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4 things to unlearn from school if you want to succeed

Through my work, I get to spend a lot of time with students.

As you’d expect, the education system has a huge impact on students’ development. I’m intrigued at how the system shapes them, both positively and negatively.

I’ve observed that there’s a deep disconnect between what students learn in school and what actually goes on in the “real world”.

Reflecting on my own journey through the education system (I spent 12 years in the Singapore system and four years in the US one), I realize there are many things you’ll need to unlearn from your schooling experience if you want to both survive and thrive later on.

How to prepare for long-term success

Yes, we need education reform. More than that, we need an education revolution. But while we push to make this revolution happen, it isn’t the focus of this article.

This article is about generating awareness and inspiring action—at an individual level—about what we need to unlearn from school.

This will prepare us for long-lasting success in the future.

Here are four things we need to unlearn:

1. There is always a correct answer (in the real world there isn't)

Students love “model answers”. They believe that if they’re equipped with all the model answers, they’re sure to ace the exam.

Even when teachers make it clear that there isn’t just one correct answer, most students refuse to accept this explanation.

Students train themselves to reproduce the “perfect” answer that will score them full marks on the exam.

In the real world, however, there’s almost never just one correct answer. You can adopt multiple approaches to a problem, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

If you keep holding out for the perfect solution or opportunity, looking for that “model answer”, you’ll never get optimal results.

In this complex world we live in, continual experimentation is crucial if we want to succeed. We must be willing to be wrong—often.

2. You need to wait to be told what to do (take the initiative instead)

Schools influence students to become passive participants in their own learning.

Most students wait for the teacher to tell them what to study, what homework to do, and what projects to work on.

In school, students aren’t generally encouraged to exercise initiative. On the contrary, they’re rewarded for following instructions well.

(I don’t blame teachers for this. After all, it’s much easier to manage a classroom full of obedient students than a classroom full of students who are all “exercising initiative” and doing their own thing!)

But this isn’t the recipe for success in the real world. Being compliant and obedient can only get you so far.

If you want to be valuable to your community or organization, you’ll need to take the initiative and do more than you’re asked.

I’ve heard it said that this is the key to career success: Do more than you’re paid to do.

This is a simple truth that requires you to go beyond simply doing as you’re told.

3. Learning only happens in school (recognize that what you learn outside of school is valuable too)

Just a decade or two ago, if you wanted to get an education, you pretty much had to go to school.

Schools had the best learning resources, and students would have been wise to make full use of them.

But given the incredible amount of information that’s available online today, just at the click of a mouse button, it’s no longer true that you need to go to school to get an education.

Instead, school should just be part of your education.

If students want to learn about a specific topic, develop a particular skill, or pick up a certain hobby, they can.

There’s bound to be a blog, online forum or YouTube video they can look up to get the information they need.

The question is no longer “Can you get the information?”

Instead, the question is “Will you put in the effort to get the information?”

In today’s Digital Age, schools should teach students to navigate the sea of data that exists online, and should encourage students to take full responsibility for their education. No more spoon-feeding and teaching to the test.

When students see that learning can take place anywhere, they’ll be better equipped once they leave school, because they’ll understand that learning never stops.

4. Learn only what is in the syllabus (there's no "syllabus" in the real world)

Schools definitely don’t intend to teach students to only care about what’s in the syllabus, but this is the inevitable result of an overemphasis on exams.

(Specific ways to change our methods of assessing students would be the topic of another article.)

This obsession with learning only the information that will be tested can cause students to associate learning with exams, and nothing else.

Many students think, “If it’s not going to be tested, why bother learning it?”

In the real world, however, you rarely sit for formal exams. Neither is there a “syllabus” that outlines the knowledge and skills you absolutely need to possess.

It’s no wonder that many people don’t read (I’m referring to books, not Facebook status updates) after they leave school.

But this approach won’t benefit you in the long run.

Whether you’re a homemaker, banker, technician, nurse, taxi driver or entrepreneur, there are always new things to learn and new viewpoints to understand.

To be excellent at anything—this applies to parenting as well as to running a billion dollar company—you need to have a voracious appetite for learning.

In closing…

Revamping the education system is drawn-out process. In the meantime, we need to ensure that, as individuals, we’re making the most of our education.

If you’ve completed your formal education, the learning journey certainly isn’t over.

As Alvin Toffler wisely noted, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Let’s rediscover our love for learning.

Let’s get to work instilling that same love in the next generation.

Daniel Wong is a learning and personal development expert. A sought-after speaker and coach, he is also the best-selling author of "The Happy Student: 5 Steps to Academic Fulfillment and Success". He offers programmes to help students become both happy and successful and to help parents to connect with their children. He writes regularly at www.daniel-wong.com. Download his FREE e-book, "The Unhappiness Manifesto: Do You Make These 150 Mistakes In The Pursuit Of Happiness?", here.

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