I’ve always thought of learning things as absorbing some fixed kind of knowledge, with an end goal (usually an exam). But after a few years at university (I guess as I have become more of an adult), I have realised that there is no fixed syllabus for learning stuff anymore.
How I Viewed Knowledge and Learning at School
At school, there would always be a syllabus that dictated the stuff we were meant to know and the stuff we weren’t meant to know. Often when we asked our teachers about stuff we weren’t meant to know, they would give a short explanation, then explain that we didn’t need to know it for the exam.
Often it felt as if there was no point in learning extra stuff that wasn’t going to be tested in the exam – sometimes it even felt like it was none of our business.
Looking back, I completely understand why – there were so many other less fun things we needed to know, so our time needed to be devoted to learning those things instead of exploring extra knowledge – but I also think it is a real shame.
There were a lot of things I just didn’t think were worth my time to look into, which meant that I never really developed an idea of what my passions were – I just didn’t know enough about anything to really get into it.
Don’t get me wrong – I love learning about things. However, school only taught me right and wrong answers, and how to answer exam questions. University changed how I viewed learning.
How University Changed My Outlook on Knowledge and Learning
One of my biggest gripes with the Oxford University exam system is that there is no mark scheme! It is so frustrating when often the examiners are looking for certain things but there is no formal way of quantifying how close you were to the answer they were looking for.
I completely understand why they deliberately don’t share the mark scheme or model answers – it is because there is no one absolute right way of answering most of the important questions (unless it is maths).
For example, a question may ask what is the best type of steel to build a bridge over a wide river. There are so many factors including the corrosiveness of the atmosphere, the amount of load that it needs to withstand, the design of the bridge, the lifespan, the type of technology available…
Even if you knew all the different types of steel and their pros and cons, it still needs a level of judgement to answer the question, backed up with your reasoning. It is rarely possible to have only one right answer, but some answers are more right than others.
Not only that, but no longer is there much material that is ‘outside of the syllabus’ – the more you know, the better your grasp of the subject and the better you’ll do in the exam. There are no more simplifications that will crumble under a bit of scrutiny (*ahem* IB chemistry) so the best way to understand a topic is to actually understand what’s really going on, even if that goes outside of the lecture notes.
How I View Knowledge and Learning Now
There is just so much to know out there. Countless human beings have devoted their whole lives to expanding the sphere of human knowledge, it is practically impossible to know everything that the human race knows – but that’s ok. That’s why we have experts: they are able to pass on their expertise when we don’t know something.
What’s also shocking is that there is so much that we don’t know. Even in secondary school, we reach topics where nobody knows what the ‘right answer’ is (what were the cultural influences on policy during the Cold War? How do certain enzymes catalyse reactions?)
There’s no way we could ever know everything either; at least, not within our lifetimes and many lifetimes after us. But knowledge is power, and advances in human welfare and quality of life can only happen by pushing the boundaries of what we don’t know.
When it comes to my bubble of knowledge, I only really feel satisfaction when it is growing. I’m taking care to pick things that I think will be interesting to learn, as well as things that I think I ought to know. Sometimes I find it’s difficult to find the balance here (I ought to know Mandarin, but I want to learn British Sign Language – which should I prioritise?) but the important thing is to always be learning.
Even if I might not take exactly what I’ve learnt in materials science into my future career, this is something that I will take away: learning is infinite, and there is often not just one right answer.
What is your attitude to knowledge and learning? Do you enjoy learning? Let me know in the comments below!