The Problem with Education (Part 1)

Around two weeks ago, a national paper reported that one of our senators was alarmed at the “deteriorating” state of our education and competency of our teachers, citing declining percentages of graduates this year versus previous years, as well as passers of the Licensure Examination for Teachers (LET) — all this despite pouring half a trillion pesos into the education budget. He then concluded that the relatively new K-12 program must be fixed and executed properly.

I do agree that K-12 needs proper execution, and a proper burial afterwards.

The problem with education (and I use it here to mean our system of schooling) is not the lack of funds or its mismanagement, not the lack of classrooms or textbooks, not poor teacher training, nor any kind of “fixing” to the curriculum. The problem, at its very core, is this — it is the wrong tool for the job.

Remember that our system of education was inherited from the American system of compulsory public schooling, which in turn traces its roots to the military state of Prussia — whose chief aim was “to produce mediocre intellects, to hamstring the inner life, to deny students appreciable leadership skills, and to ensure docile and incomplete citizens — all in order to render the populace ‘manageable.’”

This system worked very well at that time because it was during the Industrial Revolution and having docile and manageable workers was very good for factories which needed thousands of workers performing routine, boring and robotic tasks. You wouldn’t want an assembly line worker getting creative with his work and producing something different every time, would you?

Another factor at work was access to information at that time was quite limited so there was a need for “learned” teachers to be the “fount of knowledge” for the students. Universities became deep repositories of information depending on their library collection and roster of professors.

But it has been over a hundred years since that time. We now have robots dominating factories and even consumer-grade robots cleaning swimming pools or houses, cooking, or serving coffee. The internet has opened up vast repositories of information to anyone interested to look them up. The cellphone has become a tool with multiple applications that you can use to navigate, to use as a calculator, a flashlight, a gaming device, a camera, to send messages, to read books, to find a restaurant, to order stuff, oh and yes, you can also use it to talk to other people over long distances.

All these changes have happened, and yet we are still stuck with an educational system designed to produce factory workers and employees. We are still obsessed with standardized tests when it has become more and more evident that people aren’t standard at all. In fact, look at the entrepreneurs and the innovators of society — a lot of them are your bottom-of-the-class students, “problem”students or even dropouts. They don’t fit well into a system designed to stifle their originality.

No, the educational system doesn’t need fixing. A hammer is designed to drive nails into wood, and it is a fine tool for doing so when you have a handful of nails. But now what you hold in your hand are screws, and no amount of “fixing” will turn the hammer into a screwdriver. You need to throw it away and get the proper tool.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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The Nature of the Beast (Part 3)

The current educational system is another Gordian knot of tangled problems. Aside from the problems we usually read about in the news like lack of infrastructure (e.g. classrooms), equipment and skilled teachers, there is the students’ apparent lack of motivation, increasing stress levels and disconnect with the needs of industry — that means that graduates find out that very little of the little they learned has any practical use when they start working.

For decades also, educators have tinkered with the system trying to untangle this knot — making a few modifications here and there, but they always seem to end up not solving anything or very little at all.

Very few know, or have heard, that this knot has been solved. Just as Alexander the Great sliced the Gordian Knot with his sword, it is somewhat appropriate that another Alexander — Alexander Sutherland Neill — cut through the Gordian knot of education by founding Summerhill School in 1921 with the revolutionary idea that children learn faster and better without coercion — a stark difference from traditional schools which until now use different methods of coercion to make students want to learn things we adults deem as important.

Summerhill was one of the first democratic schools and is the oldest one still in existence. Neill wrote a book with the same title expounding on his ideas and it generated a whole flurry of debate and interest that led to an explosion of “free schools” in the United States in the 1960’s.

Dan and Hanna Greenberg built on these ideas and established the Sudbury Valley School in 1968, and holding steadfast and true to its democratic principles, became the only school from that era still in existence today. Dan is also a prolific writer and has published many books expounding his ideas on education — which I have written much about in past articles. These ideas have spread and there are now several Sudbury-model schools all over the United States and in other parts of the world.

