Advice for students about ‘true education’

Dec 01, 2015 by Dr. Woodie Flowers, Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, MIT

In your lifetime, many things will change dramatically. If you accept what most schools offer as preparation for the future, you may be disappointed. Often, we adults are too confused and disorganized to give you a good future-oriented education. Instead, we many times offer years of training and testing. You must save yourself.

We have created a world that changes faster than most of us are willing to accept. It is no surprise that the education system is not keeping up. For one thing, we have conflated education and training so it is up to you to recognize the difference. Training is necessary but not sufficient. Learning calculus, for example, is training. Learning to think using calculus concepts is education. Mastering spelling and grammar is training, while learning to communicate effectively requires education. Many topics can be similarly divided.

Economics will drive humans away from conveying facts as surely as robots have replaced humans in automobile assembly. Therefore you should become accustomed to being trained by machines while relentlessly seeking education from other humans.

Machines will soon dominate training. Data-driven and artificial-intelligence augmented systems will offer future students personalized training, customized and infinitely patient. This codified content delivery system will not only lead students through their homework, but will give feedback a thousand times more accurate and relevant than a few red marks on paper received a week after completion.

True education is much more likely to involve doing things with expert mentors and peers. Education will be much harder to get than training. Aggressively pursue true education because it will change the way you see yourself. Through true education, you may learn, for example, that you can do something difficult, new, unique, complex, or beautiful. You will know those things from your own experience rather than because you made an “A.” True education will make you attractive as a partner and citizen. True education will help you insure that, mid- career or mid-life, you will still be able to do things machines cannot yet do. You will still be able to make uniquely human contributions.

If you are rewarded for being an effective passive learner, making good grades on codified tests — congratulations! However, do not let yourself be content with that behavior. No one will hire you or respect you for solving the problems at the end of the chapter. You must become an active participant in your own true education. If you do that, you have a much better shot at a meaningful life.

Programs like FIRST® can be a great “true education” experience. Use it as such.  Squeeze out of these experiences insight about how you learn and how you think. Such programs can help you understand not only Mother Nature’s laws, but can help you understand yourself. 

Dr. Woodie Flowers - FIRST Executive Advisory Board Co-Chair & Distinguished Advisor; Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Read Woodie's bio.

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