School is still ruining your chances to learn

We spent almost 15 years being brainwashed on how to be students. And we’re still paying the price.

In fact, there are more adults enrolled in courses today than at any other time in history. You can enroll in a MOOC to learn AI or database design, you can find video courses in calligraphy or cooking, or sign up for intensive online seminars.

With all this access, though, we’re not learning as much as we could. That’s because the lessons of school run deep.

I’ve run some successful online classes, and I see the negative patterns again and again. The most dangerous habits all come from high school:

Focus on the test.

If it’s not on the test, don’t bother. Prioritize your time and effort on tests, because that’s how you get what you want, which is a degree and an A.

Of course, adult learning doesn’t offer a degree, and the grades are either non-existent or don’t matter.

Make sure you can do it perfectly the first time.

This is a side effect of test-based learning. The cost of being wrong in traditional school is high, so it makes no sense to take on thrilling challenges or to learn by doing, which, in the real world, is the only way we actually learn.

If you’re not willing to explore and experience, you’re probably not willing to learn.

Don’t contribute.

Every public speaker has experienced the back-row syndrome. Where did we learn to seek out the anonymous middle or the nether zone of the back row? Who taught us to worry about getting called on?

If you’re going to bother showing up, why not show up in the front row? It’s that tension and focus that will help you see yourself in a different light.

Look for the shortest possible answer.

Nuance is wasted on high school students. There’s better things to do than to immerse yourself in the maybes, the mights and the possibles. Things like getting out of the building and back to life.

But as adults, we know that those in-between nuances are precisely where success lies, as does the joy of doing important work.

Become a wandering generality.

Traditional schooling rewards multitasking and widespread mediocrity, with a focus on ‘good enough’. (ht). An ‘A’ (or for many people, a B-) means you’ve done enough, quick, get on to the next thing.

School pushes hard for wide not deep. It puts maximum pain on us when we’re doing below the standard in things we don’t love, instead of pushing us to even better in the things we do.

Wondering is a lot more effective than wandering.

Don’t share.

If you’re used to living life graded on a curve, it’s foolish to help the entire class do better. That’s just more work for you.

What adults realize, though, is that the people in the class aren’t your competition. It’s all the people who are falling behind because they weren’t passionate enough to sign up in the first place.


And this is the biggest one of all. High school sucked (and so did many of your college courses), and it’s easy to keep your promise to never voluntarily engage in organized learning again. There are people all around you who haven’t read a book since they were 22, who have never participated in an online course, free or expensive, who don’t seek to expose themselves to new ideas. Because it’s work. Because it’s frightening. Because it doesn’t feel safe or easy.

[Seth Godin is a bestselling author, maker of projects and most recently, the founder of the altMBA and The Marketing Seminar.]

Founder of altMBA and Akimbo. Daily blogger, teacher, speaker, 20 bestsellers as well...

Founder of altMBA and Akimbo. Daily blogger, teacher, speaker, 20 bestsellers as well...