The Problem with Education (Part 4)

“But, Andy, you went through school and you came out all right.”

I hear this often when I talk about the problems of our educational system. My answer to it is, well a lot of us came out “all right” depending on what you think that means. But I think that is a product of our lifelong learning journey and interacting with people out of school and meeting reality head on. Many people turn out “all right” despite having gone through school, not because of it.

School robs us of a precious time in our life where, instead of going through the process of finding out who we are and what we are passionate about and what we are capable of, we are made to sit still, be quiet, and copy notes, and do drills on things that do not interest us (and still don’t up to this day).

Much of school is a waste of time.

Dr. Kirsten Olson, president of the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), recently released a book entitled Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture.

She started writing her book with the idea of recounting joyful experiences in school of accomplished individuals but when she started interviewing them, she encountered more pain than joy. People told stories of hurt and disappointment that still lingered and affected their present lives. It was so prevalent that it became the new direction for her book.

In a nutshell, she lists seven ways that schools wound us:

  1. Wounds of Creativity – students are not free to pursue their own passions and interests. In fact they are often told to suppress them in favor of more “important” things like Science and Math.
  2. Wounds of Compliance – students are forced to follow rules, do homework and projects, and are tested on things that make no sense to them, in terms of their own learning needs and inclinations.
  3. Wounds of Rebellion – instead of complying, some students rebel against the meaninglessness of the system. This hurts others and even the students themselves when carried too far, especially when it leads to drug addiction, alcoholism, bully-ish behavior, and so on. Students with this wound are often very angry at others, especially authority figures, and even at themselves.
  4. Wounds of Numbness – the daily, robotic routine of doing tasks that do not interest them makes students to simply stop caring. They become zoned out, uninterested and unenthusiastic about anything.
  5. Wounds of Underestimation – no matter how teachers tell you they are objective and non-judgmental, the opposite is always true. You only have to drop by the faculty room and eavesdrop about them talking about their students. This is not because they are evil but because they are human. But these judgments carry a heavy price, and they are often communicated to students subconsciously, unintentionally and non-verbally.
  6. Wounds of Perfectionism – Students who are consistently high achievers become too hard on themselves. We laugh at stories of high achievers who are sad when they get a 98 instead of a 99, but these are true stories and they are actually tragic. Students who are like this find it very hard to recover when they encounter failure (of which life has plenty to offer).
  7. Wounds of the Average – This is where most students feel they are. They are neither outstanding nor notorious. They do not have interesting stories to tell during reunions. Their teachers, and perhaps some classmates,  don’t even remember them. They feel insignificant, even in life.

Yes, a lot of people recover from these wounds and come out “all right” but wouldn’t it be better if they did not have to be wounded in the first place? Wouldn’t it be better if their own interests and passions were nurtured and they go through life’s trials naturally instead of this artificial, forced curriculum, grading systems and standardized tests?

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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The Problem with Education (Part 3)

I was at an event of a certain school where there were parents and other guests around. There were kids arranged in different “stations” in their classrooms. They were behind a small desk and there were a couple of chairs where you could sit in front of them. On the desk was an exhibit and a label about that exhibit.

Once you sat on a station, the student would automatically extend his hand and say, “Good morning parent. I will now show you X” where X would be whatever they were supposed to demonstrate.

There was this boy who said he would explain the difference between two types of leaves, parallel and some other name I forgot. But he showed me one that looked like a giant blade of grass where the veins were all parallel, and another leaf that was more rounded and had veins going all over with no particular direction. After his explanation, I asked him if he knew what the word “parallel”meant and he shook his head. So I explained to him a bit what it was and pointed to other patterns around the room asking him if this or that was parallel or not, until he got it.

Then there was this girl who said she would show me how to add a series of large numbers. She had a paper with small boxes grouped into place values for ten thousands, thousands, hundreds, tens and ones. And she showed me the numbers she was going to add, and for each number, she would fill the place values with x’s, then start counting them.

It was quite a long and tedious process. I watched as she filled boxes, then drew a line across them when a row of 10 was filled, and so on, and I asked, “Do you know why you’re doing that?” She looked at me and shook her head, so I again explained it a bit but I wasn’t sure if she understood or just said she did, and then proceeded with the box-filling and counting until she got her answer.

I smiled at her and said, “Do you know how to use a calculator?” She shook her head. “Do you want me to teach you? It’s a bit faster, you know.” She just looked at me with a bewildered expression, perhaps inwardly hoping this guy would go away and stop bothering her because she was done with her presentation and there was no script to follow anymore.

I left that school quite disturbed because this was supposed to be a non-traditional school yet it engaged in the same sort of theatrics to show parents that the kids know their stuff — only they didn’t, and that is not their fault because the kids were obviously assigned certain topics to talk about, and had certain scripts to memorize and follow, never mind that they didn’t fully understand or were interested in them.

The sad part was that the parents seemed to love the stuff, but then again I cannot blame them as well as this is what they grew up thinking education was all about. That, to me, is the greater danger — that we have been so acclimated to the malpractices of the system that we ourselves encourage and perpetuate it. As I have said before, it is very difficult for those who have lived inside a box to think outside of it.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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The Problem with Education (Part 2)

Many parents today lament the fact that kids spend a lot of time playing video games, particularly in worlds of fantasy, zombies, futuristic settings, or make-believe cities. They fail to see that they willingly pay and send their kids daily to an institution that immerses them in a fantasy world that is far from reality — and that is school.

Where, in today’s adult reality, are people batched together by age, and asked to perform a certain task, then at the sound of the bell, they are to stop that task and start on an entirely different one altogether, and they have entirely no choice in the work to be done or the subject matter to be discussed? Adults at least, can resign from jobs they deem too preposterous or unfit for them. But can students resign from biology or history if they think it has nothing to do with their future plans? Or if they cannot understand the teacher or think that he is incompetent?

No, they have to suppress their feelings of disdain and waste a year (or even years) of their lives studying something in which they totally have no interest. The sad thing is, when they fail and don’t do well, they are shamed and labeled as “slow.” Their parents are called to school (and oh how parents hate it when this happens, and sometimes take it out on the child later).

Schools place a lot of emphasis on rewarding compliance, on recognizing students who do well in exams. The real world, however, rewards those who can actually perform. I once interviewed a candidate for computer technician for our company. He had what one might call an impressive resume. He had high grades in his transcript, and added to that, he had numerous certificates from different seminars and trainings he attended.

His first task for the interview was to turn on a computer that I had intentionally rigged to malfunction. I had loosened or removed some parts and I wanted to know if he could figure out what was wrong. He spent a whole hour trying to make the computer work, to no avail. He didn’t get the job.

The one who got the job didn’t have as impressive a resume but got the computer working in under 10 minutes.

Schools make a lot of fuss over their students who win over students of other schools in spelling bee or math contests. In reality, however, who really cares if you can spell “eudaemonic” or multiply two 3-digit numbers in your head?

Our math teachers used to tell us that we should learn how to add, subtract, multiply and divide by hand or in our heads because we won’t always have a calculator. Well, it’s now 2019 and for a few years already, we have been carrying a cellphone that has a calculator app (and more). In fact, you don’t even have to type in the numbers anymore, you can just ask verbally Google or Siri to add or multiply some numbers for you and listen to the answer.

Welcome to reality.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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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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