Is there a deadline to learning?

Malavika Varadan, Managing Director, The Hive/Dubai
Filed on October 29, 2020

There is a world outside classroom that’s waiting to be explored

My mother is nearly 70 years old. I usually speak to her every day, but lately, it has been difficult to find the time in her schedule. She has yoga and piano lessons thrice a week, a weekly movement therapy workshop, art lessons twice a week, Zumba to keep her energy up — and her morning and evening walks and daily dose of spirituality. My mother has always been a source of inspiration to me — she is 5 ft 2 in of determination and grit. But lately, I have seen a new side to her. A childlike joy and enthusiasm fills her as she sits with pen and paper in hand, ready for her art teacher to sign into the Zoom call.

Our education systems, in my opinion, are flawed at several levels. To begin with, there is a sense of there being only a finite number of things one can learn. Somehow, magically, year after year, we are expected to chew up volumes of information, like little Pac-Men, and reach some sort of invisible finish line by the time we are 21.

A 12th grader I know is applying to an Ivy League university and sincerely believes that getting in will ensure his success for life. And not getting in would mean being forever stuck on the middle rungs of the ladder of social hierarchy.

Unfortunately, the way we see learning is all wrong. To begin with, the workplace rewards expertise. What then happens is that you narrow the focus of your learning, more and more, until you are an expert on almost nothing. What should be happening as we get older is we should be making our view of the world broader. If I know everything there is to know about physics, then perhaps I should be spending time learning how to cook. More doctors need to learn to sing, more teachers need to learn accounting, more leaders need to say they don’t know and are willing to learn.

Another major flaw in the system is how we train young people not to take risks. “If you learn these three chapters,” my teachers would say, “you’ll score an A+.” We train students to make one safe choice after the other, encouraging them to believe there is only one right answer, until at last they are left with no adventures and a whole lot of ‘correct answers’. I would love to see a school system that rewards risk-taking over safe choices.

I meet young, anxious people everyday. You’ll be okay, I tell them. You think the deadline to learning is the end of high school or college, but truth is: if you don’t learn it now, you can take a lesson when you are 70, and who knows, you’ll probably value it a lot more!