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Monday, November 21, 2005

The School of Tomorrow: Part 1 - Problem or Paradox

[This post is part of a series that, together, forms my response to the School of Tomorrow conference being held Nov 30 to Dec 2, in Pakistan, this year.]

Learning, as I understand it, is a spontaneous and on-going phenomenon that lasts through life. By that definition, Education is its very opposite: It is neither spontaneous, nor does it assume itself to be an continuous or on-going process. In fact, it places milestones that define when a person is ‘educated enough’ to perform certain tasks or to be certified as possessing a certain degree of knowledge. Education is also, increasingly, an amalgam of (among other things) indoctrination and vocational training. Talking to academics over years, one cannot help but notice phrases from Business and Industry creeping in with speed: Students are referred to as Products … to be delivered to Industry, the End User ... ! The Education Market is said to be very competitive!

Educators have begun to use terms that, until a few years ago, would have been considered downright insulting by a true Taalibé Ilm (or Seeker of Knowledge). ‘Travel to China to seek Knowledge’ seems to have been replaced, in the minds of educational institutions, by ‘Travel to the USA to seek jobs.’

Following the above line of reasoning, it is only natural that I would consider it impossible for "The School" — an institution, designed for the very purpose of serving and furthering Education — to alter its character to that of a Learning Evironment, without rebelling against its own raison detre.

Admittedly, from time to time, the school system has made concessions to ideas that feed the irrepressible human desire and impulse to learn. But such concessions have been quickly followed by labeling those ideas as a sort of sub-class (Montessori Schools, for example). Later, when societal pressures, commercial aspects (not to forget advantages) necessitate it, these ideas are subsumed by the system ... and then destroyed, by being reshaped into just another bland, mainstream process! The most recent example of this is the delightful world of computers in learning, as envisaged by Seymour Papert and others. It only became acceptable after had been turned into boring subject, taught in classrooms where students are made to chant Excel Commands in unison and tested on their remembering the exact year Charles Babbage was born.

But that’s a whole different debate … and a very touchy one.

The matter being addressed at the coming BSS-sponsored conference is The School of Tomorrow. Most discussion and conversation (but certainly not all, considering a few of the speakers invited) is expected to centre around how to improve the school system. I must state at the very outset that I don’t think such a thing is really possible, even if it were desirable.

A friend, who also supports and helps run a chain of schools under an NGO, expressed a view that I encounter very often in response to my criticism of school systems. “The school,” he said, “is the only place we’ve got for learning, so why knock it? Do something constructive: Help us tweak and fine-tune them and put them right.” My response to him came only weeks later, when he wanted to ‘computerize’ his garment factory: I sent him my broken down and battered (once-trusty) Commodore-64 computer from the 1970s, to "tweak and fine-tune" for his purpose!

Sorry, friends; but that’s how broken I think this system is!

So … is there an alternative, as another friend asked just today? An alternative? The use of the singular struck me as particularly strange, when the one-size-fits-all approach by schools is one of its major drawbacks. There are many solutions. Some are being tried out; others researched upon. After all, replacing an on-going system, which has entrenched itself into society slowly, cannot (should not!) be replaced overnight. But the thinking to do so needs to be put in place. NOW!

That the School System is failing is apparent by the hot topic 'School Reform' has become, from Pakistan to the shores of its current Ideological Twin (No points for guessing who that is!) ... A solution to such a vast problem requires more than a discussion among those who helped get us to this stage without heeding the obvious signs along the way. A much larger public discourse and debate would be ideal. But, for it to be meaningful, the public would have to understand the problem and the nature of the questions being asked. The media could play a great role in this. We will have to re-identify and spell out the aims of education, consider the ways in which schools are unable to meet those needs, and structure the next system accordingly, if that is what can help.

This process will need to be invoked time and again over the coming years. Revolutions are incomplete and pointless if counter-revolutions are suppressed. To stay relevant, all systems beg the classic feedback loop approach. We would do well to remember that the school system does not exist by Divine Edict. Our allegiance needs to be to our children, not to an archaic idea that, however wonderful in its time, is now just short of useless when it comes to helping them with their future.

However, given that the replacement of schools is not happening any time soon, and while the debate for and against the system and its alternatives progresses, let us also ponder over the scenarios and problems. My own views on some of the forces that Education will need to reckon with will be part of the next 2 posts.

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