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Stupid Learning
By John Brown August 5, 2004

Is your kid stupid if he can't recite the angles on a three-four-five triangle?

Interesting question. A teenage girl asked Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, to recite that piece of trivia just this last week; it was, after all, one of the math questions she missed on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

Did Governor Bush get it right?


Now, I don't care about Jeb Bush's politics, but I do care about this question: should he have known this? Should all of us who have taken algebra be able to recite, on a moment's notice, what quadratic equations are and how to solve them? Should we know what the passive voice is? Should we be able to explain the notations on the periodic table?

Think about it. What should you know?

This is important because billions of dollars and years of your children's lives will be spent, or wasted, based on the answer to this question. Your children will be ranked by numerous tests on whether they have mastered the complexities of all sorts of things they'll never use once they're out of school.

My answer is that we should know very little of what kids are currently taught in schools.

The limits of pumping mental iron

But doesn't learning hard things make you smarter?

It used to be that schools in the early 1900's taught Latin because it was supposed to be good for you. The idea was that your brain is like a muscle. Pump some Latin iron, and you'll do better in every other subject.

But is that so?

It sounds reasonable. After all, a number of studies have shown that the more a person participates in leisure cognitive activities, the lower was his or her risk of dementia like Alzheimer's. "Playing board games, reading, playing a musical instrument, and doing crossword puzzles were associated with a significantly reduced risk of dementia (even after the researchers took into account such differences as age, sex, educational level, and presence or absence of chronic disease). Dancing was the only physical activity associated with a significantly lowered risk of dementia" (from Link).

Using your brain (or shaking your booty, it seems) boosts memory. Use it or lose it. But in school, we're not trying to stave off dementia. It's not a question of using it; we're determined to do that. The question is using it for what?

So we're back to our question--does Latin, or any other "hard" subject, make learning in other subjects easier?

The answer is that Latin transfers expertise (brain power) to other areas only to the degree that the second area shares common concepts, facts, procedures, and principles. Here's an interesting argument from a Latin teacher that points out exactly how much Latin doesn't transfer to other subjects: Link

So someone with deep expertise in Latin will NOT have much a leg up on anyone else when learning how to write computer programs or troubleshoot a marriage.

Chess experts (another supposed mental body builder) will have no advantage over a Chutes & Ladders player when trying to learn the skills of writing essays, speaking French, or designing the engine of a Cobra helicopter.

When you or your child can do algebraic flips, it only means you're good at performing algebraic flips.

So you are smart at spelling, winning with words like "obnubilate" or "rijsttafel"; does that mean you will be smart in physics?


Your brain is NOT an all-purpose muscle, not even figuratively. Expertise in cognitive skills is like expertise in physical skills. Would we ever think that golfing would improve a diver's performance? Or that tennis would help the power lifter? Michael Jordan showed us that expertise in basketball doesn't do much for your game of baseball.

Yes, some physical activities overlap as do some cognitive skills. But that brings us to our original point. The facts, concepts, procedures, and principles of these "tough" subjects we never use in real life do NOT transfer wholesale to creative writing, animal biology, business, or even physics. We shouldn't expect hard mental labor to make us smart in all areas.

So why do we learn all this stuff?

The limits of memory

Well, isn't there some merit to the idea that if we require our kids to acquire a broad base of knowledge, it will allow them to be whatever they want to be? They'll have the opportunity to choose to be an engineer, doctor, lawyer, or mechanic--whatever sizzles their burger. Because all that knowledge will be at their fingertips when they get to the point of deciding what they're going to be when they grow up.

That's a fine notion, but the reality of the brain and learning simply defies this approach. Your brain isn't a computer. We don't save learning to our big gray hard disk. It doesn't stick around for easy retrieval. In fact, most of what we learn in schools, we immediately forget.

Don't believe me?

How many tests have you passed that you cannot pass now? How many classes have you taken? How much of that can you remember?

Be honest.

