What Are Schools For? (Part 6)

The fourth and last purpose of education, according to Robinson,  is personal: “Education should enable young people to engage with the world within them as well as the world around them.”

He then distinguishes between these two worlds: “There is the world that exists whether or not you exist. It was there before you came into it, and it will be there when you have gone. This is the world of objects, events and other people…There is another world that exists only because you exist: the private world of your own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions…This world came into being when you did, and it will cease when you do.”

Conventional education focuses a lot on the world around us — scientific and mathematical  principles, historical data, language, grammar, and literature, and a little of the arts. Very little attention is given to the world within us — to our own thoughts, feelings and desires. In fact, they are hardly considered at all in school.

The teacher walks into his class, fully expecting you to listen and pay attention to what he is teaching; never mind that you are not interested, or falling in love, or having a fight with your parents, or just lost your dog, or just plain sleepy.

Even subjects that are meant to explore one’s inner world are given external and academic trappings — values education become just another list of things to memorize. Art and music focus more on learning what others have created and again memorizing what others have done instead of becoming a means of self-expression.

So called educational “experts” miss this very important point: “We only know the world around us through the world within us, through the senses by which we perceive it and the ideas by which we make sense of it.”

Is it any wonder then that most kids in school, even those that do well, are bored, disengaged, uninterested, stressed, anxious or even depressed?

Children are not incomplete humans needing to be filled with “basic knowledge.” They are not broken people who need to be fixed. They ought to be seen as unique individuals with their own special set of aptitudes, attitudes, personalities, interests and ambitions. Not one fits into the mold of a “model student” because no such mold and no such student exists.

Education must first allow people to connect with themselves, to understand their own thoughts, feelings and desires, to be attuned with who they really are, to attend to the world within, before it begins to engage with the world around. That is, in fact, what children are doing from the moment they are born. They are continually trying to understand the world within them as well as the world around them.

They do this as they learn to coordinate their different body parts, to grab things, to taste them and smell them, to roll around , then crawl, then walk, then run and play and dance and sing.

Sadly we interrupt this process of self-discovery with school and give the world around them too much importance, while the world within them suffers and cries in silence.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

What Are Schools For? (Part 5)


The third purpose of education, according to Ken Robinson,  has a social dimension: “Education should enable young people to be active and compassionate citizens.”

Active citizenship means taking part in community activities and ultimately, voting in local and national elections. Yet, we have witnessed, time and again, in our elections, that those who are voted to power are not necessarily the most qualified, nor the most knowledgeable nor skillful, but the most popular. It is a running joke that the surest path to be an elected official is to be a celebrity.

I think this mentality is deeply rooted in how we “teach” democracy in schools. We have, from a young age, been taught that democracy doesn’t really mean anything. Oh yes, the lectures will say otherwise — that power rests in the people and so on — but the lessons imparted by practical experience and reality outweigh those held in classrooms.

Class officers don’t have any real power. That rests with the teacher. Let’s say the teacher comes in, and the class president tells the teacher, “We just had a class meeting and 90% majority has voted on postponing today’s quiz to next week,” and the teacher says, “No,” who do you think will be followed?

On a larger scale, student councils don’t have any real power either. Let’s say the student council president meets with the principal (or whatever highest school official there is), and says, “90% of the student population has voted against the rule that students are required to wear black leather shoes. They should be allowed to wear whatever footwear they are most comfortable with,” and the principal says, “No,” again who do you think will be followed?

And so from early on, we have learned, by experience, that voting doesn’t really do anything and that we don’t really have a voice. Power rests with those in authority and there is not much we can do to change that. So elections become just another game and we elect those we most fancy, which tend to be those who are most popular.

We, as a society, have not really learned democracy because our educational institutions are one of the most autocratic institutions in the world.

This is why I have such a high respect for the founders of Sudbury Valley School (SVS), where children and adults alike, discuss and vote on everything about the school, where the adult founders were willing to lay their jobs and their reputations on the line by allowing students to vote on their continued employment year after year.

Dan Greenberg, founder of SVS, says they don’t even need to lecture their kids about what democracy is. They live it everyday. This is a clear answer to Robinson’s call: “Schools have vital roles in cultivating that sense of citizenship. They won’t fulfill them by running academic courses on civics but by being the sort of places that practice these principles in how they operate every day.”

Having a better country, a better society, starts with having better and more democratic schools.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

What Are Schools For? (Part 4)

The second purpose of education is cultural in nature. Culture is the set of formal and informal practices shared by a group of people, normally living in the same geographic locality, or sharing something else in common, such as religion.

Thus there is such a thing as Filipino culture, Chinese culture, or American culture and so on — which can be further broken down into subcultures per region — so Davao would have its own set of customs and practices, Cebu would have another, and so on.

Some of these practices can be weird for others and capitalized by comedians using their own racial quirks as sources of humor — like a Filipino-American guy who talks about his mom using Vicks as a cure-all for any ailment, or that old Chinese story about the family patriarch on his deathbed, who sees his wife and all his children gathered around him. He looks at them, then calls each one by name, then looks alarmed and says, “You’re all here. Who’s minding the store?”

