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What is education?

What is education?

Words: Zat Rana

Photos: Various

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Just because you were taught something, doesn’t always mean you really learned it. In this curated article, Zat Rana takes a step back to look at the big picture of education: what it is, what it’s for, and how it needs to evolve for the 21st century. If we’re going to build a better world, here are some clues on where to start.


  • Too often, education is about teaching people to conform rather than helping them understand or create.
  • Teaching can be valuable, but ultimately we only really learn things when we learn them for ourselves. 
  • The world is changing so fast that trying to prepare children to fit into it isn’t working.
  • A continuous process of learning, creating and sharing knowledge will become increasingly important.
  • The future will be less about what we know, and more about how we use knowledge.

The year is somewhere between 400 BC and 390 BC. There is a young man aged thirty who has just inherited some property in Athens. Sometimes, he gathers there with friends to host discussions about the good and the true.

Over the years, this group grows larger. Membership is eventually restricted. The Platonic Academy is born – the first known higher educational institution in Europe.

Not much is known about it today, but there is some evidence that Plato himself gave lectures there. Beyond that, the spirit of the place was likely the same as it had been when a small group of friends and acquaintances would gather there to pose problems and seek answers together. As far as we know, there was no clear curriculum. No absolute distinction between teachers and students. Mostly curious dialogue.

Zat Rana
Zat Rana is an essayist writing at the intersection of philosophy, science, and art. He runs a publication called Thinking Better, Together, where 40,000+ smart, curious people gather to better understand the world. Join here.

“Education tries to fit people into a system that is irrelevant by the time they get out into the world”

My own experience of education was quite different. I went to school in four different countries and one thing that became apparent across the board was that the process of schooling in the 21st century had less to do with making someone educated – learned, knowledgeable, wise – than it did conform children to fit into a preconceived box determined through some top-down curriculum, which is a process closer to teaching imitation and pretence of knowing than real understanding and creativity.

When has studying to write some kind of standardised test on business actually taught someone anything meaningful about running a business? How about reading Shakespeare and critiquing one of his works? I may enjoy diving into his plays now, but there was nothing I hated more than someone telling me what literature I should read, or what lessons I should extract from it in a five-paragraph essay.

This begs a question: What, then, is education in practice? Here is one answer: education is the process through which children become socialised. One way to conceptualise this is to think of civilisation as selecting humans downstream to fit them in its systematic and cultural mould, just as genes in our bodies aim to select upstream by coordinating to have these bodies master our environment. The problem is that socialisation is pretty much the opposite of the original thinking that we so respect and value in those who actually push the needle.

Mandatory schooling that teaches everyone basic numeracy and literacy is indispensable, of course, and so is much of the learning that gets done in very specialised and apprentice-based areas (medicine, law, some STEM, trade schools, etc). But education isn’t always learning, especially not the kind that ends up being useful in preparing people for the world of work and creativity.

This is perhaps more true today than ever. In a survey done by McKinsey a few years ago, across eight different European countries, 61% of employers claimed that they were having trouble finding applicants with the right skills, even though unemployment among new graduates continues to be a big problem. Anecdotally speaking, this seems to be true in North America, too.

“Nobody ever teaches you anything. The only time you learn is when you self-learn”

Much has been said about robots coming to take our jobs. But the real problem, I suspect – given the rapid changes we have seen in the structure of civilisation due to the information revolution – is that our education systems have diverged closer and closer to their socialisation functions and even further away from teaching people anything that might be useful as a way to contribute to society. They try to fit people into a system that is changing so fast that the old system becomes irrelevant by the time that they get out into the world to actually do something.

Humans will always invent new problems to solve, which means that new jobs will be created. The need for original thinking and original action won’t go away. You can’t yet automate away genuine, creative problem-solving, which is what education should actually teach and what learning is actually about. The real issue is that what we think of as education is becoming increasingly divorced from the actual economy that we find ourselves in. Ironically, this new economy values the one thing that education should typically teach: autodidacticism and self-education.

Learning and agency

One of the beautiful things about the Buddha’s teachings is that he never told anyone to trust him blindly. Buddhism is less a philosophy or an ideology than it is a way, a path. There is a subtle truth here, which is this: nobody ever actually teaches you anything; the only time you learn is when you self-learn. The rest is imitation.

To find out more about what the future holds for education and the jobs market, read our article on How to prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist yet.

Buddhism is not so much an ideology as a way, a path.
Photo: Marcus Lofvenberg / Unsplash

I don’t remember almost anything that I learned in school, but I remember lots of passages from the hundreds of books I have read over the years. The reason is simple: I learned because I either wanted to or needed to learn, not because it was expected by someone else or because it was enforced. And I think this is also true of people who do actually enjoy the structure that formal education provides. A great teacher may show you the way, but you only really internalise it if there is real desire there.

Many schools not only kill that desire, but they also make us forget that learning is something that is a deeply crucial part of how we orient ourselves in the world. It is directly tied to our agency. Autodidacticism and self-education are things we have done since birth. They naturally flow out of us. But when neat boundaries between disciplines, or contexts that separate learning in a school from learning in the world, get enforced on us, it all limits what we think of as possible.

To learn how learning really works, read our interview with neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene.