(If you want to test yourself on a subject, here's the current Physics Core Curriculum for Utah: Link. The objectives are at the bottom.)

I would be surprised if you could remember 5% of the things you don't use on a regular basis or find intrinsically interesting or enjoyable.

Even things we do enjoy don't stick around. Think about the last time you heard a great speech and how one hour later, when your buddy asks you about it, you struggled to remember the main point.

Studies show that learning has a very short half-life. If you don't use it, you'll forget about 60% the next day, 80% in a week. Within a few months, all but a few points, if even that, have evaporated.

So let's say we force our teenager to learn basic physics as a junior in High School, and then she doesn't use it over the summer. And why would she? How many teens have opportunity to apply physics at McDonalds? How many get thrills calculating velocities? When she comes back in the autumn, almost all that learning has been lost. And when she graduates a year later-physics, uh, what was that?

Again, why are we spending so much time and money learning these things?

The power of natural motivation

Okay, here's another reason. We don't want our kids to be stupid in some areas--it's important to know how to count your change.

Now, at last, we start to approach useful reasons for learning.

Learning that lasts is driven naturally, without threats or bribes, by two things: (1) a practical need and/or (2) intrinsic interest or enjoyment. And we're not talking about the trumped up practicality of getting good grades.

When we drive learning naturally, many people who do poorly at school become whiz kids. Ever know a boy who can't seem to get anything above a D in math, yet he can memorize and calculate baseball statistics? Was this guy stupid or lazy in school? Neither. He simply illustrates the fact that trying to teach someone to learn without natural motivation is a waste of time.

So what does all this mean? It means that our education system wastes billions of dollars each year trying to teach and then test our kids on stuff they (a) don't care about, (b) don't need to know, and (c) will quickly forget. Stuff that has little importance to anyone's reality.

Educators should identify the practical skills youth need and use, then let the learning flow from that and the student's own interests. But they don't. Instead, they have these huge lists of things that are "good to know." And they choose to ignore the fact that everyone learning it doesn't care to remember it after the test.

For example, let's go back to quadratic equations. If you took algebra, you had to learn them. It's an objective. Let's assume you remember what they are and how to solve them. What do you use them for?

Is that a cricket I hear chirping in the background?

If they're good to know, they ought to be good for something.


Still no answer?

I was in a class with the superintendent of a school district in New York. He put that question to his math teachers. None of them could answer it. They could identify and solve quadratics, but to what purpose? It was to them, and is to 99% of us, useless knowledge.

By the way, not knowing the answer myself, I asked an engineer what he's seen them used for. Here's his reply: "I use them to determine the packaging needed for a product; given a required volume and some known packaging constraints, you solve for the unknown quantity."

Aha! Now instead of wondering if there are things teens do that would require quadratics, the current education model would demand we go searching for some forced application-let's calculate the plastic wrap needed to cover your watermelon.

Let's apply that model to adults. Think about your current job in the home or for an employer. Would you consider it a good use of your money and time if someone required you pay for, take, and be tested on a semester's worth of Dutch? We're talking about $1,000-$2,000 and 3 nights a week for 11 weeks. Remember that about 10 weeks after the class, you won't remember much besides the fact that there are two words that sound almost the same and cause great hilarity at the bakery--"besneden" and "gesneden"; one means "sliced" and the other means "circumcised."

Unless you find the Dutch language fascinating or want to speak to someone who is Dutch, you'll probably say it's a waste of time and money. And it would be. So why do we think the same type of unnecessary learning would be good for our kids?

It's not.

Real objectives

So what is necessary? Kids ages 8-12 really only need to know how to do a few things:

  1. Read about topics that interest them and that are important for their health and happiness.
  2. Take care of their stuff (pets, clothes, toys).
  3. Help maintain the household, business, and/or farm.
  4. Purchase things they want.
  5. Resolve conflicts with their friends and family.
  6. Apply basic values and principles of happiness to their circumstances.
  7. Counsel with God.

