Knowledge vs. Experience


Knowledge vs. Experience

Knowledge vs Experience

Our schools don’t prepare our kids for their future.  It’s been said, repeated and discussed whenever education is the topic of a TEDtalk, a YouTube video or an education conference.  Trying to figure out how to fix the problem is not easy and there are heated debates about how we can do it.  Is it our teachers? The curriculum? The system in general? Lots of questions with many different answers.  As technology comes to the forefront and innovative solutions proliferate, new questions are raised and more people get involved in the debate.

Living in Poland I have seen how schools here focus primarily on academic knowledge as the primary source of education.  Kids from an early age, around third grade, start putting in long hours studying for quizzes, tests, exams, competitions.  They memorize and read text books, their parents get them tutors and the rat race begins for the highest scores, the best schools, high schools, universities and on and on.  Throughout, kids, teenagers and young adults are put through a rigorous system that demands academic excellence and if you don’t have what it takes, or the funds to have extra tutoring lessons you’ll be left behind, to perish in the dust.

Easy access to knowledge

Academic knowledge and excellence is valued and highly regarded.  You need to know your esteemed literature writers, scientists, economists and mathematicians.  Now with the internet at their disposal, students have access to the knowledge they seek at the snap of their fingers, or click of a mouse, or tap on their smartphone.  It’s there, ready and available.  I see the results, and I’m impressed at how much these teenagers know, because when I was their age I didn’t know half the stuff they already know.  I went outside and played sports, ate junk food, watched a lot of TV like ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ and ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ and slept.  I didn’t know jack about the world and nor did I readily care or have much of an interest.  The teenagers I teach these days know quite a lot and kudos to them, the internet has allowed them to get that information quickly and easily and with the pressure steadily applied by parents and teachers, the end result are some very well ‘educated’ kids, coming out at the other end.

We will skip any talk in this post of the countless who get left behind, because they have different abilities, less financial means and maybe strengths in other skill areas that are not valued in school or university. That’s for another day.  What does the knowledge do for the students who do acquire it?  Is it useful? Do they get these great jobs? Are they academic intellectuals later on in life?

So what does all that get you Johnny? Let’s raise the curtain and find out what you’ve won?  Well, in Poland, as far as I can tell, there are three or four prizes- doctors, lawyers, and a job in finance or IT.  That’s it.  Congratulations! Enjoy your fabulous trip and send us a postcard when you get there.  The price is right!

Or is it?

Undervaluing experience

Just this past week I had a brief chat with a former student of mine, who is studying a year abroad in the States.  He commented on how he didn’t appreciate, actually disliked the fact that he was writing his assignments and giving his opinions in class referencing economists and academics while his American classmates were talking about their experiences, specifically in High school.  He expected that at university there would be a higher academic standard, referencing world-renowned academics, rather than talking about your experiences.  The class was on leadership by the way.  I tried to explain to him that in America we value experiences a bit more than in Europe.  Let’s just say, he had a hard time accepting this reality and didn’t feel like the standard was high enough because of it.

A lot of young students love to say ‘I know’ to me, all the freaking time!  I’m not exaggerating. Every time I teach something I hear it.  When I give some advice, or tips, or insight on topics I get that same response “I know”.  You don’t know jack shit! Why the hell am I here if you know? Why are your parents or this school paying me to be here if you know? It’s because they read it somewhere.  But is that the same?

It’s not the f^&%$# same.  Just because you read something on the internet or in a book doesn’t mean you know it.  You have ‘read about it’, you might be aware of it and that is all.  But you don’t know, truly, trust me.

It comes back to learning some skills, practical and useful in real life.  The knowledge is not going to get you that job, the skills needed to do it is what you need and unfortunately you don’t have them because you were too busy reading a textbook and referencing academics the whole time. Not that’s necessarily just the student’s fault, that’s what is asked of them. So young learners get a pass, because inevitably they are just following the rules and system that has been setup for them.

When you actually go out there, and experience stuff, in the real world, you are doing, taking action, and see with your eyes and feel with your hands what it’s all about.  Customer service, negotiating, selling, problem solving, brainstorming, collaborating, being resourceful, efficiency, organization, networking and the gift of the gab.  All of these qualities or skills are required in the real world, whether you are a doctor, lawyer, waiter, car mechanic, IT developer, traveler, marketer, bartender, admin assistant, teacher, shop assistant, cook, project manager, flight attendant, farmer, taxi driver, Uber driver, HR specialist, events coordinator, graphic designer, interior designer, architect, scientist or travel agent.

How are you going to learn those skills from reading and quoting economists?

We treat economists as the all-knowing gods of the world, they study theory, and they theorize and write articles and books, they don’t DO! Stop putting them on a pedestal.  Get real, and get out of the classroom and go do.  This is everywhere, more or less, though in America it’s in our cultural DNA to go out and experience stuff, and I remember when I was in school in the States we were encouraged to try out things and work.  This is almost non-existent in Europe.  Something has got to change.


My former student believes that economists know more about leadership then someone college kid talking about it in the context of some high school experience.  I couldn’t disagree more.  If you are 17 years-old and you go out and start a movement for something you believe and get others to join with you, you’re making things happen and you are leading.  If you organize a charity event, a fundraising event, a party, a get-together that has a purpose and unites people behind a cause or a celebration and people enjoy and value what you have done, then you are LEADING, brother.

We’ve come to a crossroads.  With technology, with education, with knowledge and experiences.  It’s up to us parents, us teachers, us as individuals to start making the right choices and choosing the right direction.  If we actually get out on that road that leads to these crossroads and we walk it instead of catching the train or Uber that happens to be passing through, we are much more likely to choose the right road because even if you have the knowledge that tells you where to turn, you won’t know how to stop the train or give directions to the Uber driver but just trust the Satnav, and that, is the trap most fall into.

Make something happen.

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academic knowledge, education, life learning, work experience
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