Challenges facing our Education system- Are we shortchanging our future generations?
The way we are teaching our children today raises many concerns . It is as someone remarked “Students of today, attending schools of yesterday, being taught by teachers from the past, preparing them for the future”.
The reason for this is that even though we are in the twenty first century our school system is still following the industrial age assembly line model.
So, what is the problem? At a very basic level, the system teaches children to ‘fit’ into the world rather than to command or lead it. As a result, we are creating mere followers rather than thinkers and innovators. Apart from this, the system assumes that all children learn at a uniform speed. This results in the children being labeled as either smart or not so smart; those who cannot move at a predetermined speed thus either fall off or struggle to keep pace which impacts their self -esteem.
The past few decades have seen some ground breaking research which shows that children have different learning styles but educators are caught between the demands of a standardised curriculum and a huge class size they have to deal with. So the teacher either gives up or gets burnt out and the students either get cast aside or are labelled ‘learning disabled’ or are forced to learn in ways that significantly compromise on their learning potential. The one size fits all accounts for many student’s motivation for learning dipping as they start schooling. This is tragic because we forget that all human beings are born with unique gifts and the healthy functioning of any community depends on its capacity to develop such gifts.
How many of us think or have learnt that we cannot sing, dance or paint because we were not good enough and were asked by a teacher to not sing or only lip sync. A child who gets a C or D in Maths concludes that not only are his answers wrong but he is wrong and he does not have what it takes to succeed because a system that stresses on conformity outcasts those who do not conform or meet the expected standard. Ed Joyner, director of the Comer Project at Yale, calls this ‘the deficient perspective of learning’ where both parents and educators feel that the responsibility of the school is to make up for the innate failings in a student.
Secondly, it is presumed that learning takes place in the head and not the whole body. Traditional schooling assumes that learning is purely an intellectual affair and therefore it is passive rather than active where the learner receives knowledge. Similarly, the assumption that learning takes place in the classroom. There could not be a bigger fallacy than this. The fact is that our capacity to learn in any formal setting depends to a large extent on the opportunity to apply new ideas or insights in a meaningful way and relevant way. Most educators forget that learning takes place outside the classroom and perhaps in a more meaningful way. What children can learn about conflict, fair play or problem solving on a sports field or on a field trip may be much more effective if they had a discussion about it in class.
The next issue is the teacher centered assessment process which is the very antithesis of lifelong learning that one is aiming for as in this case the children tend to learn to get validation from their teachers. Later too as adults, these children grow up into individuals who spend all their energy in seeking external validation or blaming their circumstances rather than taking ownership for their own learning. With standardized test scores as a test of educational productivity we are once again underscoring the importance of teachers and schools as being solely responsible for education and learning and are majorly responsible for the tuition and coaching culture that is rampant today.
In addition, knowledge is invariably fragmented in school where we have literature and language taught in isolation from math and science overlooking the fact that in life one seldom encounters a problem which is a purely a ‘math problem’. Thus, the more a child progresses in formal education, the narrower his knowledge becomes. Moreover, school curriculums often communicate what happened in history but never told that it is the accepted story of what happened and there can be more perspectives to it. As a result, students learn sanitized politically correct bits of information which has the danger of them being disoriented and far removed from reality and therefore not able to deal with complex real- life issues.
In a traditional classroom, students are encouraged to master a subject and compete against the others in a never- ending struggle to win or avoid losing. This affects our behaviour for a lifetime and is the reason why smart people don’t learn in many work settings as they have to prove what they know and avoid being seen as not knowing. To add to all, this today there is and added stress on students, teachers and parents as we no longer have the traditional Indian family set up: a joint family. The norm in urban areas has been one parent working, and the other raising the children. This has been mostly replaced by either both parents working or children being raised by single parents. As a result, schools now have to take on more of a child care role and the focus has shifted from children’s academic performance to easing parent’s stress.
Moreover, the school’s monopoly on provision of information has been eliminated as we stand at the threshold of a new era of education. Media technologies such as computers, video games and internet provide fun ways of learning which are learner controlled. With changed family structure these exert a very strong influence on young minds. Let’s face it today the world is no longer looking for industrial workers and we need to prepare our students not for today but the world of tomorrow where employers will place even greater value on critical thinking, listening and communication skills, problem solving and conflict resolution, collaboration and team building and so on. What is our understanding of 21 century education and how is it different from say the education in the previous centuries?