Even though these ideas have existed for a long time — in fact close to a century for Summerhill — they seem to have made very little headway into the educational system. This, I see, is another “nature of the beast” problem. The democratic school model is so different from traditional education that it would require a massive shift, not just in thinking, but in implementation, training, and even infrastructure.

It would take a courageous, even heroic, public official to make such changes that would mean people losing their jobs because their skills no longer apply, or because they would become redundant. The system itself would be naturally against such a model even if shown that it works better and more efficiently than the current model.

Sudbury Valley School, for example, runs on less funding than it costs the American government to fund public education on a per student basis. Imagine how that savings would scale, or how that would apply to our country — we who are always complaining that the education budget isn’t enough — a huge part of which I believe is wasted on bureaucracy and unnecessary expenses.

But the light at the end of the tunnel is that more and more parents are becoming aware that the system simply doesn’t work, and are more willing to commit to a system that will ultimately benefit their children without stunting their natural curiosity and love for learning.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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The Nature of the Beast (Part 2)

One need not look far back to see how the proverbial Gordian knot has been cut again and again in the last 50 years where we have seen business innovation happen at breakneck speed. The dawn of personal computers in the late 70’s slowly broke the monopoly of big corporations, the only ones who could afford those giant mainframe computers. Atari popularized console gaming.

Sony rose to prominence in the 80’s with the popular Walkman portable music player. Nintendo reinvented the gaming console with the wildly popular Family Computer. The 90’s saw these technologies becoming faster, smaller, more refined, and of course, this was when the internet first landed on Philippine soil. The late 90’s saw cellphones become more and more popular with the invention of text messaging.

The year 2000 onwards has exploded with inventive fury that have disrupted the way we work and the way we play. Want to know about something? Google it. Want to know about someone? Look for their Facebook account. Want to broadcast what you’re doing at the moment, or follow someone who does? Get on Twitter. Need a ride? Book it on Uber (but not anymore in Manila where you need to use Grab). Need a place to stay? Go to AirBNB. Need anything? There’s Amazon. Need a calculator, calendar, watch, music player, video player, library, flashlight or camera? There’s your phone. Oh yeah, you can use it to call or text people too.

What these products did so well was not so much to untangle the mess that existing products were in, but to invent a whole new way of doing things that simply sliced through the old ways and left them lying in the dust.

Perhaps no other individual best personifies the technological push and innovation of the last 50 years than the well-loved and well-hated Steve Jobs.

From the time he and Steve Wozniak founded Apple Computer in 1976, Jobs had always had a grandiose vision. Wozniak’s technical genius delivered great products, but it was Jobs’ marketing genius that made people want to buy them.

In the Apple I, Jobs defied the prevailing idea that only really big businesses needed computers. In the Mac, Jobs showed that computers could display gorgeous fonts and introduced the era of desktop publishing. The iPod and iTunes changed the music industry and made Apple into the world’s largest music retailer. The iPhone made Apple a leading phone manufacturer and the iPad, which people initially laughed at when it came out, has become a common household device. Jobs created a cult-like following that defied odds and expectations, forging an empire that Alexander couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams.

The years following Jobs death has seen the beast rearing its head, however, and Apple has been stagnant for a while with no earth-shattering releases or announcements, its phone sales plateauing and even rumored to be declining as it has last year declined to publish numbers for the first time.

Perhaps they have been trying hard to “maintain” the vision, forgetting that “maintaining” is probably the last thing a living Jobs would want to do.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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The Real Momo Challenge

People are panicking over the recently viral news of “Momo” videos — where in the middle of a supposedly child-friendly video, there would be instructions for the viewer to hurt themselves. Parents are concerned and are suddenly banning Youtube or outright banning devices altogether.

While this may understandably be a concern for parents, I would think that banning is the wrong approach.

