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  • Anna Brix Thomsen

The Secret About How I Hacked The Education System and What I learned: DAY 39

In this post I am going to share a secret with you. I am going to share how I hacked the education system and what I learned from it. And if you are currently a parent to a child in school or to a child that will be going to school I suggest reading the following carefully. The story that I am going to share with you is about how we as parents, even when we think and believe that what our children is learning in school is effective – actually have no clue what they are learning in fact. It is also a story about the imperative of vocabulary and natural learning ability as a keystone in effective education that is virtually non-existent in our current education system. I will start by sharing how I was introduced to words as a child.

See – my example, as a child going to school is not one of academic failures or learning difficulties. From when I was a baby, my grandmother had taken it upon herself to teach me words and show me the world. So she would walk with me in a stroller from the moment I was born and she would talk and talk and talk about the world and everything she saw. I obviously don’t remember any of this, but I learned how to talk early and it was easy for me to formulate words. I have been told that the very first word I spoke was: “Oops!” This came to be so because it was a word used by my father when he dropped something and if you are wondering why my first words wasn’t ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ it is because my parents deliberately taught me to not call them ‘mom’ and ‘dad’. I called them by their first names. Fast-forward to the school age, my mother would read for me every night and if she wasn’t able to read for me, she would put on a cassette tape with a story and I would listen to this before I fell asleep. Throughout the years my mother read many books for me and it wasn’t long until I started to read books for myself. I clearly remember that the reason why I decided to learn how to read, was because it irritated me that the adults that I lived with, wouldn’t read the subtitles to the American TV-shows we were watching anymore, and then I couldn’t understand what was going on. So – I decided to learn how to read and write. So as you can see, I was fortunate. In many ways I had a supportive environment to learn and grow and develop a vocabulary that many children do not have.

Now – fast forward ten years or so. I was now and avid reader and it was my childhood dream to become a writer. I had written a journal since I was around ten years old and I thoroughly enjoyed constructing sentences and making the words flow as well as playing with the rhythm of sound for example when writing poetry. Eventually I came of age where it was time to take exams. I wasn’t a particularly self-disciplined child and I preferred taking short-cuts wherever I could and I disliked the feeling I got when I did something new and I wasn’t good at it. So slowly but surely I developed a personality where I avoided things that I wasn’t immediately good at and otherwise I just tried to sail through whatever exam I was facing with the least amount of effort.

I quickly discovered that exams weren’t really about actually learning, knowing or understanding something. I realized that exams were a particular system with particular rules where all that mattered was that I had followed the teacher’s instructions and done what they had asked of me. All I had to do was to understand the system and then play the game. Because what I realized was that it was just a game, it was all for show. It had to be because no one ever cared about what I really knew or understood in fact. No one ever asked. So I developed this as a skill and within the cockiness of my teenage ego, I deliberately played around with doing minimal work and still get top grades. And I did get top grades. And so I understood that I could ‘hack’ the system by simply understanding how the exam or test was supposed to look like for me to get top grades. This was equally so for oral exams or written tests. Sometimes I did put more effort into it because it interested me and with other subjects such as math, I didn’t put any effort in at all and I failed my classes.

When I got to high school I had developed this skill of ‘hacking exams’ to such an extent that I would smoke weed the night before or literally come to the exam stoned and still ace it – because I understood exactly what the teacher wanted to hear, how they wanted me to present myself for an oral exam or how they wanted me to construct my words. In most subjects I hadn’t read any of the books or assignments required throughout the year. I would only do the bare minimum of weekly assignments to not get in trouble, but otherwise I would just sail through the school year, actively participating in class, pretending like I knew what I was talking about and then go take the exam at the end and get top grades.

But then a peculiar thing happened: a classmate of mine had extreme anxiety towards going to exams. She was generally a very hardworking student who would read everything in the curriculum and do her assignments on time, but when it came to exams, she just froze and ended up getting grades that in no way matched her actual level of understanding. Several of my classmates also expressed resentment towards the fact that I could stride through the exams without actually having done any work, when they had worked so hard for it all year only to receive mediocre grades. Now, it wasn’t all as black and white as it might sound here. I did read the texts required for the exams, but I read them quickly and skimmed through them and some of my classmates who worked hard indeed got top grades as well. But this was the first time that it occurred to me that they system is absolutely absurdly constructed and not reflecting any real measurement of the actual understanding, comprehension or reflection upon the material taught in school.

After high school I went to get a bachelors degree in education and there the exact same scenario played itself out. I mean, I did study but not to the same degree as many of my classmates and still I walked straight through with top grades. A point I’d like to mention within this as well is that in the years where I was studying for my degree, the rules around funding for educational facilities changed so that they now got funded based on how many students graduated. This is something that was of particular concern for us studying education because we could see several of our classmates in no way being fit to work with children or teach passing their exams. How legislators can’t put two and two together and see the consequence of such a decision to based funding on how many people graduate – is absurd. And it shows, along with the whole grading system and the means to measure how much people learn that our educational systems are not being operated from a starting-point of actually educating people.