Education should spark enthusiasm for learning. It doesn’t always succeed.
Photo: George Marks / Getty Images

The human performance psychologist K Anders Ericsson liked to distinguish between naive practice and purposeful practice. Showing up in a classroom and sitting through a lecture with mild interest is a form of naive practice. Devouring 10 books on the topic of programming or design because it fascinates you and then mocking up an application before a set deadline is a form of purposeful practice. There is a desire and a subsequent plan in the latter that is generally absent in the former, and this means that you actually retain what you learned over time.

The doing aspect of this also makes it practical, a form of on-the-job training. By actually practising it, you build a very particular set of mental representations that are specific to the context you are operating in, and in Ericsson’s work, it’s the power of these mental representations that separates many experts in their fields from the novices who can explain this or that. Professional chess players, for example, recognise thousands and thousands of configurations on the board, but it has nothing to do with memorisation. They have internalised the patterns in chunks of mental representations that they can use intuitively at will.

Feedback is crucial to this process in Ericsson’s work, but feedback means having a knowledgeable, objective observer judge and measure your progress as you stay on the path, not someone telling you what you should remember for a test.

Parents often give children well-intentioned advice like finding something safe to specialise in rather than pursuing their passions. In an industrial world, where most people would go on to work in factories, this made sense. Even in the economy of the last 50 or so years, where many jobs were administrative, this also made sense. In a rapidly evolving information economy, however, where creativity and genuine problem-solving are the only competitive advantages, it makes more sense to cultivate people’s curiosities so that they are willing and able to learn on their own.

Once they do that, even if they fail at what they initially gravitated towards, the skills and the attitude they gain from the process put them in a better position to adapt to an ever-changing world. They become less fragile to the uncertainty that will become increasingly prevalent as the process of creative destruction continues to speed up the changes in the world economy. In the end, that is, paradoxically, the safest thing they can do for their careers.

The knowledge loop

Some people argue that the average university degree has more value as a mechanism of credentialism than the actual wealth of learning it represents as it relates to the job market. That’s maybe a slight exaggeration, but it’s not too far off.

“It’s less about what we know and memorise, and more about what we do with all of that”

In fact, I think you can argue that even the credentials will increasingly matter less because of how oversaturated they are and underutilised graduates are, unless something radically changes about how our education systems are structured. I’m sure highly prestigious institutions will do fine, but most others will suffer.

If I had to make three predictions about how the economy will evolve over the next 20 years, it would be these three: the internet will become the focal point of the economy in a way that we can’t imagine; the average firm will be smaller, with tasks automated away, and there will be more individual entrepreneurs with jobs that resemble creative hobbies rather than what we would traditionally think of as work; a good chunk of the work itself will be project-based rather than some defined role that lasts 30-odd years, and people will be constantly reinventing themselves and their skillsets.

In his book World after Capital, the venture capitalist Albert Wenger imagines a world where instead of being stuck in the job loop (get educated and then work to consume in a mostly stagnant way), more people get brought into building out the knowledge loop. He has some political and economic ideas mixed in there to make this happen which I don’t really have an opinion on, but the knowledge loop below is a good way to conceptualise it either way.

Albert Wenger’s ‘knowledge loop’ is a way of looking at how our work contributes to the world.

In the knowledge loop, you learn from your thoughts and experiences, you create something tangible from them, and you share them with others and then use the feedback to do it again. It’s a flywheel that runs itself. There is no exact role because the role changes based on the project. This flywheel builds out specific, practical knowledge, and it provides adequate and direct feedback in a way that most classroom education overlooks. In some sense, this is what I do with my writing. Other people all over the internet do a similar thing, whether they be independent consultants who freelance or people that make podcasts. Many people also take this kind of mindset into their corporate jobs and benefit immensely for it.

Right now, not everyone who works on personal projects that utilise the knowledge loop gets financially rewarded for it even if they put themselves out there. But the world is slowly changing, and people who teach themselves how to solve problems and share the resulting projects publically will retain far more opportunities than the traditional path offers. A verifiable output is better than a credential unless you’re in the sort of world in which you absolutely, legally need that credential.

If the internet essentially becomes the future economy, there is a market of six to eight billion people available in each of our pockets, which opens up a million different little opportunities in ways that neither we nor the education system can foresee. There is also the sum total of human knowledge in each of our pockets. Less and less, it’s about what we know and memorise and more about what we do with all of that. Increasingly, too, it’s on us to become autodidacts for life.

“Anything that can be taught in a classroom to a group will be automated in time”

Some historians have suggested that the Platonic Academy was a space for Plato to practise building out parts of the idealistic society he laid out in The Republic. Others suggest that it was simpler, more innocent – a place where minds gathered to challenge each other’s thinking with questions about the motions of the heavenly bodies and inquiries into the nature of goodness.

What is undoubtable, however, is that it was a place where the power of individual thought was respected. Today, more than 2,000 years after Plato lived and died, we live in a world with algorithms and machine learning. Anything that can be taught in a classroom to a group will be automated in time. What can’t be automated, however, is the originality of human thought and the creativity it manifests in the world.

This essay was first published on Zat Rana’s ‘Thinking Better, Together’ blog on 14 May, 2020 at

Main photo: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images