One can also talk about a Christian culture, Muslim culture, Jewish Culture, Buddhist culture, and so on, where even people from different geographic locations would share some common practices (such as prayers or rituals) based on religion, and again these can have their own subcultures depending on the particular sect within a religion..

Robinson’s shorthand way of describing culture is “how we do things around here.”

One might think that education’s role is to perpetuate these practices and customs — and indeed that is what many schools do — but we ought to go beyond simply that.

As different parts of the world become more and more accessible to people, we are seeing more and more diverse communities composed of multiple races, religions, and nationalities. If education were to focus only on the perpetuation of one’s own culture, then it is quite possible to bloat one’s sense of importance of one’s own culture and develop a disdain for others.

We need not look far back to see conflicts and even wars between different cultures like Christian vs Muslim, Catholic vs Protestant, Hindu vs Muslim, Shia vs Sunni, Hutu vs Tutsi, Black vs White vs Latinos vs Asians.

The important and practical direction for education would be, as Robinson puts it, to “understand their own cultures, to understand other cultures, and to promote a sense of cultural tolerance and coexistence.” In other words, educating for culture is not merely a means of propagating and appreciating one’s culture, but must necessarily include a basic respect for the diversity of others.

Only then can we live in harmony with each other.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

What Are Schools For? (Part 3)

“Schools ought to go back to the basics,” is something a lot of people say but rarely do they think about what it actually means. Most people understand this as focusing on specific subjects like math or science, with good manners and values thrown in because, oh, the youth should be taught these things so they don’t turn out to be like these “whiny, entitled millennials” — who seem to (unfairly) be everyone’s favorite punching bag these days.

Author and educational leader, Ken Robinson, also makes a case for going back to basics, but not in the sense that most people have about which subjects to include or not in the curriculum. Rather, going back to basics means going back to the purpose of education, and this makes a lot of sense because before we start talking about curriculum, we need to be clear about what this entire exercise is ultimately for.

In his book, Creative Schools:The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education (co-authored with Lou Aronica), Robinson outlines 4 broad purposes of education:

  1. Economic – Education should enable students to become economically responsible and independent.
  2. Cultural – Education should enable students to understand and appreciate their own cultures and to respect the diversity of others.
  3. Social – Education should enable young people to become active and compassionate citizens.
  4. Personal – Education should enable young people to engage with the world within them as well as the world around them.

The first purpose – economic – is what mass education was initially supposed to address. Getting a college degree meant getting a good job with a decent pay which made one economically stable and independent, and for a few decades that was going along fine. It was a right fit in the industrial era of factories. Children were “manufactured” in school for a few years, and came out with stamps of approval called diplomas, and they were expected to have certain basic skills suitable for work in the factory or any of its support systems like accounting, marketing, and so on.

When my preschool yearbook came out, we had our photos there with toothless smiles and underneath our names was a caption with the words “I want to be a/an ____” and the for the most part, you could see the words doctor, lawyer or engineer in that blank. You might also see businessman and accountant, and for decades everyone knew what these professions were and what they meant.

In today’s world, we have jobs and professions that literally did not exist just a short 10 or 20 years ago — like social media manager, influencer, game streamer, youtuber, web developer, information architect, and these require a very different set of skills and attitudes than what is being traditionally offered in schools today.

Schools operate on mainly the same methods and principles as they did 100 years ago. That is one of the reasons why there is a huge disconnect between what students learn in school and what they face in reality, because the world has changed a lot since then.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

What Are Schools For? (Part 2)

A child asked a successful entrepreneur, “What is the secret of your success?”

The entrepreneur thought for a moment, and answered, “I have learned how to make good decisions.”

“And how did you learn to make good decisions?” asked the student.

“By making bad decisions, and learning from my mistakes,” said the entrepreneur.

A relatively new conditioned has been dubbed by a few therapists as “post-graduation depression.” Linda Ha, writing for CNBC, describes this as such:

“From kindergarten through college, school becomes the primary structure giving students a sense of certainty, while providing them with a social network for learning and support.

Yet after graduation, that structure crumbles, and with no set timetables or mandatory classes to study for, anxiety, depression and a sense of loss about what to do next become all too common.”

Children in school are not given too much leeway to make decisions. Whatever decision-making capability is severely limited to what choices teachers or school officials offer. So when some of them finish school and now have to make big decisions concerning their life, they splash around and flounder and try not to drown.

If school is really meant to prepare kids for life, then it is supposed to hone their ability to make decisions, and then to respect those decisions — whether the consequences are good or bad. If the decision was a bad one, the student must feel the brunt of the consequence and not be shielded from it.

Yet many children in our schools cannot even decide what hairstyle they want, what shoes or clothes to wear, or what to do with their day. They have to follow the prescribed haircut, the prescribed uniform, and of course, the almighty class schedule.

Schools is not really an environment where children learn how to make decisions for their life. Of course, they can make little decisions like what to eat for lunch or what to buy with their allowance money. But what schools mainly teach is for them to follow instructions. From kindergarten to college, they are taught to conform and follow. How can we expect them to be good decision-makers after that?.

Alfie Kohn said, “Kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.”

A parent who always tries to support his kid riding a bike, will be a very exhausted parent, and will get a kid who hardly knows how to ride a bike. What is important is not to prevent them from falling, but to teach them how to fall, how to support themselves when they do, and how to get back up and try again.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.