I’ve read that 90% of what we teach/learn at school is a waste of time. I’m not going to quote/cite a specific article – but from my personal experience, I tend to agree. With the world changing so fast – society, technology, environment all on exponential-change graphs – and then with education in some type of time-capsule, unfortunately, the pile of ‘waste of time learning’ is probably bigger now than when I went to school. The majority of rote learning from my 12+ years of education is now just a google search away – and the majority of the rest of what I learned didn’t really sink in until I figured it out myself in the real world.

I did learn to read, write, speak in public, understand and rearrange numbers, comprehend and explain scientific phenomena. I also learned how to get along with different people, how to solve my own problems, and how I learned most effectively – although these significant learnings were more a matter of coincidental self-learning. Now, as an educator, trying to ‘fix the restaurant so I’d let my own children eat here’, it’s scary to think how much time we waste on teaching pointless things to our students. Here’s five of the most pointless things I learned at school.

  1. Maths formulas – I love Mathematics. Numbers – the patterns, the beauty, the explanation of EVERYTHING, the rational and the irrational, the problem solving … it’s magic. But ask me when I have ever had to use the formula for the volume of a sphere. Answer: NEVER! (V=4/3𝛱r3). And, this goes for nearly every other rote learned Maths formula I had to learn for a test and have never used since. What we need to teach is the magic and mystery of Pi, the puzzles inside every algebra problem, that it’s more important to ask the right question than to know the answer, and the beautiful patterns that numbers make all around us. 
  1. History – of course it is important to look back and make assessments of the past to see where we might be going. First thing that annoys me about ‘History’ is: do you think we (as a species) would learn from all that history? Obviously, not. Next thing: most of the history I learned was privileged white-person propaganda. Lies. I remember that Henry VIII had six wives, but I was never taught about his war-mongering, religious persecution, financial mis-management, thirst for execution. I never learned about the slave trade in Australia – or the total evil that white-man inflicted on the Indigenous Australians. I learned that James Cook discovered Australia (wrong), Napoleon was short (wrong – and who cares?), that Christopher Columbus discovered America and proved the Earth was round (wrong), Henry Ford invented the automobile (wrong). And so much more … what a total waste of time. Why can’t we teach true history? Instead of hiding all of the mistakes, get them out, face them, deal with it – it’s the only way to write a better future.
  1. Grammar Rules and Naming Parts of Speech – there’s no doubt that having good literacy skills are important. However, so much of how I was taught grammar was either wrong or motivation-sapping. Apparently you can end sentences with prepositions and you can start sentences with conjunctions. Maybe I was taught about prepositions and conjunctions just so I could learn rules that weren’t right. Naming all the nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections – all that did for me was threaten to extinguish any flickering hopes of discovering so much awesome literature. Books change lives – more than any other art form; the right book at the right time can be life-defining. Teach that.
  1. “It’s OK if you’re not creative (ie. artistic, musical, etc) because you’re good at Maths and Science” – this was drummed into me through all my formal schooling. The easy thing for a school to do is put you in a box – you are ‘this’; and then group all the ‘this’s together separated from all the ‘that’s. Life isn’t like that – people aren’t like that. I even surprised myself when I wrote a few novels, started producing different visual arts projects, started writing songs and arranging songs. What didn’t surprise me was how creative I could be fixing a boat, planning a new sustainability-based thematic unit, travelling solo on the cheap, or restoring a motorbike. Schools need to be places where everyone finds their creative self – it’s in us all somewhere.
  1. What you learn in school will set you up for the rest of your life. I was led to believe that after school (after all that learning) I could go out into the real world and use my learning. My gap year (in India, working for an NGO) awakened me roughly from that dream. The only thing I used my ‘school-learning’ for was for more learning. Learning at school is just a part of a life-long learning journey. AND (!) – what we teach at school needs to be for now; not: learn this now, you will (might – but probably not) use it later. 

Sadly, this list could go on: Failure is bad, abstinence is good sex-ed, creationism, we only use ten percent of our brains, sometimes you’re just not good at something and you might never be. Education needs to move quickly into the Now, ready for a fast-changing future. Schools need to focus on real-world factual information, real history and white privilege, skills development, values-learning opportunities, empathy and tolerance. We need to teach the high-tech without losing sight of indigenous wisdom. We need to teach for a sustainable future by teaching sustainability mindsets. I know at Green School – this beautiful community of learners with its innovative learning programs – we are not the type of school that is ruining our students’ education.