33 ‘secrets’ of education

APRIL 20 — “Secrets.” Because anyone who has ever worked in education will agree the below are absolute dogmatic truths. Yet practically nobody will say these out loud.

I’ve been a teacher/lecturer for 11.5 years. That’s probably 12 years too long. Time to move on. So I give you 33 ideas, confessions, aphorisms — “secrets” lah—for the years I’ve been doing it. I hope some of these help, but if not the universe won’t implode. Most of the below are directed at students.

So, in no particular order:

  1. The phenomenon of “learning” is complicated; don’t let anybody (the government, your folks, your friends or a columnist) try to “make it easy” for you.
  2. You know the Right-Brain-Left-Brain schema? It’s largely bullshit but if possible, educate yourself on both the physical and the social sciences.
  3. Enthusiasm in class is your own responsibility, not the lecturer’s; of course whoever’s facilitating should try to make the class interesting — but it’s also up to students to decide to want to learn something.
  4. Don’t ever diss the value of any subject before understanding what it’s about — unless it’s a “Strategic Management” course (honestly, not even the most successful CEOs have a right to teach such a course).
  5. Unless you have a learning disability, never “take your time” with education i.e. if you can finish the course in two years, don’t let anybody tell you need four years.
  6. Find out the key areas that will be automated soon (if not automated already) and, uh, don’t major in those?
  7. Watching TED videos is great, but resist the temptation to believe that 18 minutes can encapsulate anything of value.
  8. If anyone equates “number of As scored” with “more learning”, he doesn’t understand learning.
  9. You’re paying a small arm and leg for the library resources, especially those online — can you consider using it more?
  10. Never ever let anyone tell you a certain subject is a waste of time, especially if that subject has nothing to do with “making money.”
  11. Try to get to know your lecturers personally; a simple, “How are you, Sir?” goes a long way.
  12. See those friends of yours absolutely stressed out over exams? Tell yourself to NEVER be like them, no matter how over-achieving they may be.
  13. If you skip Sports, it better be because you’re physically challenged.
  14. If your seniors regularly talk about “success” without bothering to define it, they’re full of b.s. and you can ignore them.
  15. Nowadays educators are indistinguishable from administrators — don’t get mad with your teachers. Feel sorry for them.
  16. Often your teachers or lecturers haven’t a clue about what they’re talking about. Worst-case scenario these lecturers don’t even know they don’t know, best-case is they don’t know but the students don’t mind.
  17. A boring class isn’t necessarily (but often is) a terrible class; think of it as a chess game where you gotta find the “key” to what the other person is doing.
  18. The most effective way for you to learn anything is to teach it. So if your weaker classmate has problems with her studies, don’t be a prick and ignore her. Go and help.
  19. Assignment and examination scores reflect your skills in, uh, doing assignments and examinations — nothing else. The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that a high score in school counts for anything substantial outside of it.
  20. If you’re PhD material, get your Dr-ship as fast as you can. The job can wait.
  21. If you’re asked to help out in student events, help out. This is so especially if you’ve been spending too much time on your books. Better yet, volunteer to assist in raising funds, planning projects, etc.
  22. If you feel that the syllabus is irrelevant to your future career, it probably is; that Singapore Primary 5 question that went viral last week? And how people went Ooh and Aah over something that has almost zero relation to real life? That shows you everything wrong with formal education.
  23. The guys and girls who score the lowest in class usually have something special to teach you; never ever treat them like pariahs.
  24. If you’re not reading about the subject outside of the prescribed texts and references, do yourself a favour and drop the subject — why waste time on something you’re not keen on self-exploring?
  25. The education industry is a fragile thing; its survival depends almost entirely on the traditional belief that students need to go to class, take exams and receive scrolls. Be very careful if you plan to invest in it.
  26. If your lecturer talks about nothing in class but the subject? Get him replaced.
  27. Seriously consider online courses or distance-learning; this potentially saves you a bomb on tuition. It also obviously assumes that you’ve overcome the dependency on lectures and tutorials (note: if you need to attend classes to learn, you’re at a disadvantage).
  28. Students know WAY more than lecturers about learning tech; so share your ideas with your lecturer. It’s not just about being innovative, it’s also something to do when you’re bored to smithereens during class.
  29. If you know you’re brilliant at a subject, have some fun and deliberately score lower than you can — you’re not a robot, you can choose whatever score you like.
  30. Watching Big Bang Theory won’t make you better at science or maths, but if you listen hard enough you’ll know how humour works — and if that doesn’t make you a little smarter, it should at least make your brain-life more fun.
  31. Every year in Malaysia there are almost 200,000 graduates shaking a Vice-Chancellor’s hand during convocation; ask yourself if killing yourself to become 1/200k is really worth it.
  32. Read like a demon; Malaysians read about half a book a year on average. You finish one book you’re already double that.

And the final secret...

33.  Try the vegetarian mixed-rice restaurants in Damansara Jaya. The offerings are low-cost, healthy and you’re always hungry for more — exactly, I guess, what learning should be too?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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