Between curiosity and mandatory schooling

Jennie Siat Bev, San Fransisco | Opinion | Sat, September 08 2012, 1:45 PM

Paper Edition | Page: 7

Our parents taught us early on that we needed to go to school so we could get a good job and live a decent life. In other words, education is the ticket which enables us to climb the social and economic ladder, despite our current class.

Yet the “mainstream” school system worldwide favors conformity, intellectual intelligence and competitiveness — the things that are required in typical, profit-making workplaces.

As Astra Taylor in Unschooling wrote, at school she experienced greed, envy, fear and conformity, all of which overpowered the desirable attributes of childhood: compassion, curiosity, imagination and playfulness.

In Indonesia and the United States, schools have been fashion runways for rich kids, while those who have less must accept that their parents cannot afford to provide them with everything they may want — usually the things they see other kids have.

We call friendships fostered at school, and experiences with bullies: “learning to interact socially.” It may be true that a school is a “miniature society”, yet it is not realistic.

The natural state of learning that occurs when an individual uses his or her own independent thoughts and internal focus of control rarely occurs at school.

Most activities are led by teachers, teacher’s aides, coaches and other students.

Every type of higher education, for instance, is designed to create a specific breed of graduates. Trade schools create low-class rank-and-file workers, research universities with strong scientific programs create upper-class professionals and educators, and liberal arts schools create free and independent thinkers with fancy degrees — hence “classless”.

The subjects studied in any of those schools may not even be connected to each other.

These schools are logical choices for those who graduated from “mainstream” schooling, even though the liberal arts path is likely to be “less prestigious” in a modern and materialistic society like the United States, where engineers in Silicon Valley are earning a good living while those who graduated with “liberal arts” degrees, such as those in philosophy or the fine arts, will likely have a hard time getting by.

We often forget that even homeschooled children aren’t completely free to explore their minds and hearts, as oftentimes homeschool programs are nothing more than structured classes completed in the convenience, safety and seclusion of the home.

While conventional schooling is apparently the most preferred type of schooling, we should keep in mind that learning occurs throughout our lifetime, from the day we are born.

While it feels prestigious to get into top schools and universities, we are actually conforming to the edifices of other’s past experiences.

Of course, it is relatively more efficient to understand things and discover truths using proven methods, but to a certain extent, it reduces our independent intuitive thinking.

The challenge is, of course, finding a mentor who can help with independent thinking even when our schooling forbids us from exploring this deliberately. Or, we can rely on ourselves to find the beauty in our own thinking skills.

Edward DeBono in his book How to Have a Beautiful Mind states that higher education teaches us how to debate and demonstrate superiority through disagreement. Though it might be a useful method to find a consensus among scholars, it is quite irritating in everyday life. Habitual debating isn’t only a turnoff, it also provides for a useless ego-based battle to occur.

According to DeBono, a “beautiful mind” lies in between agreements and disagreements. He said, “You do not have to agree with everything. You should not disagree with everything.”

What we need to foster independent thinkers is a liberal education. This is an approach that empowers learners by preparing them to face the complex world with a specific purpose or cause, through creating an ambience where social responsibility, compassion and problem-solving skills can flourish.

In the end, every individual must make peace with him or herself and realise that the world doesn’t revolve around us, but we revolve around the world.

And what we have learned today might not be useful tomorrow. Only through a continuous state of learning, unlearning and relearning, can we prepare to face a tumultuous world.

Curiosity, thus, is probably the best tool we have. Mandatory conventional schooling may be a better alternative than no schooling, but the so-called “unschooling” schooling is an important alternative for those who believe in independent thinking and living a fruitful life, unbounded by conventional notions and other people’s past experiences.

The writer is an author and columnist based in northern California.

Schools that change their communities

Jaha Nababan, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, September 08 2012, 1:43 PM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

I was born intelligent but education ruined me.” This quotation by Mark Twain highlights the failure of schools to truly become centers of excellence. Parents send kids to schools hoping that they will return smarter.

