We Know How to Know, but Not How to Learn

Publication Date: 

Monday, 31 July 2017 - 12:48pm


Ankita Bhattacharjee

Iam one of the millions of students around the world who are on the brink of making some of the seemingly biggest choices of their lives. As a high school senior, I’m expected by convention to figure out what I want to do with my life: where I want to go to university, what I want to study, my field of work and how successful I’m going to be. All of a sudden that innocent childhood question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” becomes dauntingly real, as you realise that you have grown up and don’t have a clue how to answer that question. How could we, when our centuries-old education system prepares us for a job market that existed 50 years ago?

With experts such as Esteban Bullrich, Minister of Education for Argentina, saying “A child today can expect to change jobs at least seven times over the course of their lives – and five of those jobs don’t exist yet,” it makes students question the value of their education. What kind of education matters today and what will matter in the future? If my success in life is calculated by the scores I get on standardised tests taken by thousands if not millions of other students, testing knowledge that will be obsolete or change drastically in the future, what is the point of my education? If the field of study I choose now becomes outdated in the future, or is not in line with the thousands of new jobs that will be created, will I be able to work? The future of a student graduating from high school or university today is more unsure than ever before, as new technology, innovation and scarcity drastically change the direction in which are world is moving.

Sticking to the current system is like trying to run a maglev train with a steam engine or a jumbo jet with wooden propellers – it just doesn’t work. Our education systems need to be renovated and redesigned now. So what can an educator do? What system of education would work for the future? Well, the idea is simple: if the world is continuously transforming, students also need to be able to transform and adapt to stay relevant. How do we do this? Our education systems focus on teaching students facts about the world, knowledge that has already been created or discovered in the past. In fact, some systems only require rote learning. Coming from the Indian context and having studied under two national Indian syllabi, I have witnessed the system first-hand as it rewards those who can memorise and produce information the best. With the internet in our palms, this kind of education is already obsolete.

Watch Ken Robinson and Peter Senge discuss education that is fit for the 21st century, from DIF 2016

The system that works is one in which we learn how to learn. Learning is a skill that has been grossly contaminated by definitions of learning such as memorising, copying, and conforming. Students are rewarded for getting the ‘right’ answer, thus creating the attitude that 1) the knowledge they receive is always accurate and 2) there is one way of doing things – a right way. What we are left with in this system is a bunch of potentially bright, unique students reduced to giving similar solutions and regurgitating information from textbooks, most of which they are not going to remember in a few years. This system does not help create innovative, adaptive, unique human beings who can learn in different ways and question the systems in place around them. Instead of memorising formulae, students should be able to prove or find them. Instead of learning scientific facts from a textbook, students should be able to find answers to their questions in a lab. Finally, instead of answering questions in assignments, students should learn how to ask their own.

This would also require a change of thought from a reductionist perspective that benefits from understanding and knowing the different parts of a system in isolation, to systems thinking that views the world as a complex system where we as human beings interact with each other and the natural world. This would foster a healthier and fuller relationship between the students and the world and enable one to be more curious, understand the world holistically and always have the potential and desire to learn more. Learning ought to be focused on skills rather than information retention.

Today, learning is not something that ends in university but is an essential skill that people require throughout their entire lives to keep up with and drive the changes of the future. Let’s not reduce the bright, forward-thinking individuals we call students into conforming individuals who respond and think the same way. Let’s create a future of thinkers, innovators and learners to transform the world we live in today into a system that works.


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