The Basics (Part 1)

What if tomorrow, there was a law that would require all adults to enroll in a special school that would teach you the basic skills in surviving today’s world? You would need to go to this school from Monday to Friday for half a day every day and take some classes.

From 7:30 to 8:30, you would study Social Media (What? You don’t have a Facebook account? That’s unacceptable in today’s world). Then from 8:30 to 9:30, you’d have classes on Using Email. Then there would be a 30-minute break, then from 10:00 to 11:00, it would be time for Using Smart Devices – Smartphones, Smart TV’s, Refrigerators, etc. Then from 11:00 to 12:00, you can choose from several electives such as Operating a Drone, or How to Take Better Selfies, or Basic Wifi Troubleshooting.

You would need to take these courses daily for the next 10 months, and there would be required coursework like seatwork, quizzes, projects and exams and if you pass all of them, you would get a diploma stating that you are now 21st Century literate and fit to work in most job environments. Most companies would be giving job priorities to those adults possessing these diplomas.

For those of you who think this is fun, think again. This is 10 months of your life and it is compulsory. It doesn’t matter if you already think you know these things. You need to have a piece of paper that certifies you.

Some of you may be thinking, “This is ridiculous. 10 months studying how to email? I can do that in a couple of hours.” But the experts would reply, “But we would be teaching you more than just how to send and receive messages. We’ll break down the SMTP Protocol, teach you how to read email headers, how to recognize spam and phishing attempts, then how to setup your own mail server and so on.”

Then you might think, “But that’s crazy, I don’t need to learn all that. I’ve been emailing for the past 10 years and I’ve been running my business that way and it’s fine.”

“Oh no,” they will tell you. “The experts have determined that these are essential skills for you to learn. You simply need to go through them because you might need them someday in the future.”

If you think it is a crazy idea to force adults to take classes that other people have deemed is important and essential for them to learn in order to survive and properly function in today’s society, then think about what we are doing to our kids.

We let them sit through 12 years of “basic” education (more if you count preschool), with no regard for their interest nor even their skill level in a particular subject. A student who finds math easy has to sit through an hour listening to a lesson he already understands, while a student who is struggling with it has to sit through the same hour trying hard to catch up.

A 10-year old who wants to be a professional dancer has to go through 12 years of sitting through different subjects of little or passing interest before they can really pursue what they want. They’re told that these subjects are “important” and “fundamental” and they need to learn these in order to function properly in the world they will enter as adults.

There is something very wrong with this.


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Teaching Too Much

One of the fundamental problems of education is that we teach too much.

Too much? The powers-that-be don’t seem to think so. They constantly think of ways to heap more and more material on students. We used to have 10 years of “basic” education. Now we have 12. We have more subjects, more things to memorize, more seatwork, more homework, more projects, and more problems.

Look at today’s teenagers. A lot of them are tired, stressed and bored out of their wits with school — even those who do well at school. Look at today’s college graduates. A lot of them do not know what to do with their lives. This is the time when they’re finally out and ready to go “apply” what they have learned and work and be “productive” citizens. But what is it they really want to do?

A friend of mine recently asked her niece, “Ok, you just graduated, now what do you want to do?”

“Sleep,” was the girl’s tired reply.

It is not an uncommon answer, as most of you who have talked to young graduates would probably know. Other similar answers are, “I want to take a break,” or “I want to find myself.”

Do you know why?

Because, as I’ve said, we bombard these kids with too much. We force so much material upon them hoping some will stick and be useful for them but the reality is that they will not use probably 90% of whatever it is they “learned” in school.

Think about it, you who have finished school, who are in your 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and so on. Have you ever had any use of knowing the difference between monocotyledon and dicotyledon plants? If you have not gone to medical school, have you ever had to dissect frogs and name each of its organs? Have you ever had to solve a real-life problem using logarithmic functions? Have you ever had to balance chemical equations? Did you lose your job because you didn’t know the difference between pandiwa and pang-abay (which I confess I have long kicked out of my memory) or who that damned crazy woman in Noli Me Tangere was? Do you still remember what prepositional phrases are and how they differ from gerund phrases? Do you know where Portugal is on the map, and what is its capital?

Yet, these are just some of the “basics” that the so-called educational experts have deemed are important, essential and crucial for us to learn in order to succeed in life. I would wager that you could bring any “expert” here and ask them 100 random questions from the entire K-12 curriculum and even they won’t be able to correctly answer half of those.

Here is the heart of the problem. We teach our children too much trivialities. We teach them too little about finding themselves and forging their own paths.

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The Eating Machine

There is a scene from the 1936 Charlie Chaplin film, Modern Times, called The Eating Machine.

In this 4-minute scene, Chaplin, who plays a factory worker, is chosen to demonstrate a contraption designed to automate eating. He is made to stand before the machine, then is strapped so that he can’t move his hands, and before him is a turntable with food.

At first, the machine works well. A small platform underneath the bowl of soup moves it up to his mouth level, then tilts automatically for him to sip the soup. Then the turntable moves around and a plate with bits of food is again raised to his mouth. Then a lever pushes the food into his mouth. Next comes a machine with corn on the cob that automatically moves from left to right, and turns the corn as he eats it.

Chaplin seems to be enjoying this very much as he pretty much doesn’t have to do anything except open his mouth to receive and chew the food. Then things begin to go wrong with the machine. The corn feeder doesn’t stop moving and turning and keeps rolling over his mouth even when he is done eating. The mechanics scramble to fix and reset the machine. They try again and this time, the soup gets spilled down Chaplin’s chest or gets thrown in his face. Another plate smacks pie on his face and another device bangs onto his lips.