To their disappointment, they find Albert Einstein was right in saying “the only thing that interferes with my learning is education.” Schools ruin good values taught at home instead of enhancing them.

We need to change this situation.

One may argue that education starts at home. But like schools, home has failed. Many parents in modern families have no choice but to accept this situation as work keeps them away from home all day and all week long.

I teach my daughter to validate information before making decisions. Her teachers, however, keep undermining this principle. They act like they are holders of the highest truth.

I know this because my daughter now answers back “but teacher said…” I probably said the same when I was her age. My peers who are now leaders behave like they also hold the highest truth.

Since children today spend more time in school than I did during my childhood, I fear this next generation will grow up to be worse leaders as they are exposed to more bad influence from school.

Our future doesn’t have to look this bleak.

Schools actually have the power to change their surroundings, for good or for bad.

Last year, a woman reported to the authorities about massive cheating during the final national examinations in her son’s school. Neighbors resented her actions and they quickly drove the lady, Siami, and her family out of their village in East Java.

The school is responsible for creating a cheating-permissive environment in the village.

We have to change our future by changing our schools. We need schools that can change their local communities for the better.

We need to overhaul the parameters of educational success. The nationally-held final examinations for schools (UN) lump together all students with good grades, irrespective if they got them through hard work, cheating or pure luck.

The UN has led schools to tolerate or even promote cheating among children to get a higher percentage of passing grades. The local education authorities in some areas endorse this by publishing the materials covered in the final examinations twice a year. The second set of materials is almost identical to that which will appear in the final
examinations.

The paper on Indonesian, for example, asks students to provide a summary of a text made up of three to four paragraphs, and then a set of multiple questions from the text.

Typically, the first question will be “What is the main topic of the second paragraph?” If getting a good grade is this easy, why are people paying lots of money for the leaks?

We should use the portfolio of students’ work such as research and surveys as one parameter of success instead of final examinations. Portfolios can be graded based on their impact on society or the student’s
local community.

Research and project work instill honorable characteristics in children such as honesty, perseverance and creativity.

The children also spend more time outside the classroom, in the lab, the library and even mingle with their own community as they carry out field work. The kind of future leaders we need.

Many schools have tried project-based curricula, but only a few implement the portfolio system.

The Education and Culture Ministry favors Bloom’s Taxonomy of high order-low order thinking. Every lesson taught in school must allow students to practice highest-order thinking, defined as “To Create”.

Nothing wrong with Bloom’s, but if schools are to change their community, the highest order of thinking taught must be “To Donate”. To donate means to implement the creations (portfolios). Student’s portfolios with the most impact on their surroundings should receive the highest grades.

Schools can also help communities build competitive advantages or solve problems.

Schools must embed proportionally greater local content in all subjects. Teachers can localize their subjects and make them more relevant to students’ daily life.

A recent study by my students found that because of the high population density of Jakarta, almost everyone builds their septic tanks right under their house. The satellite image makes Jakarta look like one giant septic tank.

Students learn natural and social science but in a more meaningful way and the community benefits. Imagine a high school with nine classes, each producing four research papers each semester. Every year the local government receives 72 recommendations from one school only.

Local governments need to create channels to nurture this atmosphere not only school-wide but nationwide, or even globally. Palangkaraya, capital of Central Kalimantan, this week (Sept. 2-7) hosted the Asia Pacific Conference for Young Scientists — an international competition for high school researchers.

Such a curriculum provides students with more options upon graduation. Universities will be interested in students with a strong research background.

Or they can choose to work on developing their portfolio into a business because the portfolio is proven to work.

So many things can be achieved by applying the right parameters in reforming schools. The right parameters derive from a clear objective.

Schools can change their communities if they set out clearly their goals from the outset. But first, local governments must help schools to help local governments so that Mark Twain and Albert Einstein can rest in peace.

The writer is national program director for eminent school development at the Surya Institute.