Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A revolution in the works

I learned a lot today.

It started with an email from Sui Noi early in the morning which directed me to a video clip of Sir Ken Robinson speaking on how schools stamp out creativity.

Schools are a form of organised education born in response to the demands of industrialisation about two centuries ago. And it has been so ever since - we cater to the demands of industry. Industry and jobs dictate which subjects are important. The education system tells us that Maths, languages are at the top of the food chain while other subjects like history or art or dance lie further down.

In our system in Singapore, I note that this is so too. We have four examinable subjects - English, Mother Tongue (Chinese or Malay or Tamil), Maths and Science - at primary school level. The rest are Art, PE, Music, Social Studies. But the latter group are like the poorer relations because they are seen to be 'extra', 'expendable' and not as important. So if extra time were needed for the major subjects, sometimes the lesson periods for something like art or music or PE would be sacrificed. In our system, there isn't much emphasis placed on learning something different, alternative. We focus on results, put up charts, tweak the system to for better outcomes for the majority.

In my response to my friend, I wrote that education has become corporatised. Mass education, schools in the way we know them today, are born out of industrialisation. But today, schools are industrialised. We are churning out drones which are pretty similar to each other. After the nth drone churned out, where is the value? So degrees today are not worth much, try harder to get a Masters. And when a masters becomes commonplace, try a PhD. But where will it end?

Meanwhile, what about the individual? What about the minority - those who learn differently, have different gifts and talents? What then? There are many stories, and Sir Robinson narrates one in his speech too, of people who do not fit the education model of the norm but who 'blossom' in a different way. But more often than not, these stories are celebrated as stories of triumph against the odds, success found after struggle etc. They are never seen as the norm where children are free to explore their interests, talents, to learn best in the way they learn and then to thrive with no labels and definitions from society. Why should this be so?

This is part of the email which I wrote to Sui Noi: "The idealist in me agrees wholeheartedly with Sir Robinson. But the pragmatist in me wonders how this revolution can ever take off when everything today has to be benchmarked, tested and then graded – particularly in a place like Singapore. Everything has to be quantified and children today are no different. I work in education (and Sir Robinson is right about me never being invited to dinner parties!) and I know that funding is pegged to headcounts – in terms of staffing, students etc. We answer to numbers. There is the issue of ‘accountability’. There are bottomlines in education – how many graduate, how many drop out etc. We try to be more ‘efficient’ and teach what we consider to be ‘useful’. When schools are busy applying for ISO certification, applying productivity and quality principles in terms of input (admissions) and output (graduation), education starts to take on a different spin. In short, education has been corporatized."

All very interesting because I posed the same question to Chern on AP. We were discussing the usefulness (or lack!) of standardised testing in schools. I said pretty much the same thing: I am all for the idea, but it would take one heck of a revolution in education to ever change mindsets to return to the individual development. State resources being finite, will never permit individualisation. Pragmatic, achievement-oriented societies that value material success and prestige and status, societies like Singapore and China etc, will never buy this. Never will they go without standardised testing - its their security blanket! For us, who live in a society where everything needs to be measured, recorded and accounted for, standards and benchmarks are what we cling to to assure ourselves of achievement.

I don't have answers and I certainly can't change the system - such a behemoth! I don't think I can see change like this in my lifetime! I can only do what I can for my own kids and work within the system. So like I always say, I am pragmatic.

Diametrically opposite of state and mass education, is homeschooling. And unschooling of course.

Writers like Joseph Chilton Pearce and John Holt have written about how children learn! They make a case for homeschooling, and even unschooling – a concept unfamiliar to me until I read Holt’s books. There is something to be said for allowing kids to find their way in what they want to learn, to take direction from the children themselves. With unschooling, there is no enforced curriculum – ie penmanship lessons, tablework with lots of worksheets, drills etc. Children express interest and natural curiosity in certain areas and the unschooling mothers follow up on those – incorporating mathematical concepts, word recognition etc in the exploration of these areas.

