School and purpose

When I was a little girl, as my uncle is fond of saying, I went to a public school in Quorn. And when I say public I mean state school. Public school in England is the expensive type you pay for. So I went to a free school, conveniently located a few minutes walk from two houses I lived in (at different times – we weren’t greedy).

I was doing pretty awfully at school, was held back a year in a “special class” and then leapfrogged a year when they realized I wasn’t as dippy as I made out that I was. Then the time came when my teacher, Miss Flack, pointed out to my parents that I was bored at school, and off I went to the entrance exam for a private school called Fairfields by the staff, and “Fairyfields” by my fellow public (state) school student brethren.

Being able to do addition and simple multiplication without the aid of a calculator, I passed the entrance exam with flying colours, and started costing my family a small fortune. I spent two years learning there while wearing grey shorts and a blue and red striped tie. (In addition to other clothes I hasten to add – I think there was a cap too.)

Later I went to an independent grammar school, which is an expensive way of going through puberty surrounded by boys dressed in grey trousers and a blue and red striped tie. No girls allowed. From there, universities beckoned, and I remember when deciding where to go for my second degree, that I would ignore the offer from Cambridge as there were better clubs in London which also had a school of economics for me to attend.

When I think about what I learned at school, it amounts to becoming very good at taking exams. I developed a capacity to learn things for a very short period of time, and instantly forget them, never really putting into practice the skills and knowledge that had been imparted to me. I was particularly proud of my come back during my undergraduate degree, when I realized that there were no exams at the end of the second year, which resulted in some marginally wayward behaviour. I would eschew such things as lectures as no-one seemed to notice if I was there or not, and I think I attended somewhere between three and four during the whole year. Three or four hours of sitting falling asleep in a large group of students at The Department. I was better off back in bed sleeping off my hangover and digesting my kebab, I reasoned. Suffice it to say that my grades (if such a thing existed) plummeted, and it was only by cunning artifice that I managed to pull off a first class degree with honours by figuring out exactly the minimum required to do such a thing, and then executing that learning in my exams.

Years later, after abandoning the fields in which I studied, and emptying my head of anything that might have been held there about fast fourier transforms and the Runge-Kutta method, I wonder if I would have been better served by either sticking to my field, or choosing a field that suited what I wanted to do. Which at the time was to go to godawful night clubs, drink pints of purple drinks with unusual flavour and subsequently eat kebabs.

Sure, I learned many other things at university, like how to ride a motorbike and avoid getting in too much trouble, and probably a bit about girls (not much I suppose, but more than a teenager in an all boy’s school did). But what about all those hours reading books about things? And what about all those exams?

I’m wondering all this as I listen to Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us which I picked up after watching Daniel Pink’s Ted Talk. I listen as I have long forgotten the art of reading. But it talks about different ways to educate that are not based on “if-then” rewards. Don’t give little Billy a gold star if he does his ABCs, otherwise little Billy will not learn the intrinsic motivation of mastery for its own good.

Mr. Pink (no not that Mr. Pink), says that we are motivated by a desire for mastery, autonomy and purpose. So people who are given carrot and stick motivation to learn don’t do it for it’s own good any more. The same with little Billy given pocket money for doing chores – he doesn’t learn to do them as a contribution to the household, and when the pocket money is removed, has no desire to do them any more. Maybe that’s why I don’t like cleaning the house.

So perhaps that’s where I am right now. Not motivated to learn as there’s no big test with gold stars. And as for purpose, that easter egg I found on the Time Machine at Burning Man 2006 still leaves me wondering on a daily basis, “What is my purpose?”.

As a university graduate I knew my purpose. Kebabs et al. And then avoiding work for as long as possible. And then competing to get a good job (one that paid well, not one that had any greater good at heart), and then buying a flat. Well, I kind of did all that and got into a position where I could retire for a few years. Very nice it was too.

And now I’m back on the purpose, back on the motivation, and trying to figure out what kind of school I want for my kids. One with gold stars and a door to Oxbridge at the far end of a winding path of spoon-fed learning. Or a school where they get to figure out how to get results, don’t learn things in a rote, mechanical way so that the can go to university and then drop out and be truly great.

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