Schools : Past :: Future : ___?

What does it really mean to be educated?

 · 6 min read

When I begin to write, I first think about the title, not always but usually. Then I make a quick search on the internet, just to make sure I don’t come out as stealing. The education conundrum, thats what came to my mind. Unsurprisingly the top few searches with same title called out the glaring inefficiencies of the education system (most of them surprisingly about Indian education). A report from Reuters on Indian schooling, a Pakistani educationist criticising the politicians and bureaucrats on only able to achieve 52% literacy and an article that talked about the pathetic quality standards at the university levels.

Information available on this topic is quite a lot. Some of which unsubstantiated and biased. So I thought of starting my research from first principles so to speak.

How does one define education? Etymologically that is. Wikipedia says it is derived from the Latin origin ēducātiō which means breeding, rearing or bringing up. To nurture the child and help him grow. So it is a systematic way to pass on the knowledge, values and skills that the previous generations acquired. Thus, it is validated by the society and provided to its people for its own good. It is something that you take into your system that comes from outside. But can you educate one to walk or cycle? No. That comes from within and that is called as learning. It is something that originates from the self. It can be innate and mostly tacit. It can’t be taught, but it is an understanding which arrives in your conscious or subconscious. Learnings are instinctive and gained from experiences. Sometimes it takes the form of hunch or gut feeling. But how do you teach a gut to feel? Knowledge that way is very complex and abstract. When it comes to its delivery there is broadly an instructional mode and an intuitional mode. You can’t program the masses to have the exact intuition but you can mass produce textbooks. Maybe thats why we landed up in an instructional mode of knowledge dissemination.

Peter Gray, developmental psychologist in one of his articles mentions that tens of thousands of years ago when we were a nomadic tribe we were highly skills and knowledge intensive society. Because to hunt and gather food one needed to know about plants, keep a watch on animals, make efficient tools etc. Researchers who studied these tribes say that they never separated work from play. Then roughly 10,000 years ago after agriculture was invented, human beings settled in places. Surety of food gave them opportunity to have more children. Also it worked in their favour as more children would mean they had extra hands to plough and sow the land, help with household chores or to take care of other siblings. This is how it started.

Utilising or employing young children for the works of the family or society. Whereas they would rather spend their time outside playing but they had to be beaten down and tamed to be useful. This was unnatural to the very being of a child where play and exploring was part of the living. Later with the advent of factories children were employed as large scale unskilled labourers. Agriculture labour really helped breaking their will and succumbing them to the pressures of work that was repetitive and mundane. This helped in getting the workforces in factories to fall in line and be obedient to the authorities.

Education thus became a vehicle through which newly minted workforce could be produced to do brainless repetitive work. It was the only Protestants who first made it compulsory to have every child to go to school. They thought that everyone has a right to interpret the Bible and get emancipated. During the early 19th century curriculum was put into school. Curriculum became the idea or the mechanism through which the perceived knowledge was packaged into a dispensable format. Carefully then it was divided into chunks of subjects of sciences, math and languages. Further classifying them into age appropriate categories. Everything that deemed necessary for making a civilised “man” was put in the bucket (on the timeline of education, women going to schools is a recent phenomenon).

Late 19th to early 20th century is when schooling became very competitive and was pursued only with self interest. The defects of following the system became very evident in our generation. John Taylor Gatto, an American educationist and a teacher for 30 years says that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. In 1990 he was called by the US Senate committee to talk about how schools in future will look like. For which he said “school in 2000 will look exactly like school in 1990. School in 1990 is almost exactly like school in 1890.” The way schools are right now it can’t feed the pace of current going-ons in our world. It has not changed much since 150 years ago when the Prussians first devised this model of education.

Educational consultants I met, one of a kind niche professionals of today, think the current education can only help one get data entry jobs. What children of tomorrow need are leadership qualities, problem solving and critical thinking. Hence they are leading us towards International Schools. The reputed Forbes magazine has estimated the International Schools market to be $89 billion market by 2026, of which $39 billion will be raised by pupil fees. More than half of these schools are in Asia. Yes its only us folks who thinks international is everything to do with “west”. The rise of edu tech startups, some of which backed by Zuckerbergs and Premjis of the world are now a hundred billion dollar industry. Gamification of education and delivering it on cool apps is their answer to rid the boring classes and teachers. Various Online and Open courseware available are completely changing the way we will learn in future. An article on smithsonian.com talks about colleges in Europe and the US are going to become irrelevant by 2030. The large overhead costs and popularity of online courses are not making it viable anymore to run a juggernaut that a University is.

What is then the right path that leads to learning? Filling up as many kids in a class is not lifting the masses. Connecting them to electronic gadgets is not making them social and problem solvers either. Maybe we are thinking hard on the problem the wrong way. Why not leave it to them? Let’s put them on the driver’s seat and hand them the rein. Some of us may scream…no way! How can they take decisions for themselves? We have to tell them what to do, what to want or wish? The main impediment in bringing about this change is us. We just can’t let go. I know its difficult and am learning too. But how wonderful it would be to leave our children in an environment where they are free to learn and explore?

It is a false notion that a child can’t learn unless taught. A striking example of this is an infant learning to balance her head thats close of 30% of its body weight. Then learn to crawl, sit and walk, all of which completely self taught. Mind you these are one of the most difficult of physical skills we would ever learn in our lives. They make long jumps, double cartwheels and mid air somersaults all look cakewalks. While we were learning all this acrobatics we learnt to comprehend language and also to speak. All of this within the first two years of our lives. We don’t need teachers to teach but to facilitate learning. Teachers have to be learners themselves, because they are not keepers of the vast knowledge anymore. That is Google’s job. Knowledge is not wrapped in an expensive hardbound book, it is now floating on the cloud with access to all. Answers are not the only important thing its the questions that are now vital. If we stop being curious we can’t progress. Curiosity of a child is the most valuable asset. What’s the worst fear we as parents have? That our children will not learn and not survive? By virtue of millions of years worth evolution and the way we are wired its impossible for our species not to learn. Isn’t that how we survived the dark and ice ages, world wars and cold wars, floods and famine. So worry not, we shall also survive the politicians of our age!

I don’t intend to be evangelistic here. And I am sure you know it deep down that my worry of all this is not redundant. My only effort is to urge you to question. It is coming is all am saying. So, when it knocks at your door, what will you do?



Rajitha Gopinath

Rajitha is the co-founder and facilitator of the Learners Collective Foundation

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