me, even then, the confidence I could do this writing thing, well and under pressure. It’s what I’ve been doing for a living for a long time.

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage
This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

To savor nature. Our school grounds had enormous chestnut trees and every fall I’d marvel at the ground littered with their thick, spongy, spiky green casings — and the glossy brown nuts inside them. We’d walk the block every morning, scuffing through leaves or snow. Being alone outdoors also offered a blessed respite from constant company, in class, at meals, in the common room or in our bedrooms.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater
Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

I later studied English literature for four years at University of Toronto, Canada’s highest-ranked, but also learned that I don’t enjoy sitting still for hours being lectured to, no matter how much I love to learn new material. I much preferred my training at the New York School of Interior Design, two decades later, also because choosing color or knowing what materials work best in certain situations has proven a more useful tool day-to-day than the nuances of 16th-century drama.

I don’t envy today’s teachers — competing with (or at best making great use of) technology but also “teaching to the test”.

I fear that some of life’s most important skills, from financial literacy to civics to how our bodies work and how to keep them healthy, have little to no place in most classrooms. We learn them much later, if we’re lucky.

What did you learn in your early years of formal education you still find most useful today?


24 thoughts on “The most important thing school can teach you is…

  1. I learned to be curious and even though some of my teachers weren’t very capable, they knew enough to know that curiosity could lead to many, many other things.

    Good post – I very much enjoyed reading it. 🙂

  2. Sreejit Poole

    From kindergarten to 2nd grade I learned that this thing called reading is pretty dang awesome. From 3rd grade to 9th I learned that girls make the world more interesting. And from 10th through college I learned that I’m more happy learning on the job than sitting in a classroom, but either way the lessons are coming from every direction.

    1. Sreejit, thanks for commenting! This is your first, I think? 🙂

      What a great set of lessons. It’s difficult to learn sitting in a classroom when you realize that experiential learning is so much more your style.

  3. Let’s see. I learned to be a rebel and rail against authority. I learned to roll a good joint, however I no longer smoke marijuana. I learned to play baseball, basketball and volleyball. I learned French verbs. That was very useful for my future life in France. I learned that bullying, favouritism and utter ineptitude in the school board exists. I learned that I was hopeless in Math, but enjoyed English and Music. (I enjoyed writing book reports and essays and I played the clarinet in the school band.) I learned that the food they served in our cafeteria was crap. Other than that, everything I’ve learned in life has been self-taught. And I’m still learning. One must learn to be self-reliant and inventive in life. I don’t think schools teach that.

  4. i learned that i would have to find my own way through the world. helpful but very challenging at times. i try to instill a love of exploration of the world. and confidence in doing so, along with a bit of grit, in my kinders.

  5. What a great theme! I learned how to speak up for myself, do my own work, and own up to my own mistakes. In a culture of helicopter parents, I was raised by my great-grandparents who were totally not used to the way schools run now, which made me more independent. Subject-wise, I was blessed with great teachers who encouraged me to write without being self-conscious.

  6. I learned to be respectful and to have beautiful penmanship. The respect thing has been valuable to me because, although I was taught to respect authority figures, I widened my scope to respect everyone. When I treat someone with respect, 9 times out of 10, they will behave in an honorable way toward me and others.

    The penmanship thing has earned me lots of praise and gratitude from anyone having to read what I write. Also, I’ve been given the job as recording secretary on many committees!

    I was just listening to TED radio and heard a speaker talking about how “practical wisdom” was the key to fixing so many broken systems in our society (insane laws or rules, the inhumanity in most of our jobs dealing with the public, etc). Practical wisdom is the idea of knowing when it’s appropriate to bend (and even break) the rules in order to be more compassionate to one another. No one teaches that in school, though…He said it’s only taught via modeling the behavior whenever possible.

  7. I did not learn anything from school. My motivation was intrinsic. I had very serious intetests early on. Though my teachers told me that I would only have serious multifacetted intetests in ancient history, science and art to make up for my lack of genius and intelligence. The sons of parents with a privileged background were told every time after terrorizing the class that they would only behave like this due to their fact that they were so highly gifted and so overly intelligent. They were allowed to do what they want, they were always forgiven for their bad behavior. – I think after all,I was considered being a competitor threatening their state as academics, judges and univerdity professors and as people ranking socially higher. They were probably afraid, I could end up more successful than they do. (My parents are not academics, live in the country and are self employed.)

    Luckily my motivation was intrinsic. It was my intrinsic motivation which helped me,not school.

    In fact I was the outsider and school left a lot emotional scars.

    1. Sorry to read this…although not surprised. I was badly bullied by a group of boys in my high school for 3 years and it left me with real contempt for people “in authority” who did nothing, knowing full well how badly this hurt me.

      I love learning but did not enjoy much of my schooling.

    1. Thanks!

      Not sure about “invariably” but, as someone who’s done a lot of teaching, I think you can raise the bar much higher for some students than they’ve experienced — and watch them meet it.

      1. As a former student, I can tell you that if a challenge is interesting it is taken up but students of different times where their energies peak. I was always lazy around noon time. 🙂

      2. It’s actually quite daunting if you stop and realize all the obstacles to learning that a teacher faces — from circadian rhythms to students’ depression or learning disabilities.

  8. There are, of course, so many things I carry with me from my formal education but the one skill I still give thanks for – after almost forty years – is the skill of touch typing that Mr. Yeanish taught me.

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