So by this point, I had started getting an interest in the education system and its many absurdities not to mention all the aspects that I could see were unacceptable and required being changed, so I decided to continue with a master’s degree in educational sociology. During the course of this education I did exactly the same as I had always done, I sailed through it. But at this point my lack of self-discipline had started to annoy me. I was also embarrassed and ashamed that I didn’t actually read the books but instead pretended that I knew what I was talking about. I had trapped myself in my own ego and cockiness towards ‘hacking’ the education system. I finally started seeing how I got absolutely nothing out of ‘cheating’ the system. Yes I got good grades, yes teachers often liked me – but I had absolutely nothing to show for it. Most of what I actually know about education, I know from my own personal experience and from speaking with people – and not from the books or the teachers. So after twenty years in the education system, on my way to a master’s degree, I realized how I had wasted my life just to beat the system and get good grades, somehow believing that the grade itself was what was valuable and useful when leaving one educational level to continue to the next. I obviously didn’t develop this belief out of the blue, because it is stressed upon children that it is important to get good grades from the moment they start in school. But is it ever stressed to actually understand the material we are reading? Or to be able to reflect on it and expand on it and see it multidimensionally in its relation to other subjects or matters? My obsession with grades wasn’t even about academic achievement or ideas about future success. For me it was all about ego and seeing what I could get away with. I taught myself to improvise and make up stuff on the spot and it worked for me and I got a thrill out of doing it, so I kept going. Until I realized how I had wasted my life.

During the time where I studies for my master’s I decided to take a course in sociology of gender. I had never really studied gender but the course looked interesting so I decided to give it a go. It turned out that the course was actually a Ph.D. course that was now offered to master’s students on a trial basis. Somewhat independent on the subject of the course, it was the best course I have ever in my life taken and I was clued to the chair with eyes wide open for every single lecture. The professor directing the course was amazing and many times guest lecturers would come to teach a particular subject. These were Ph.D. graduates who had just finished writing their dissertations and often had very specialized areas of interest. They would give us cutting-edge state of the art articles to read where they would share the latest research in their particular field. And they would talk about their projects and link the real life experiences of people directly to the theory upon which they had researched their particular subject. Nothing in this course was ‘general information’, you know the typical curriculum where you learn ‘a little about everything’ but where it feels like you haven’t actually learned everything. No, they would delve into small details and show us how these linked together with historical periods or specific discourses in society. I discovered that the reason why I enjoyed this course so much was because each and every single one of the lecturers was sincerely and genuinely passionate about what they were sharing. I many times said to myself inside: “This is what I’ve been waiting for all these years. This is real education.” And at the same time I was sad to see how I had nearly come to the end of my ‘career’ as a student before I actually experienced what education is supposed to be like. But at the same time I was grateful that I did get to experience it and experience myself within it and see how I could be passionate, attentive and disciplined and inspired by the work of these lecturers. During this course I also got some worldview perspectives that I had never heard before, it expanded my vocabulary but also my academic horizon more than twenty years of education hadn’t been able to do. So when the course was done I actually decided to change the subject of my master’s thesis completely and instead write about one of the topics that had interested me the most within this course.

But by the time I was writing my thesis I realized that I was facing years and years of automated behavior systems of cheating and taking short cuts, so it was virtually impossible for me to change my work ethics. I struggled with it for months and eventually I simply did it, I wrote a couple of pages per week and I did read a lot of books and articles that I enjoyed and learned a lot from. When I finally handed in my thesis, I was nowhere near satisfied. And in the three months where I was waiting for the result I was preparing myself for the worst-case scenario of not passing and having to rewrite my thesis. Because see, once I got to the thesis and the advancement of the knowledge and vocabulary presented to me, I realized that I couldn’t fake my way through it. I had to actually understand what I was reading and writing. So after many weeks of feeling inferior to the information, I started highlighting all the words I didn’t understand. And after I had read an article or a section, I would go and look up the word and then deliberately integrate it into my vocabulary by using it for example when I was writing. And so within the six months where I was writing my thesis, I expanded my vocabulary exponentially. I eventually received the results and I was absolutely dumbfounded when I saw that I had gotten an A. Because I compared that A to the work effort I had put into writing the thesis and I could not see the work reflected as a top-product. I felt like I didn’t deserve it. But what I realized, as I have realized continuously throughout my years of participating in the education systems, is that grades mean absolutely nothing. They do in no way reflect the actual integration of information or the work put into a project or a paper.

