A school is not a conveyor belt
A number of times in recent past when I have tried to discuss, with children of my friends and across 8-16 age group, what they are studying in class, which subjects, what they like and do not, and how they are being taught, I have found some very disturbing patterns. Most of the children do not read beyond the curriculum, and even within that, and as early as grade 8 a lot of them depend on study guides and such help to make sense of their textbooks and rely too much on notes that they take from their teachers. There is a lot of dependence on rote learning as well. All of the above is true for even children going to elite schools. And there is too much dependence on spoon-feeding, from teachers, study guides as well as tuition centres or coaches.
The results of this are not too hard to predict. When I ask children to define something and it is a thing they have read about, they are very quick to regurgitate the definitions they have learnt. When I ask them to explain to me the definition in their own words, a lot of them start floundering. And when I ask them to give me examples of the object/phenomenon they are defining from around them and/or from their environment, most end up being extremely confused. But if they are not able to internalise what they are learning, link it to the environment they are living in and use what they are learning to make sense of the world around them, what exactly are they learning and what is the point of just parroting definitions?
When I went to college for my undergraduate degree, decades ago, the first month taught me a number of lessons: lessons that have helped a lot and ones that might be of help to parents and readers as well.
At the commencement dinner the Master of our college said ‘you are here to learn how to learn’. He went on to say that the purpose of early years of education, and up to and including undergraduate level, was not to give specialised knowledge and know-how to students. It was to give them basic tools/means of learning: how to read, understand, analyse, use critical reasoning and how to have confidence in your reading/writing/thinking and so on. It was only at the graduate level that specialisation should take hold.
Our undergraduate teaching was mostly through tutorial system where we were given a topic and a reading list at the start of the week and were required to produce an essay on the topic before the tutorial. The tutorial, usually one-on-one with the tutor or with just one or two other students, would be where we would read out our essay and argue our position while the tutor would tell us what he thought of our argument. It is a brilliant, if time intensive, method of teaching/learning. One of the first tutorials I had, in ethics, the tutor, after hearing my essay, said ‘yes, so you have told me what A, B, and C think and argue about the topic. But I want to know what you think about it’. I was stunned. Our schools had not emphasised that.
My tutor then went on to tell me a method for learning how to strengthen my thinking/input. He suggested that I should finish all readings for a topic a day or two in advance of when I was supposed to write the essay and use that last day or so to just think about all I had read and try to make sense of what all the authors were saying and then write what I thought about it, with support from the authors, but really focus on my own understanding of the issue. Over the last two decades I have found this method to be of tremendous help. I am sure it can be of use to others too.
Last but not the least, though our teachers gave long reading lists, with plenty of commentators mentioned as well, but the focus was always on primary and original sources. When working on Immanuel Kant, we had to focus on his writings primarily. What others had said about them came much later. When looking at political philosophy we had to read the originals, starting from the Greet greats. The logic was that you had to engage with the original sources yourself and make sense of them. Commentators could help, but that was subsidiary.
When I see children use study guides and notes from their teachers only, it makes me cringe. The idea is not to just learn facts and results and summaries. The idea is to engage a child’s intellect with the thinking of the original result, fact, concept and analysis. This does not require mediation or the mediation should really come later. Read Shakespeare in the original. The idea is to enjoy its beauty, engage with the ideas there. It is not to read a summary of what he said/conveyed or what a commentator thought Shakespeare said. Unless a child engages at that level, she is not going to understand the ideas also and will not be able to internalise them or use them to make sense of her world. This takes us back to the definition example that was given in the second paragraph.
Students are, across all sorts of schools, put in a very competitive environment now where grades and relative performance has become even more important than before. Competitiveness encourages teaching to tests, cutting corners and emphasising getting grades over developing better learning habits and/or understanding. But there is a trade off of sorts here. There seems to be, empirically speaking, little correlation between grades in school and performance in rest of life. Education of our children should be about development of their personalities, their values and their ability to reason/understand so that they fulfil their potential as independent beings post school. Focusing too much on grades and competition, and cutting corners as a result, is undermining and will undermine the larger goal.
I have taught at undergraduate and graduate level for a fairly long time now. My experience has been that those who come to university with poor learning habits, of not thinking on their own, relying too much on rote and so on, might still manage to get good grades, but do poorly in all tasks that require independence of thinking and initiative. And these habits get harder to break as they become more entrenched. We need to intervene at the school level to change the current pattern.
The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS (currently on leave) and a Senior Advisor at Open Society Foundation (OSF). He can be reached at email@example.com