Do they NEED to be able to do anything else?

(I'm Mormon; so, of course, number seven is going to be on the list. But I'm not advocating we mandate teachers teach our children how to counsel with God. Obviously, we need to determine which of these needs are handled best at school.)

What do they WANT to be able to do? This is a huge list and varies with each child. They might want to know how to build a tree house, swim, snow board, play chess, build model rockets, dance, craft dolls, earn some money, drive a tractor, care for a pet, make a movie, etc.

These needs and wants should drive the learning.

A new curriculum

So how can we help kids learn what is practical and enjoyable instead of forcing them to learn mountains of stuff they can't use and don't remember?

I suggest a curriculum broken down into three areas:

  1. What's practical.
  2. Familiar interests.
  3. New interests.

Children wouldn't have a choice on the practical skills--things they use in their daily life. You need to know how to count change, read signs and packages, write notes.

This would include basic arithmetic, reading, and writing. Not because they're good for you, but because they are necessary for kids to do so many of the things that are practical or cool for them.

But isn't that what we're doing today?

No. This is different from what we're doing today because advanced topics like geometry or writing stories or poems would only be learned if a child's project required it. All I'm advocating is learning the basics this way, not advanced topics. Consolidating the lessons for the basic three R's makes sense in this instance because they will be using the basics on a daily basis.

As for the electives, we'll want the children to build on what they're already interested in AND experience new things in a variety of areas. So they will be required to choose to learn to do things in familiar topics and new topics.

My assumption is that we're all naturally curious and ambitious to do cool things. I also assume that kids need structure and accountability to flourish. So instead of saying, you choose what you want to do (drop out of school and play video games), the choice would be between projects in various areas--design and build a go-kart, write and produce a movie, breed a larger firefly, etc.

Think about it. How much electrical science is your child going to learn when they are dying to build a remote controlled boat and they get a chance to do so? How much will they learn about fiction if they get to write and make their own play or movie?

Once the child chooses a project, they're locked in to finishing it. This will teach accountability and discipline. I don't believe performing boring tasks for the sake of doing boring tasks is the best or only way to learn discipline. Olympic athletes are very disciplined, yet do exciting things. What they learn to do is carry through the rough or boring parts inherent in any worthwhile endeavor. Our children would learn the same.

Projects would range over many areas and be based on skill level. Taking the robot example, you might have many robot building projects where children start with simple robots that flash lights and progress after many experiences (and years) to designing and building robots that play soccer or fly over the city on their own.

There are hundreds of things kids would love to do, things that would require real learning, yet would allow them to follow their natural interests and curiosities. And sure, you might even require them to do a yuck project--one subject that looks boring. But they have to try it because, who knows, they might end up liking it. But instead of forcing it on them, they'd choose their own medicine.


Children would be graded using four methods.

First, they would take a core exam measuring mastery of the practical items. Because the core is a small part of what they do, preparing for it will NOT take up the bulk of class time. Because it's focused on necessity, it will not include questions about things that the child is not going to use in her life. This means many of the complaints about teachers teaching to a test will simply disappear.

Second, they will demonstrate they can do what they chose to learn to do. This requires them to finish, to push through despite setbacks.

Third, they will prepare a written report on the things they learned to ensure they reflect on their experiences.

Fourth, they will give an oral report to the teacher on the things they learned. This oral report will verify the student, not someone else, did the learning.

In the end, a report card would show a child's ability to finish. They will graduate with a repertoire of accomplishments instead of a list of grades. Performance, not paper.

A nation of ignoramuses?

When we teach kids how to do the things they need to and want to do right now, we'll not be teaching them things they will need and want to do later. This means we might have to forego all those 9th grade geometry classes. The English classes full of French vocabulary and poem scanning.

Yikes! That's a bit scary.

What if they never do a project that requires them to learn about the solar system? Or the water cycle? Or history?

Won't we be raising a nation of ignoramuses?