After all, look at all the things that were banned by your parents and by society because such things were “not good for you.” Somehow you still managed to sneak past and  enjoy those things — I’m talking about tobacco, alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling, and all the many other things that were banned.

Banning does not answer why things are wrong or why people are better off not doing them. It simply raises more questions and heightens curiosity. And we all know what what happens when people are overcome with curiosity.

No, the real Momo challenge is not how to stop this thing, or how to prevent this from spreading, or how to prevent kids from seeing it; the real challenge is how to teach our kids to think critically, how to trust them to do the right thing, and how to ask relentless questions without fear of being shushed.

Unless we teach our kids that, we will always be looking over their shoulders, wondering what they are reading or what they are watching or what they are listening to. But if we know they have a good head on their shoulders (and most of them do) we can trust them to do the right thing no matter what.

Because trust me, this Momo thing is not new. It is merely the latest fad, and there will always be something that will come up later just us there were always things like this in the past — like that video encouraging people to randomly hit strangers as hard as they can, then run away, or that dancing while the car is running video, or people climbing skyscrapers and doing dangerous stunts high up in the air.

You cannot ever hope to ban everything and unless you plan on staying beside your children and monitoring them 24/7, you had better learn to teach them to think and to handle responsibility, and to trust them, even as early as 4 years old.

If you doubt that children can handle that sort of responsibility, consider that in what we call “primitive” societies, children are trained as young as possible in performing duties for the good of society. In more modern times, billionaire Richard Branson talks about the “most important lesson of his life” happening at age 4, when his mother dropped him off miles from their home, in an area where he had never been.

She asked if he knew how to find his way home, and he said yes, and so she trusted him and let him do it.  By age 12, Richard was biking alone at distances of over a hundred miles. He dropped out of college and never stepped foot in college. By 16, he had started his first business. Today he owns the Virgin Group and is worth 4.1 billion dollars.

Teach your kids to think, then trust them. Easier said than done. But that’s the challenge.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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The Nature of the Beast (Part 1)

History is filled with examples of remarkable individuals or groups, who forge fantastic empires and systems that drastically change how people live and think. Yet, a few short years or decades after they are gone, what they built shudders into a slow collapse or sometimes, even a sudden fall.

One of my favorite stories is the legend of Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot. In one version of the tale, Alexander marched into the ancient province of Phrygia where there was an ox cart tied to a post with an intricate knot. The knot was famous for being so tangled that no one could untangle it and there was in fact, a prophecy that anyone who could untangle the knot would go on to rule all of Asia.

Alexander tried for a while to undo the knot in the usual way, without success. And then he stepped back, drew his sword and cut the knot in half with a single blow. Shortly after, he went on to conquer Egypt and large parts of Asia, greatly expanding the Macedonian Empire started by his father, King Philip II.

He did all this before he died at age 32. To the older people reading this, think back a bit and look at what you were doing at age 32, then you would probably understand why he is called “the Great.”

The Macedonian empire lasted around 150 years, reaching its height during Alexander’s reign and slowly declining thereafter due to internal strife and struggle.

Mention “Macedonia”to people today and probably 9 out of 10 will look back at you with blank stares. Where now is the empire that this young conqueror built?

The story shows a pattern often repeated until today in the business world. Consider the story of Nokia. It is hard to imagine that less than 20 years ago, Nokia meant “cellphone” just as much as “Google”means search on the internet.

Nokia was then the leading cellphone maker in the world, besting its competitors by a large margin. It offered different models catering to every price range. Its iconic ringtone was and is still familiar to those today in their late thirties and above.

Mention Nokia today to a teenager and he’ll probably look at it as just one of the minor players in the cellphone market, with probably less brand recognition than Apple or Samsung.

This is the nature of the beast. It is the struggle between innovation and stability, between creativity and conformity. Innovators cut through a gordian knot of problems with a brilliant solution, then bureaucrats take over and try to implement systems to duplicate, scale up and sustain the success, inevitably creating another gordian knot that may end up being more tangled than the first.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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