One can safely say that this is a transitional period for education. With technology advancing at an unbelievable pace today information is available at the click of a mouse therefore one needs to relook at the way educators need to prepare their students. In a progressive era where the focus has shifted from compulsory schooling to education for life one needs to consider experiences like apprenticeships, internships, research and project based learning which makes the learning experience more relevant and meaningful and putting children back into the focus by offering them more choices and multiple paths of success. Are the skills that students need in 21 Century new? Not really. Critical thinking and problem solving have been part of the human progress, be it in development of early tools, invention of vaccines etc. Skills such as information literacy and global awareness are not new either. Neither is the need for mastery of knowledge. What is new is the extent to which individual success depends on these skills today.
Managing Expectations – the way forward
Schools today need to be more deliberate about teaching problem solving and critical thinking. So what will it take to ensure that our students are equipped with these skills? The effort requires a multi – pronged approach.
First and foremost, we need to ensure that our instruction program is complete and content is not shortchanged for skills. Both content and skills are important, and undue emphasis on one at the cost of the other can be counterproductive. Secondly, the focus needs to be redirected on teacher hiring and training. We need to attract and hire the right candidates if we expect them to be people who can inspire and impact our future generations. Today, our teachers do not have the necessary skill sets to deal with the demands placed on them on a daily basis. Teachers need to have a growth mindset and the need to be equipped with twenty first century skills like problem solving, critical thinking, research before we can expect them to do justice to their role. They need support in the form of resources, guidance and mentorship. They need constructive feedback and programs to help them grow as professionals who are reflective practitioners.
An engaging and viable curriculum
People often talk about knowledge and skills as separate. Skills are described more as function. However both these are intertwined. Knowledge more often than not helps to recognize the underlying structure of a programme. Similarly, we may have a thinking skill but domain knowledge is necessary to apply it. A word of caution here. The importance of content in the development of thinking skills needs to be considered very carefully as we must not emphasize advanced conceptual skills too early. A greater challenge as educators is that we do not know how to teach self direction, collaboration, creativity etc., say as we can teach addition or subtraction. For example we often lament the fact that we do not have students opting for research or do not know how to write articles after doing research but when do we teach these at school? Therefore as educationists we need to find realistic strategies for teaching these skills along with the knowledge as part of the curriculum.
Better Teacher Training and support
As said by Gordon Brown, ‘A teacher needs to be prophet because you are trying to prepare students for a world thirty or fifty years into the future’. Honestly we expect a lot from our teachers without empowering them with the required skill set. A teacher’s inner resources – creativity, passion, training and capability no matter how formidable will not sustain themselves indefinitely. So in order to equip our students with aforesaid skills we need to focus on teacher training and capacity building of our teachers otherwise it’ll be the case of the blind leading the other. We need to teach our teachers to be designers of the learning environment where they can design classrooms where students can be lead regularly to a state of natural flow when you have been able to generate healthy discussion, reflection and inquiry and have managed to improve the quality of thinking making the class more powerful.
We need new assessments that can accurately measure the richer learning and more complex tasks There is no point in investing heavily in curriculum and human resource without also investing in instruments which accurately evaluate the same, and are reliable.
With the kind of learning environment, we are envisaging there needs to be restructuring of resources. By scheduling time and space for teachers to meet and discuss, using team teaching and interdisciplinary projects that help in sustained communication towards shared goals, can all help in providing opportunities for learning and also maximize resources.
Redesigning and restructuring the classrooms away from the traditional setting into a more democratic setting is conducive to learning and should be encouraged. Using environment as a third teacher, Improved classroom support and resources, technology enhancement, sharing and pooling resources are some ways through which the school leadership can play an important role.
Schooling- an Ethical Endeavor
Schools need to look beyond providing functional literacy for people to be productive and dependable while not becoming troublesome or in other words being a good follower and instead look at providing literacy that leads to position of power and authority ( Peter Senge) creating agents of change who are capable of generating new knowledge and are not afraid to question and take risks and are ready to take their place under the sun.
Moreover, Schools need to be guided by principles of justice, fairness, liberty, honesty and a healthy respect for differences. How do teachers divide their time among the students in a class, whom do we acknowledge and ignore, what issues do we choose to emphasize and overlook are all ethical considerations that need to be looked at by every educator.( Peter Senge)
To conclude, what is needed are learning classrooms where educational processes are learner centered rather than teacher centered, where variety and diversity is encouraged, and where focus is on understanding and appreciating a world of interdependency and change rather than memorizing facts and looking for the right answers. It is imperative to create an education system which is a living growing eco system, that keeps evolving.
1. Mary Beth Hertz. The problems with 21st Century Education. www.smartblogs.com/ education/2012/07/09/the – problem – 21st century – education/ aceessed 15 Sept 2013
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