Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Eat, sleep, work, plan

The big planning pow-wow for this year has yielded a new direction for the industry to take: make learning relevant to the lives of the students. Take their interests -- whether in music; astronomy; robotics; theatre; or whatever -- and use their interests to make their lessons come alive for them.

Sounds good in theory, but I can imagine my kids moaning in disbelief. 'You want us to pass ace our exams AND develop an interest in something TOO?' It seems the kids can barely keep up with their meals and exercise and sleep already, what with the different subject demands of preparation, revision, practice, rinse, repeat, ad infinitum. Ask them what their interests are and they stare blankly back, wondering what the politically correct answer should be. Then hesitantly... sleep? Eat? Sigh. Those aren't interests, they're bodily functions.

The end-of-year exam and the build-up to it is taking every shred of energy from the kids so they have none left to develop a sense of self beyond believing they are mere cogs in a machine that will continue grinding them down until they have reached the end of their usefulness... and we don't want to contemplate what happens to them after that. Their objective is to delay that eventuality for as long as possible. Every step up the academic ladder, every promotion they receive indicates that they are still useful, and that's what they live for. To feel that they have to deserve to exist can be quite demoralizing in the long run.

And we wonder why they seem so dense and naive; colourless and listless; and quite unwilling to think for themselves. Life isn't learned through rote, which is what is taking up so much of the kids' time and energy, life is learned by living it which, if we look at their daily schedules, many of them are not. There also seems to be a lot of guilt when they do admit to having one interest or another; almost apologetic as if confessing to grand theft tempus when they feel they should be keeping nose to grindstone instead.

Frankly, I don't blame the kids. What we have is a systemic problem perpetuated by ever-increasing academic success rates which keeps kids and their parents, and us in the industry as well focused on improving year after year. Our system encourages the study-now-develop-interests-later approach to academic qualification, so now the industry bosses have decided based on public feedback that it's time to reflect once again on what we are doing and why we are doing it.

Well, we aren't supposed to be preparing the kids for the end-of-year exam. We are supposed to be preparing them for what comes AFTER the end-of-year exam. We're not supposed to be manufacturing cogs in a machine but people who have a sense of self-worth and who see the value in working together so that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. We're not making kids study subjects to pass exams, we're teaching them to understand life's little mysteries by supporting that understanding with subject knowledge that guides them to figure out answers to their questions about life and how they perceive it.

The exams don't have to change, though. What does need to change is how we appreciate their functionality. Exam questions don't ask 'what do you know?' Why we spend so much time on endless meaningless content drills is because we automatically assume that regardless of the question, it's always about the 'what?' Exam questions really ask 'given your knowledge about such and such, what would you do with that knowledge given new condition and context?' So, exam questions are mostly about applying subject knowledge to life experience. And the kids sweat bullets to answer that question because they haven't got much life experience to go on.

The industry's new direction is hardly new. It is a reminder to compare our roadmap with the terrain again and check if our current course is taking us where we really want to go. For us in the JC system, there doesn't seem to be any specific directive for us to do anything right now, probably because it's too late for the next couple of cohorts. But if in the next few years we're expecting a breed of kids that have grown up in the new learning environment the bosses are envisioning, we'd better start moving in the same direction to align with everyone else at the right time.

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