Learning curve


Elana Benjamin

Off the mark: it's the journey, not the destination, that matters when it comes to education.

Off the mark: it's the journey, not the destination, that matters when it comes to education. Photo: Stocksy.com

"The Higher School Certificate is a game and you've got to play it," my friend Jacqui declares. "School's not about love of learning, it's about working out how to get the best mark at the end."

I sigh, knowing she's right. But I'm convinced this approach to education is flawed. It has taken almost 20 years for me to undo the impact of my own impressive HSC mark.

I finished high school long ago, a member of the prehistoric class of 1991. Modern history always fascinated me and was my uncontested favourite subject. But I was also blessed with an aptitude for numbers and my final year choices included the highest level of maths. With a bright cohort and stories circulating in the playground of this subject being "scaled up", doing maths was sure to maximise my final mark.

But I found that maths class difficult and illogical. More importantly, the content was useless. What, I wondered, could be the benefit of knowing the square root of a negative number? Still, I persevered, focusing on the end goal: getting the best HSC result possible.


Although I didn't realise it then, my entire schooling had been set up to reward performance over enjoyment of learning. A scholarship student, I found it easy to memorise the quadratic formula, rote-learn chemistry solubility rules and analyse Catch-22. Less straightforward was distinguishing between what I could do and what I wanted to do.

The prioritising of learning outcomes over learning processes is a systemic problem. As UK educationalist Sir Ken Robinson writes in Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, "In many ways, the whole process of elementary and high school education is a protracted process of university entrance."

I graduated from secondary school with a final mark that guaranteed my entry into all except one tertiary course in NSW. Afterwards, I confessed to a friend that all I wanted to do at university was study history. Instead, I ended up in a combined arts/law degree.

My choice was a perfect compromise between passion and utility. Although I had little interest in law, it never occurred to me that I might study "just" arts. That would have been like ditching an arranged marriage with the perfect husband to run off with a destitute lover. Law was my assurance of a decent job and future financial security.

I wasn't alone. My classes were filled with HSC superstars, some of the brightest minds my age. Sure, some were genuinely passionate about the law and on their way to fulfilling aspirations of defending the innocent and disadvantaged. But many, like me, were instead floating down the post-HSC river with law as a lifejacket. Like Vivian, who achieved a near-perfect final score, topped the state in modern history and placed highly in English. Although at the time she wanted to study anthropology, she figured she would try to get into law "since everyone told me I should". And she did – only for the two of us to swap joyless tutorials about the Australian constitution for raspberry muffins and tea.

In contrast, 2013 high-school graduate Nechama Basserabie achieved an Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) of 99.90, but decided to study art theory in a course that required an ATAR score of 80. Basserabie's original first preference was law at the University of NSW, but she switched her choices in the final days, deciding she should just do what she wanted. Basserabie is wise – and I suspect she's saved herself much dissatisfaction.

Yes, there is a certain cachet attached to a law degree. And yes, there's an undeniable presumption of intelligence that accompanies the admission, "I studied law." But choosing a path purely because of the status it confers, or the lifestyle it may one day fund, or because others think it's the "right thing" to do, can lay the foundation for a lifetime of quiet despair.

For instance, my business/law graduate friend Lisa worked as a solicitor in one of the big firms before moving to an in-house legal role. One morning Lisa's mother phoned her at the office to check in and say hi. "I'm fine," Lisa assured her mum. Her voice dropped to a whisper. "But my soul is slowly dying here."

My experience wasn't much different. After qualifying as a lawyer, I landed a quasi-legal position in the area of corporate insurance. I had a string of well-paid and reasonably interesting jobs that I was adroit at. But as Ken Robinson notes, "Being good at something isn't a good enough reason to spend your life doing it."

Although I was never passionate about insurance, it was years before I realised that I wanted to write. But why did my discovery take so long?

It's no secret that the current education system fails those students whose talents don't lie in numeracy or literacy. Less obvious is that the system can also fail those of us who shine – or are pushed to succeed – academically. The focus on outcomes of standardised testing means schooling is skewed towards the destination, not the journey. As a result, many talented students remain unsure of, or too fearful to pursue, their true interests, and end up ensconced in financially rewarding but unfulfilling jobs.

Unfortunately, it seems many of us gain our most valuable knowledge only after our formal education has concluded.