So parents, even if your children are receiving good grades, you don’t actually know what they are learning or if what they are learning is what is best for them. Unfortunately schools and all other educational facilities currently exist within the sole purpose of generating enough money to survive. And most of what we are being taught in school does in no way prepare us to become effective human beings or be able to reflect upon our reality, our world or ourselves. Instead we learn and we tell each other and our children that we must be prepared to face the global competition, that China is gaining in on us, that children in South Korea are better educated and all this leads all of us to exist in a constant pressure to perform and win – but not to learn and certainly not to enjoy education.

And so ironically enough I now work as a teacher. It wasn’t my first choice of jobs. I never wanted to be a teacher. But the passion I have for education, the passion I have for changing the education system is growing every day. Because I have seen that it is possible to structure education in such a way that students actually learn and I have experienced it on my own body. And I know for a fact that the current education system has very little to do with actual education and more to do with producing people trapped in their own ego and fear of not surviving whose only purpose it is to grow up and keep the competition going.

The changes required in our education systems are straightforward and so commonsensical that I cannot even fathom that this isn’t already implemented:

The first imperative point is that teachers must be people who are passionate about education, people who have grown and developed themselves and who actually have something to share, from which students can expand their perspective on reality – no matter the subject. Seriously, who wouldn’t agree with this? And yet, if we do agree with it, how is it that we are still accepting our children to be taught within the current education system, by teachers who see teaching as an easy paycheck? Why is it that we send our children to school in a trust that they will learn, when we know exactly what it is like to sit there day after day being stuffed with information that goes in through the one ear and out through the other?

Secondly, we require a complete re-definition of what education is. Education must be sacred in a way – because it is from education that we are building the future world of tomorrow. Education must adhere to the highest standards in society of what it actually is that children learn to be and become – and not simply follow the corporate capitalist system as a petrified slave that believes it can do nothing but to follow its master. Because even within our obsolete and redundant education system, we are still creating the future world of tomorrow and what is absurd is that we’re not even realizing what kind of world it is we are creating and re-creating through this education system. I mean, how blind can we be?

Thirdly, we require different and new ways of teaching and we require new educational tools and ways of measure integration of information and vocabulary. At the moment we simply learn words randomly ad nauseam and we attach meanings and values to these words within our mind without anyone ever cross-referencing if how we understand a word is actually the best definition of the word and if the consequences of how we understand it and thus live according to it will be best for all. All we have to do in the current education system is to be able to parrot words according to the test requirements so that the teachers can get their grade and not get fired for being incompetent, so that the schools can get their grade and still receive their funding, so that our countries governments can look competitive in the eyes of other countries governments, so that we all can go on pretending that there’s order and that what we’re doing in this world makes sense. 

All we have to do is to look at the state the world is currently in – in fact – and we’ll see that none of what we are doing currently makes any sense and it certainly isn’t best for all. And it all starts with education.

Furthermore, it is imperative that we develop an understanding of how the mind works and how the physical body works and how the natural learning ability of a child is developed and can be supported and to do that we require a new foundation upon which we can make collective decisions about our education system, from research and theory to the actual educational material and tools. Therefore I recommended investigating the Living Income Guaranteed system that is a new economic proposal to restructure our economy in such a way that education will be a top-priority and that we can as citizens together make decisions that are best for all of us and more specifically for our children, instead of simply running the rat race in such a state of fear that we don’t even realize that we could have made a difference, had we just given ourselves and each other the chance.

I urge any parents to take it upon yourself to take responsibility for your children’s education. Not from a perspective of controlling them out of fear – but from a perspective of understanding that our children is our future. And whatever they are learning to prioritize, value and see the world as – which they learn directly through us as adults – is the kind of world we create for their children. Now, I’m not saying to now go and take your child out of school within a belief that you can do a better job. Unfortunately we can’t escape the current system and we are equally a part of the equation that has been severely miscalculated through the course of history. But what we can do is to re-educate ourselves. What we can do is to dedicate ourselves to the education of our children, speak to them, share with them and make a commitment to become an example that another way of learning is possible, that it is possible to be a human being with integrity, that education can be enjoyable and that the imperative of education – real education – cannot be understated or compromised. 

Research material and bibliography:

Natural Learning Abilities blog series – a MUST READ!

Natural Learning Abilities

Natural Learning Abilities

Natural Learning Abilities

Natural Learning Abilities

Chris Hedges (2009) Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

Democracy and Education in the 21st Century – Interview with Noam Chomsky:

Noam Chomsky: Who Owns the Earth?

Suggested documentaries to watch:

John taylor gatto the ultimate history lesson:

Third World America – Chris Hedges The Power Principle The Trap Psywar Human Resources: Social Engineering in the 20th Century The Century of the Self: Part 1- Happiness Machines On Advertisement and the end of the world: In conjunction with this blog series, I suggest to take a moment to read the following blog-post on Basic Income and Teaching where the points I’ve discussed here are further expanded upon. I recommend reading the following blogs:

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