I have friends who practice homeschooling and unschooling. Some do so until the age of 7 and then they let the children enter the system. Others continue until the children reach teenhood. Interestingly enough, the children who were homeschooled/unschooled performed very well once they went to mainstream schools. I found this so even through my experience with Caitlin whom I tried a mish-mash of homeschooling and unschooling in the years before she entered K1. Today, she is performing very well in P1, showing an aptitude for mathematics, dance and gym. So I don’t know if a certain amount of child-led education, particularly in the formative years, rather than institution-led education, might be beneficial to children in the long run. Or perhaps free learning for everyone is the way to go.

Personally though, I am not confident and disciplined enough to homeschool. I was always feeling uncertain whenever I tried to work with Cait in those days. Some days worked, some days didn't. Like Trin's therapist told me the other day when I tried to explain my angst: "Don't try too hard. Even we therapists have bad days when we run out of the right things to say and ask and we resort to the cardinal sins which we have been told not to do! If the child can say the sound once, or maybe twice, that is good enough. Move on. Don't be self-conscious about it."

Hah! Easier said than done. I am VERY self-conscious about this. And always wonder if I am asking the right questions, doing more harm than good in the process. So yeah, I like the idea of homeschooling and unschooling. But I just don't think I'm the right person for the job!

One last point on children and learning.

While surfing the site, I came across another gem: Dr Sugata Mitra speaking and showing how children can teach themselves. The video blew me away because the message was so powerful! Do click on the link and watch the video. But if you can't, do visit the Hole-in-the-Wall Project site. Here's a quick summary:

It started in his office at Delhi. His office bordered an urban slum. What he did was to cut a hole in the wall of the fence and to put a PC monitor in the hole. He stuck a touch pad (like those found on laptops) next to it. On the other side, the CPU rested, linked to the internet. Then he waited to see what would happen.

A child, of about 8 years old, came along. He fiddled with the touchpad and 8 minutes later, discovered how to surf the net. He had taught himself how to do it. Later on, more and more kids came over and the lesson spread.

What Sugata Mitra found through this intriguing exercise, was that children could organise themselves and teach themselves. Didn't need a teacher. Just a group of kids, enough curiosity and they'd figure it out. Language was no barrier either. After a while, the kids picked up the common terms for computer usage eg 'download', 'file' or 'save'. This is exactly what Maria Montessori was talking about. Left to their own devices and their own natural curiosity, children can and will learn, and in the process derive a great deal of enjoyment.

Dr Sugata tried this experiment at remote villages across India, each time adjusting the computer and the 'booth' for the different temperature ranges etc of the Indian climate, and once, with the lack of connectivity, used CD-Roms instead of the internet. The results were the same. Kids who were illiterate, no formal schooling, no knowledge of English, learned how to navigate and work the computer. In one instance, when he came back several months later, the kids could even trouble-shoot, asking him for a 'better mouse', faster processor etc!

And in a clear demonstration of Montessori principles, the younger children were teaching the older kids! So unlike our schools where everyone goes into age-appropriate classes. Also an interesting point to note that girls were the ones largely found at the wall, exploring the PC.

Interestingly, Sugata Mitra also found that when the best technology was given to the best schools, they derived the least value from it. A school, he explained, already performing at 80% might get at best an additional 3% value from educational technology. But put the technology in a rural, remote area, to schools which lacked the resources, and you can see the value add shoot up significantly.

Let's hope MOE takes note - instead of giving autonomy and the best resources to the proven best, give to those schools who are lagging and lets see what those students make of it.

I found this comment from Dr Sugata, quite recently posted. He said: "Montessori, Vygotsky, Piaget - are geniuses who were far ahead of their times. I cannot even begin to compare my work with theirs. My work is simply a practical application of their ideas, in an age where information resources are at a stage that none of them could have ever imagined."


Now what do I do with my own kids??

1 comment:

brightsong said...

Interestingly, I recently posted my thoughts on how my son's preschool is, when my boy was made to change his ambition just because it is not (rather, not considered as) an occupation!

Would you mind if I tag this post onto my blog if I should be able to write something?