Saturday, 5 November 2011

Don't let schooling interfere with your education

 This animate was adapted from a talk given at the RSA by Sir Ken Robinson about the origins of our current school system. He claims today’s system is largely modeled after the Prussian educational system in the mid-1800s. In the U.S., the Prussian system was advocated and financed by industrial power giants. They viewed individuals in a population as essentially cogs in a wheel; individuals were described as “raw materials” that needed to be “processed” in order to fit the demands of the current economy

The debate over the Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI) seem to be the current polemic issue in Malaysia. The real victims are our young generation, whose voices are not heard. Those who speak on their behalf, from either side, must understand that there are long-term consequences when policy changes are made at this level, more so in the field of education.

At a very early age in our development, many of us are expected to go into educational institutions that prepare us for the real world. In theory, we should prepare young individuals with the life skills they will need to be successful as they reach adulthood. Subjects like science, math, English, and history can be seen as fundamental components to a well-rounded individual – and crucial for social progress into the future.

An adult that doesn’t understand basic math or English will likely suffer due to their lack of knowledge. They will have a hard time adapting to a world that expects you to be able to work and communicate in English.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the educational institutions we have now are the only (let alone the most desirable) way to teach children these fundamental skills. In fact, our educational system today seems to come with many drawbacks and unhealthy assumptions regarding how to properly educate children.

I’ve been critical of today’s schools ever since I’ve been a part of them. It’s not because I’m bitter for getting poor grades (actually, I was mostly a straight A student). I was technically “smart,” in the sense that I knew how to perform well on tests, but that’s not all there is to a good education.

I also don’t think that my dislike of school is due to my specific circumstances. By all measures, my peers and I were quite “privileged” to attend the schools that we did. Yet, the system still seemed ridden with problems and short-comings that I believe have led to some long-term struggles for me. I imagine these problems are equally represented in other schools around the country (or even around the world).

While I could probably write a book elaborating on some of these things that I believe ruin our current schooling system, I’m going to narrow my focus to 3 main points that I think are fairly universal among most schools. Some of these will likely resonate with your own experiences. Others may not.

This is one of the most common critiques I see regarding schools, and rightfully so. There is a world of difference between knowing how to regurgitate facts on a multiple choice or “fill-in-the-blank” test compared to actually understanding the material you are learning. In school, we are taught that an “A” is the highest level of achievement. And so long as you know how to memorize the right things and take a test, then you are presumably “intelligent.” 

When we teach our students how to be more focused on grades, rather than the love for knowledge, we set ourselves up for an intellectually lazy generation. One that is content on mediocrity and “getting by,” rather than developing a true sense of wonder and curiosity.

So many people I know bullshitted their way through school. They learned all the tricks on how to perform well on homework and tests without ever really putting in any planning or effort. For example, in English class, I used spark notes the night before I had to write an essay way more than I ever read the books we were supposed to read. And grade-wise, I did just fine. For most tests, I could usually cram some memorization in the night of and pass with flying colors. By the time the test was over, I forgot everything I “learned,” and got prepared to bullshit for the next chapter.  Maybe I was “smart”; maybe the classes were just too easy.

As I mentioned in the introduction, I was a very good student on paper. Teaches usually liked me because I didn’t cause problem, I didn’t question what they said, and I was very obedient and complacent to what they demanded from me. Even when we were told to write persuasive essays, I usually argued in favor of something that I knew the teacher would approve of (even though in my head I wanted to rebel against these social norms). My few experiences trying to deviate from what was expected usually back-fired on my report cards. I remember one time writing an essay about why video games were good for children, I remember my grade being significantly deflated compared to the times where I argued in accordance to my teacher’s values.

These troubles were especially prevalent throughout my history classes (which were by far my least favorite subjects). As a teacher, you cannot teach history without presenting the information from some kind of point-of-view. The best history teachers are the ones who try to cover issues from a variety of different perspectives, but often times your history teacher is personally biased to present information in a certain way. Critical thinking often becomes diminished for the sake of being a “good student.” To add to the fire, these classes are usually our first taste of politics, so we become molded into a certain way of thinking before ever having the ability to form our own beliefs.

Often we aren’t just learning Malay or history – we are implicitly being taught how to conform to the teacher’s worldview, beliefs, values, and personal philosophy. Parents may think they are sending students to school to learn fundamental and universal skills, but often children walk out with a cleverly molded view of reality. (This of course is also true in parenting and other early experiences throughout a child’s life, but the point still stands strong, and schooling is one of the biggest culprits).

That’s one problem you’re going to have when you try to standardize the curriculum to fit hundreds of individual’s varying needs.

At the very least, the current education system diminishes our potential to evolve and grow, both as individuals and as a society. As individuals – our talents, skills, interests and values are placed as secondary importance. As a society – we lose out on a lot of creative and innovative thinking that could otherwise improve social progress.

The big point I want to make here is that there are some obvious drawbacks and limitations that come with our current schooling, which unfortunately we don’t seem to have many viable alternatives for.

In general, I think the attitude towards learning that is propagated in many schools today runs at the antithesis to a proper education. Curriculum has been standardized to the point where it only appeals to the lowest common denominator of people. Meanwhile, most individuals, especially ones with passions, skills, and talents, usually have their strengths minimized for the sake of conformity and easy management. As a result, I really feel we all suffer.

Note: My primary school and secondary school has been the best times of my lives.

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