Saturday, April 27, 2013

Getting into the flow with education

The current challenge for schools in staying relevant to our changing times is that instead of locking down information, they should free it up. It seems the memorization by rote thing isn't endemic to the Asian approach to education but a common malady, judging by the rising problems of student engagement and dropout rates everywhere in the world.

Old school functioned by parcelling information out in dribs and drabs according to a prescribed dosage based on the age of the recipient. It categorized information into subjects and topics and kept the disciplines apart from one another, each developing a unique jargon and "accepted" approach so as to discourage cross-contamination between their disparate spheres. It designed exams that rewarded those who accumulated and hoarded information, keeping it to themselves, while declaring those that didn't incompetent and unworthy. Has there ever been a more unnatural environment in which we expected learning to flourish?

Until today, school still generally functions along those lines with the packaging of pre-digested information in textbooks, reading kits, handouts and notes. We teach answers to questions, then test them on the same questions, and award As to those who best reproduce those same answers back to us. The kids themselves can't answer questions they don't already feel they know the answers to, so it's a vicious cycle. And because we spend most of our time 'spotting' questions that are 'most likely' to come out in the finals and teaching the kids to answer only from a specific range of 'safe' questions, we are bored, the kids are bored, and it sucks to be us.

What we have forgotten, or perhaps failed to observe, is that information is more like a stream or river than a block of ice. Schools freeze information and expect the kids to hold on to it. At the next level, the school rewards the kid with another ice cube and so on up the chain. But the kids' hands are hot and ice melts. It's such a frustration to hold on to melting ice with liquid water dripping all over the place, or it's just so cold, hands turn blue and freeze over themselves. Neither is a good outcome for a learning experience, but that's how we still do it.

But information is a stream or a river, constantly flowing, always bringing something interesting and new along with its current. A fish, a leaf, a branch, an insect... every one of us immersed in the river sees different things at different times, approaches and interprets the experience differently, and is enriched by just being where they are, in their spot in the river. And as we learn from our own immediate circle of reach, we're sharing our own experience with others, just as they are sharing theirs with us. So instead of trying to hoard the same frozen piece of water (which is physically impossible, anyway) in the hope of keeping it from others in order to just enrich ourselves, what we learn from sharing is a myriad different perspectives from different aspects of the same river we have immersed ourselves in. And that's a lot more learning than we ever can get from a lump of ice in our hands.

If we want more of our kids to aim for better (and more meaningful) grades, telling them to cut themselves off from the river and just focus on their set texts will be, as usual, counterproductive. They have to get comfortable navigating the currents in the river at this stage, because when they complete their undergraduate studies, that river would have turned into the ocean... and if they have been well-prepared before, they will marvel at the transition. Else, they'll just drown like so many others before them.

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