How Goals Direct Learning

Schools have always been designed to teach skills before actions, and actions before goals. Is this reasonable? The school's way of doing things is so ubiquitous that it clouds our thinking on areas of learning that have nothing to do with school.

For instance, imagine that you wanted to take the pictures at a friend's wedding because he couldn't afford a photographer. Your friend is willing to supply all the materials you need, and he is able to borrow a camera and a darkroom for a few days. You are eager to help out, but know nothing about photography. How do you proceed?

Your goal to take pictures of wedding guests would probably lead you to begin taking pictures of people, discovering in doing so how to operate the camera, how to recognize mistakes in lighting or composition, and how to remedy problems. If you wanted a more thorough understanding of photography, you might seek help from professionals or from books, and keep practicing until you felt you knew what you were doing. You might, depending upon how serious you got about all this, try to learn more about optics, or chemistry, or art. But, and this is the key point, what you would initially want to learn would be in service of the goal of doing the best job you could at the wedding.

Courses in photography do exist, of course, and you could take one. These courses are in no way as bad as most courses offered in school because they do indeed assume a common goal; namely, everyone wants to take good pictures. Even so, students might want to take different kinds of pictures, have varying initial abilities and want to learn varying amounts of detail. Students would not, however, first be required to enroll in an optics course, or a chemistry course, or an art course. Why not? The people who run these commercial courses know that students wouldn't take courses if the natural learning order were reversed and they had to take optics courses first. Only schools, with a captive audience (such as our children), could get away with such perverse ordering.

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