Those who enjoy slapstick will probably laugh at this short clip, but I was actually sad as I watched it because it shows a lot that is wrong with our educational system. Kids sit helpless as adults decide what subjects they ought to learn. They force feed the material and keep heaping it on them even if they can no longer take it. The system itself is broken as there are many teachers who are incompetent, who abuse their authority, or pass arbitrary judgements on their students.

I just had a conversation with a friend, John, who talked about an incident he had with his chemistry teacher. He got into a heated argument with the teacher about a statement that she had made until the teacher finally told him to shut up because he was wrong. Later in the term, the teacher corrected that statement. One of John’s classmates then blurted out, “So ma’am, John was right after all.” As a result of that, John got the lowest grade possible for that class.

Talk about throwing a bowl of soup in one’s face…

Children have boundless energy, persistence and creativity. But we force them through the Eating Machine we call the educational system. That system tells them what is “important” for them to learn and tells them to “prioritize” those things first over other things that might interest them more, like maybe drawing, or fishing, or playing computer games. After around 20 years of their lives in this system, only the toughest ones will emerge with that energy and creativity still intact, but most will have been eaten by the Eating Machine.

Is it any wonder then, why we have so many “graduates” today who lack initiative, creativity and direction? You only have to look at the system that produces them and wonder no more.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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My Love-Hate Relationship with Math (Part 4)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Later on, I would teach math in high school (I would also teach English, but that is another story).

I guess my love-hate relationship with math helped me in relating with my students’ difficulties. I spent a lot of time on the basics, often reviewing lessons supposedly mastered in elementary, which was often not the case, except for a handful of students. I remembered my own difficulties in high school and I knew that were it not for a lucky circumstance that unlocked my understanding, I would probably be in the same boat with them.

So my goal was always to make my students understand, never mind if I was behind the prescribed curriculum. I thought a lot of it was trash anyway, unnecessary and inapplicable for high school students. I mean, seriously, let’s be honest and realistic. Who uses logarithms or proves trigonometric identities in real life?

What use was it trying to teach them how to factor the difference of two squares when they could barely add or subtract fractions? How could I discuss the Pythagorean theorem and its applications when they did not even know the difference between a square root and a cube root?

After one of my exams, a student reported to me that their elementary teacher was the proctor and he looked at my exam and exclaimed, “Why is your exam like this? I already taught you these things before!” If he had said that to my face I would have replied, “Well, had you done a better job, I wouldn’t have had to reteach all this, would I?”

I also hated memorizing stuff. I just didn’t see the point. You don’t go around in real life with everything memorized. There’s no rule against looking up references. So I had a policy that all my quizzes and exams were open-notes and books. I didn’t think it was valid for students to fail just because they forgot some part of a formula. I wanted them to analyze and think for themselves, not spend precious time memorizing. Besides, even the great Albert Einstein was once said to have looked up his own phone number in the directory, saying, “I don’t unnecessarily fill my head with things that I can always look up.”

Of course, if you waited until the exam before you opened your notes and tried to figure things out, you weren’t likely to pass either because you wouldn’t have enough time, and I always reminded them of that.

I would skip lessons that (in my view) were too esoteric, saying, “Ah most of you won’t even get to touch this in college and more so in real life. Let’s just focus on mastering the basics.”

And yes, I get that question a lot. “Why do I need to study this? Will I really use all this algebra in my life?”

To which I reply, “Well, yes, I actually use algebra in my life.”

“For what?” they’ll ask.

“Well, to teach algebra,” I would reply with a wink.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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My Love-Hate Relationship with Math (Part 3)

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Part 1 | Part 2

From that moment on, I came to love Math and everything about it seemed easy. I wondered why I was having such a hard time before when it all seemed so simple now.

Then came Junior year and Geometry which was a whole different animal. We had a teacher who wasn’t connecting with a lot of us. Fortunately, one of my best friends from my elementary years, Anthony, came back from a high school in Manila, and had already taken Geometry in his sophomore year.

So after he had explained the basic concepts of proving to me (which at first I found as puzzling as problem-solving), everything became easy. We would solve problems at the end of the chapter and compare notes with each other, while the teacher was still explaining the lesson. If both of us got it right, we could relax and do some other stuff like read a pocketbook or doodle. If one of us was wrong, we would exchange solutions and each would try to see who was wrong.

This tag team with Anthony would later be joined by Eric, my other best friend from elementary, and the trio was complete once more. We would go on to our senior year doing this with physics and trigonometry, and it didn’t really matter who our teacher was though some of my classmates found it difficult to connect with them, but our informal peer tutoring and competition made us zoom ahead of the lesson by leaps and bounds.

In fact, we weren’t paying attention one time and chatting with each other a little too loudly so our math teacher got really mad at us, called us a bunch of “smart alecks” and walked out of the class. We were silent for a few a seconds as he stormed out of the room. Someone at the back who probably also wasn’t paying too much attention asked in a bewildered voice, “Who’s Alex?” and the class erupted in laughter.

I spent most of my high school in sheer enjoyment of math, but college was another matter. I walked into my freshman pre-calculus class oozing with confidence. I listened to the first lecture and found out that pre-calculus was just a review of algebra so I relaxed and sat back and didn’t take any notes. I could follow the lectures and examples in my mind.

Then came our first exam and I stared at the paper and wondered where the problems came from because they looked alien. I struggled to solve them but they seemed ten times as difficult as the lectures and examples. I barely passed that exam with a grade of D which in my mind stood for “deflated” as in it deflated my ego and I went back to diligently taking notes every class.

I guess it’s different when you have Ph.D. level professors. I went through calculus, linear algebra, graph theory and so on. But I couldn’t find my old groove. I didn’t have classmates or peers that I could have that sort of friendly competition and  camaraderie I had with Anthony and Eric in high school.

So I went back to being an average math student.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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