The point of pointless learning

scriberia learning

This week(June 13 to June 19) is Adult Learners’ Week: a celebration of learning stuff later in life – something that far too few of us give ourselves the chance to do.

Learning for the fun of it is too often considered a luxury by the time-poor. Why learn when you can earn? Why fill your head full of things that won’t, in turn, fill your bank balance? Why spend your precious free time learning something new, when you could be re-watching the whole of Game of Thrones? Look, we get it, there are only so many hours in the day.

But, learning something (anything, really!)– has often overlooked benefits. For instance, you don’t have to be a concert pianist to feel the benefit of hours at the keyboard. As well as being fun, playing an instrument can increase your appreciation for music and your capacity for creative expression. It improves your co-ordination, your concentration, and – believe it or not – it makes you smarter. It might even bring you together with like-minded people, and give you an opportunity to travel world.

Learn to bake, and you could develop appreciation for precision, improve your artistic skill and even find yourself invited round for tea more often. Learning a language can increase your confidence, improve your memory, and transform your travel experiences and expand your horizons.

At a friends’ house for dinner recently, talk turned to the subject of education. Their teenage son would soon be choosing subjects for his GCSEs and he earnestly informed us of his leaning towards good, solid subjects like maths, history, and geography.

Despite being a talented flautist, an artist and an actor, his laser-like focus (at the age of 14) was on learning what he needed to learn score solid grades, a place at a good university and, ultimately, a decent job.

But, come on! Where’s the fun in that?! And come to think of it, why is fun so far down the list of priorities when it comes to learning?

Other guests at the table suggested that, somewhere along the way, we started to consider subjects like geography and maths as more ‘necessary’ disciplines than music or art. They lead more directly to a career path, they reasoned – while few of us become professional musicians as a result of learning an instrument, a qualification in mathematics can open the door to a career in banking.

That may be so, but when did we become so literal? When did we become so obsessed with the practical application of learning, that we felt confident in dismissing the value of learning for learning’s sake?

Last year, Professor Andrew Hamilton, the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, spoke up in defense of ‘apparently useless’ study. In his oration to the university’s Congregation, he said: “Sometimes it can be exciting to know something just for the delight in discovering it.” Nothing learned is ever “useless”.

He pointed out that while scholars had debated the uselessness of subjects like Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology, it was those myths that inspired CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien to write their epic fantasty novels. Those books were enjoyed by millions, and went on to spawn movies that have grossed millions of pounds. In other words, it is sometimes impossible to predict or quantify how ‘pointless learning’ will be of benefit. But that’s no reason to dismiss it.

At Scriberia, we host workshops that teach people how to visualise their thinking (without requiring any artistic skill at all, we promise). Sure, most people can get by at work with the ability to read and write. Few are asked to go above and beyond basic PowerPoint presentations for anything requiring visuals. So, knowing how to sketch out an idea or a plan, might seem like an irrelevance. But, in fact, it’s something everyone can benefit from.

It’s fun, it’s expressive, and it’s creative – and these are all things that most of us have forgotten how to be. Drawing your thoughts, instead of writing them, exercises a part of our brains that most of us have neglected since childhood. Synapses fire and new neural pathways are built and your brain gains a greater capacity for visualising thoughts, and thinking about things in a visual way.

In turn, it gives you a new weapon in your armoury, when it comes to communication and problem solving. If you can draw an idea, you can ensure that others really do see what you mean. And if you can’t figure out how to draw it, it’s usually a sign that the idea itself needs more work.

The point is, learning a new skill, whatever it is, will pay out in the end. My six-year-old daughter is presently working hard to learn to play the piano; whether or not she will go on to become a pianist is at this point uncertain, but neither she nor I are taking this learning opportunity for granted.

Who knows where it will lead. Maybe directly to Carnegie Hall, but equally, maybe not. For now, at least, is simply delighted to be able to hammer out the tunes from “Frozen”, which is fun.

So, get out there and learn something with no apparent use: take a life drawing class, learn to plant a flower garden, join a choir and learn to sing with a group, write a poem, sign up for one of our Scriberia Academy sessions.