How important is learning to you? This is an opinion piece so let me know know your thoughts on the three modes of learning in the comments!


This article is for everyone–not just “school aged” people–because I feel that everyone should be constantly learning (Art of Manliness has an excellent article on lifelong learning).

The average American child will spend approximately 15,120 hours at school (7 hours a day, 180 days a year, for 12 years)–a significant investment of time and energy. Consider the curriculum taught in most schools in America. The pattern generally follows a cumulative progression in four or more subject areas: mathematics, science, history, and writing & grammar. Learning in these four areas (with supplement) is the foundational education of all American children.

Robert Heinlein

Now consider any one of the thousands of possible life journeys a child may go down. After twelve or more years of learning mathematics, science, history, and writing & grammar, is he or she ready for life? At best, the Western educational method teaches children how to learn facts and systems (like mathematics). Unfortunately, life is not as simple as facts and systems. Human beings are not parts in a machine. In fact, many times, people do not use any of the knowledge they gained in school for the rest of their life.

Life is about change and growth and learning and experiencing new things. How can we learn what we need to do to thrive in the real world? How can we modify the way we learn to give us an advantage in life?

As I see it, learning can be broken down into three modes: learning to be, learning to do, and learning to know. I think if more emphasis was put into applying all three modes it would drastically affect our preparedness for life. Let me briefly outline the three modes of learning and how applying them together can affect your life.

Learning to be

Learning to be is the process of finding out who you are and who you want to become. It is the exploration of your passions (finding how to express the music within you) but it is also a dose of reality (finding your “place” in the universe).

There are many steps involved in learning to be: learning to thrive within a social environment, learning to follow orders and give orders within a hierarchy (leadership), realizing and fulfilling your talents and abilities. Many people go through life without learning any of these things, but these “skills” are many times more useful to us than grammar.

Learning to do

 Learning to do is developing applicable skills. If you wait tables at a restaurant you learn to sell food. When your car gets a flat you learn to change a tire. You can learn to do both hard skills (learning to play a musical instrument, or field dress a deer) and soft skills (planning an invasion, or learning computer programming).

Learning to do is the mode of learning involved in making a livelihood and managing your everyday life. How many kids grow up without knowing how to do laundry, or pay bills, or maintain a car, or do anything? If education is truly meant to prepare people for life, it would make sense to focus on useful everyday skills at least as much as mathematics!

Learning to know

This focuses on knowledge that can be learned through books and lectures. Historic dates, timelines, definitions and facts are all part and parcel of learning to know. This is the mode of learning utilized in modern education. Learning to know is useful as a “shortcut” for accumulating vast and various knowledge that would otherwise take you a lifetime to discover through your own experiences. Learning to know allows us to look at mistakes in the past (history) and not repeat them in the future. It teaches systems that assist us in doing things (mathematics). It teaches us ways to express ourselves (literature, music).

Conclusion: What education could be like

I think that the goal of education in the west has been shifted in the wrong direction. If education incorporated all three modes of learning with the goal of preparing kids for life instead of just preparing them for higher education, what a robust set of individuals might be created! Learning to be and do should hold the same weight in our minds as textbook learning currently does.

Your thoughts?