First, the general concepts that most of us remember from our K-12 education can be taught in one six month period. That might be a class worth teaching in the traditional style because these general concepts will be reinforced every day.

Second, the children will pick up many of the general and advanced concepts and skills when they use them. And they'll do it in a more permanent way, meaning they'll remember it years later.

Third, nobody builds the same mental schema of basic facts, concepts, principles, and processes anyway. Not even when you put them through the same curriculum. You don't need to worry that your child might not get the same education as everyone else--that's already happening, and there's nothing you can do to stop it. Forcing them to learn things, won't change it.

The suggested curriculum is broad. By its very nature, it will lead children to make more links more powerfully than is possible in the traditional approach. Consider these examples.

A girl who wants to build a tree house is going to need to know a bit about measurement, geometry, and fractions. Teach her about right angles when she needs to make the house square. Teach her about calculating areas and perimeters and lengths when she needs to figure out how much wood she's going to need. Let her do something that motivates learning math. Don't teach her math and then hunt for a way to use it.

A boy will learn and remember far more biology by caring for and breeding a pet he loves (say, a Praying Mantis), than by reading and memorizing biology facts and concepts from a thick textbook.

A girl who wants to drawn people and animals will need to learn many anatomical facts and concepts. She'll have more of that information at her fingertips than anyone who took a college-level human anatomy class and then let the books gather dust in the basement.

A boy who wants to quilt will need to know arithmetic, geometry, and fractions.

A girl who wants to sail? Good grief, she's going to need to know something about practical physics and astronomy. Not because those subjects are good for her, but because she'll need them to sail.

All of the basic facts, concepts, procedures, processes, and principles associated with that whole task will come naturally. The child will remember them more easily. Furthermore, they won't be divorced from each other. The child will see how they all work together.

But what if my kid doesn't want to build, quilt, or sail?

Relax. It's very likely there will be something he wants to do that will require all those "good" subjects. And if he doesn't, really, is it that big a deal? If he learned it and forgot it, is he really any better off than someone who never wasted the time learning it at all?

I passed calculus in college with straight A's. I've forgotten it all, of course, because I never use it. My carpenter friend never took calculus, but he can dance circles around me when it comes to manipulating angles and fractions in his head. He uses his math every day. The time he spent learning it was an investment. The time I spent learning calculus washed right down the drain.

We need to build our curriculum around doing things that are practical and/or intrinsically interesting. All the facts, concepts, procedures, and principles will flow from that.

We want to teach our children to live. We don't do that by divorcing education from life and turning school into a grand game of cramming for Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit.


There is one particular area of learning that people worry over when I bring these ideas up. You might be wondering about history.

If you remember, teaching values was part of what I think kids NEED to know because they need them as they make decisions. Values are lumped in with the practical, mandatory learning.

If we don't find American history, any history, intrinsically fascinating, it is still useful because we can extrapolate personal and social principles from it that we can use to help us make decisions now.

Cultural stories, history, are how we pass down values. We use those stories to help us learn how to live happily.

So instead of requiring the skill of being able to recite all the President's names (something best put on a list or learned naturally with a fun President's song), we will identify key stories from history and discuss them so that the children know the values we share as a society and how to live them.

Back to the Bushes

So as President Bush pushes forward his requirements for accountability, we should question the objectives students and educators are being held accountable for.

Educators should have and meet objectives. But the objectives must translate to the every-day life of the student. We don't educate our children to pass tests; we educate them so they can perform in and enjoy the real world.

Right now our education system is bassackwards. We teach sub skills and concepts and search for an application. But we should be doing just the opposite: looking for what our kids want and need to live their lives, and teach the sub skills and concepts that support that. If it's not used outside of school, then it shouldn't be on the list of objectives.

The teenage girl who jokingly took Governor Bush to task was making an important point (lost on the media reporting it)-there's no good reason for stupid learning.

Copyright © 2004 by John Brown

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