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.

What Are Schools For? (Part 1)

There is a myth prevalent in society, and that is in order for children to be successful later on in life, they have to go through elementary, high school, and then college, so they can go get a good job and be financially independent and be productive members of society.

That might have been true a hundred years ago, when schools were literally training centers for factories — where the basic requirement was to have someone good at following instructions, at doing repetitive work and not talking too much while at it, and not to question authority. Those especially good with numbers would be shipped off to the accounting department while those good with words became secretaries.

Many parents today still see it as their ultimate duty to let their kids finish college. They see it as the penultimate achievement of parenthood. They do so because they believe in that myth that college is the key to success in life, that in shepherding their children through college, they have given them the best preparation for adulthood.

That is the myth that has to be shattered — that school is a preparation for life.

Children in school are alive. They are living. They are already IN life, not preparing for it. It’s not as if they are swimmers doing stretches outside the pool before diving in. They are already in the water, from the moment they were born.

What we actually do in school is pluck them out of the water where they’re already swimming, and say, hang on, you’ve got to listen to some lectures first on the different kinds of strokes, or on the properties of water, or on this or that topic. And they go through this for such a long time that a lot of them forget what it is to actually be in the water and the moment you throw them back in, they start drowning.

Children are born learning, curious about the world around them. After a few years of already living, we pluck them out and put them in an artificial environment called school, where they have to sit together with other children of the same age as they are, and they are expected to do certain tasks that adults have deemed as important — never mind that they don’t find these important or interesting at all — and they are periodically tested and later on segregated because of this. Many schools still have an “honors” class for the more “advanced” students.

They have to switch from one subject to the other hour after hour, from one lesson to the next — mostly for the convenience of their teachers and school administrators. They are conditioned with reward and punishment mainly in the form of grades. They are made to follow arbitrary rules prescribing allowable haircut/hairstyle, clothes and shoes, use of makeup/jewelry, etc.

And yes, a few do survive these but most come out to be what they were programmed to be — drones, and by the time you throw them back to “life,” they start drowning.

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

Finding Yourself (Part 2)

I wonder how much faster I could have found myself without the distraction of school work. Yes, I “learned” many things in school and have forgotten most of them. Mostly I learned acting. I learned how to act interested even if I was not. I learned how to act like I respected a teacher, even if I did not. I learned how to act obedient and compliant even though I was seething inside with rebellion.

But I had to act, because reputation, grades and the beloved honors were on the line.

College was interesting because I was now living alone in a faraway city — a new environment where people didn’t know my history, and I was unburdened by having to live up to who I thought people knew I was.

Halfway through my third year, I decided to shift majors. That was such a huge thing for me because ever since high school, when I had conversations with older people (mostly teachers) about college, shifting would always be talked about in some derogatory fashion. Like, don’t be like those kids who don’t have any direction.

Yet, here I was, daily coming to a blackboard full of equations (I was a physics major), and I was thinking more and more, “This is not going to be my life.”

I now had a choice to go into something I really loved — English literature, or something that I also liked with more practical applications — Computer Science.

Practicality won the day, but I also got what I wanted by auditing additional literature classes along the way. I’ve always thought how one-dimensional it was for college to be just about one major, when people could actually pursue 2 or 3 interests.

From there, I learned that one need not necessarily give up one thing in favor of another, but that it was possible to have both. I also learned how to adjust and adapt with change, how to deal with the fear that comes right before taking the plunge, and finding out it wasn’t really as bad as I thought it would be.

I guess a lot of those lessons have carried over in my life. I’ve changed jobs, businesses, friends, religions and life philosophies. How I dealt with those has been shaped, for the most part, by my early life experiences.

Which is why I now come back to the point I started with — that answering the question “Who am I?” is perhaps the most important question of our lives, and we ought to get started with it as early in life as possible. Many kids don’t get to grapple with that question. They are too burdened with schoolwork and meeting parents’ expectations.

To grapple with that question, they need a lot of space, a lot of time, and meaningful conversation with others in more or less the same phase of life.

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

Finding Yourself (Part 1)

Who am I?

It seems so basic a question, until you begin answering it. You could start with your name, age and gender, but surely you are more than these. You could tell us who your parents are, what your family is like, where you live, but again, you are more than just these.

So you go deeper and look at your interests, your motivations, your beliefs, your passions, and still, you are more than these.

This is a question people ask, whether consciously or unconsciously, until the day they die.

As I grow older, I believe more and more that a healthy self-identity is fundamental to finding joy and meaning in life.

In my family, I was the youngest of  4 children, and I had huge age gap with my siblings – 9 years to the one next to me, and more with the others. That meant that when my oldest sister went off to college, I was still 5 years old, running around the garden with a runny nose.

My siblings would say I was lucky because I lived a more comfortable life than they did — they had more responsibilities growing up as they had to report to work on Saturdays to help my dad grow the family business. The situation was more stable when I came along so I did not really have to do that (though my dad still hauled me off to the office, but I could just sit in a corner and draw or go play with imaginary friends in the warehouse).

But I think that affected how I saw myself. I was always a shy, quiet kid in school. I had a huge stuttering problem when speaking before a group and I always hated the first day of class when teachers would make us introduce ourselves because I would feel like a total idiot when I struggled just to say my own name.

I rarely had a strong opinion on things, content to just let others argue and fight over this and that. Perhaps because that’s how it is when you’re a child in a house filled with grown-ups. What you think doesn’t really matter.

A huge step in the development of my self-identity took place when I was in high school. I was fortunate to become best friends with a fellow ping-pong player, Ritchie, who connected me to a larger group of friends and I became one of the barkada. The healthy thing about our barkada was that it was a healthy mix of boys and girls where most would be all-boys or all-girls.

That helped me a lot because I was always shy around girls and could never carry a conversation with them. Having girls who were friends boosted my confidence in more ways I could imagine. Of course, this is all in hindsight as I couldn’t see it this clearly back then.

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