Thus we learn our lessons, not for life, but for the lecture-room

Nuremberg Funnel

Non vitae sed scholae discimus ("Thus we learn our lessons, not for life, but for the lecture-room"). 2000 years ago Seneca wrote this to one of his students. My son is of the same opinion: Much of his curriculum content is irrelevant for real life. Unfortunately, I have to agree (and many experts do agree as well). Within a few years, the initial pride and joy of starting school are followed by boredom and disinterest. Just a few weeks into the autumn semester, the kids are merely waiting for the Christmas vacation. Learning should be fun and I wonder what is going wrong? How does the school manage to kill off the natural curiosity and motivation that quickly?

In the beginning, I argued with my son, that it is not very important WHAT you learn, but that you learn how to learn, which should be possible with almost any topic. However, while perhaps true, this notion is at the same time a confession of failure by the ppeople, who make and implement the curricula at our schools. Why does it seem so difficult to choose topics that are interesting and relevant?

100 years ago, reading, writing and basic arithmetics might have been enough. Knowledge is exploding these days, but the only answer of curriculum planners is the cram more into the plans without getting rid of teaching obsolete factual knowledge. That leaves little freedom for the teaching of methodological competencies which are deeply needed in today's society.

I get it, that schools have limited financial and personnel possibilities. However, there are teachers, who - against all material limits (in one of the richest countries in the world!) - manage to deliver a modern and enjoyable customer (sic!) experience.

As an answer to the future needs of our society, some people try to push the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). However, especially in these subjects, the knowledge and information growth is so fast that curricula (which are by definition rather inert) and also most teachers are not able to keep pace with.

Even though the knowledge might be relevant, the more important lessons that should be taught are not of factual knowledge, but of methodological knowledge. And methodological knowledge can be taught with highly interesting and relevant topics:

  • How we know what we know?
  • The difference between facts, arguments, and opinions"
  • The relationship between reality, "truth", and science
  • The difference between hypotheses and theories and why some theories are as close to reality as we might get
  • the meaning of "true" and "false" in science and the preliminary nature of all knowledge
  • Why science is not a pile of factual knowledge, but a dynamic method to approach reality

Science is the most successful method that humans have invented to understand reality, although some postmodern relativists might disagree. In my opinion, science is not just one way among many to understand reality, but it is the only way and hence ideally transcends cultures, political systems, and religions.

Today's curricula prepare for what was important yesterday. Today, kids need to learn methods. And methods can be taught with subjects, that are engaging and interesting for each individual pupil. Not the amount of subject matter counts but the depth of understanding. And on top of all that, social competence, creativity, tolerance, engagement and responsibility are other important things that schools need to teach. Unfortunately, our kids cannot learn these virtues by example from our current political leaders nor can they learn them from their parents work life, which teaches often the exact opposite.

However, these virtues are necessary to ensure that our planet stays inhabitable for the foreseeable future. There is plenty of good information available on what and how to teach our kids. Two links to start with (in German): and